The Pakistan National Day reception at their High Commission in New Delhi had been an irritant in bilateral relations for so long that it is best the Narendra Modi government finally drew the curtains on Indian participation in the celebration last week. For decades, so much thought has been wasted within the Indian government on this one event and successive ministers, foreign secretaries, joint secretaries in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and personnel of intelligence agencies have lost sleep over how to handle this reception year after year.
Twenty-four years ago, while working for this newspaper, I became a collateral casualty of the diplomatic attrition between India and Pakistan at the national day reception hosted by then High Commissioner Riaz Khokhar, who was a notoriously effective India-baiter. A week before the reception, after much thought, the Pakistan division of MEA proposed the name of R L Bhatia, then Minister of State for External Affairs, as the chief guest for the event. Bhatia was actually chosen as an insult to the Pakistanis. In those days, unlike now, the Vice President used to grace the national day receptions of most major countries, certainly of friendly neighbours like Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Bhatia was only a minister of state. Despite his stellar record in winning successive Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar, it was widely known that he was a non-entity in the P V Narasimha Rao government. By sending Bhatia as the chief guest, Rao’s intention was to convey to Pakistan that his government would not waste any of its better talent to rub shoulders with Pakistanis.
The previous year, then foreign secretary, J N Dixit, had got Rao’s approval to send A K Antony, the cabinet minister for civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution, as the chief guest. The arguments in favour of Antony were somewhat similar to those that favoured Bhatia in 1995. Antony was not yet a heavyweight in the Union Cabinet. Besides, he did not speak Hindi or Punjabi, his conversational English was then not very strong. Most of all, in his trademark Kerala mundu and white khadi slack shirt, he would stick out like a sore thumb among the sherwanis and other customary attire that Pakistanis wear to ceremonial functions. The message that Antony’s presence was meant to convey was that “we are different from you”.
By the time Bhatia arrived at the High Commission, Khokhar had seated a group of Hurriyat Conference leaders in the space reserved for the chief guest from the Indian government. The Indian minister was made to stand on the lawns. Bhatia kept his dignity and left soon after the national anthems of both countries had been played. New Delhi’s English media had then been heavily influenced by senior journalists who were born on the other side before Partition. Some of them were also regulars at the Wagah border carrying candles on August 14 every year.
This episode was underplayed by most of the national media. But this newspaper carried my story about the insult to the Indian chief guest by his Pakistani host. After Parliament was in tumult over the incident, Salman Haidar, who had not even completed a month as foreign secretary, was forced to summon Khokhar to MEA for an explanation.
The catch was that I was not present when Bhatia was treated shabbily. Khokhar knew it because he had sent a wreath to the cremation of my mother who died two days earlier. So, instead of being pulled up by the foreign secretary, it was Khokhar who gave Haidar a dressing down. This journalist who wrote a “sensational” story did not even come for my reception, the high commissioner told Haidar. Such stories are being leaked to the media by your officers, Khokhar alleged. Officers in MEA are out of control and you — the foreign secretary — cannot discipline them, he thundered. How do I know this? The note-taker wrote a factual account of the meeting, which I got to see.
Were such contretemps worth the time, energy and resources of the government? Pakistan’s national day receptions held in a hostile environment have not promoted bilateral relations with India. The Modi government has shown realism in calling this spade a spade.
This article was first published in the March 27, 2019 edition under the title ‘An act of realism’. The writer is a former diplomatic editor of The Indian Express.
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