Indians and Pakistanis should have accepted by now that, irrespective of who is to blame, the two countries will not enjoy a cordial cooperative relationship in the foreseeable future. That being so, a page should be taken from the Sino-Indian book to minimise scope for friction and highlight only areas where positive action benefits either party, or both. At China’s urging, India agreed to freeze the border dispute and develop other ties so that trade could expand. Similarly, it is in India’s interest to set aside contentious issues like Jammu and Kashmir and respond sympathetically to human situations concerning ordinary Pakistanis. The simple four-point protocol that the two foreign secretaries signed on September 14, 1974 to take “note of the sentiments and devotion of the various communities in the two countries for the historic and sacred shrines in the other” — so that 20 parties of pilgrims could cross the border every year — demonstrated far-sighted wisdom. Sikhs visit Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak who also first preached there, for Gurupurab. Pakistanis go to Ajmer for the annual Urs (death anniversary) ceremony of the Persian-born Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, whom many non-Muslims also revere as the “Protector of the Poor”. It’s extremely unfortunate, therefore, that New Delhi’s reported refusal to grant visas prevented 503 Pakistani pilgrims (out of 3,000 who wanted to go) from participating in this month’s 10-day celebrations at Ajmer Sharif. Such action rankles with ordinary people and creates ill will and hostility at the popular — as distinct from the military, bureaucratic or political — level which India should court most assiduously.
Some reports suggest the refusal was a tit-for-tat response to what is described as the elite Islamabad Club’s rejection of India’s high commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Bisaria’s membership application. The club has since sought to explain that the application is still pending because Pakistan’s interior ministry must issue a no-objection certificate. If so, it means that Pakistanis don’t know the gentlemanly codes on which such institutions are run in England, where they originated. At least two august London clubs, the Athenaeum and The Travellers, invite the accredited representatives of certain countries to become honorary members. Kolkata’s Calcutta and Bengal Clubs do the same with some consuls-general. All four clubs are mature enough to understand that if the government has given what is called agrément in diplomatic parlance to a certain individual, he and his country must be above suspicion. If the Islamabad Club doesn’t know this, Mr Bisaria would be justified in reconsidering his wish to join it. It isn’t India’s job to teach Pakistan English etiquette or natural politeness. It’s India’s duty as a responsible neighbour which abides by certain values and seeks stability in the region to ensure that political differences don’t spill over to poison other areas of contact. This means not over-reacting to provocations like the club controversy, complaints about diplomats being ill-treated, the Pakistani high commissioner’s recall to Islamabad, and what amounts to the refusal by Pakistan’s commerce minister, Pervaiz Malik, to participate in the informal World Trade Organisation meeting that the Indian government hosted in New Delhi.
Lee Kuan Yew once explained to Rajiv Gandhi how Indonesia’s President Suharto, being similarly placed as leader of the region’s biggest country, had earned the confidence of smaller neighbours. The first of the five points of the doctrine that Inder Kumar Gujral famously propounded as external affairs minister stipulated that “with neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust”. He might have included Pakistan for, although much bigger than the other five, it sees itself as a small and vulnerable victim. India can’t shrink to order, Manmohan Singh once told a foreign journalist in Singapore, but it can, like Indonesia, try to remove suspicions that might be inherent in the disparity in size. Narendra Modi began well by inviting Nawaz Sharif, along with the leaders of other South Asian countries, to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. But it may have been a bit over the top when, 19 months later, carried away by his own exuberance as he was returning from a day-long trip to Afghanistan after a two-day visit to Russia, he landed unexpectedly at Lahore airport to hug Mr Sharif before being whisked off by helicopter to the latter’s birthday party at his Raiwind residence in the city’s outskirts. A mature leader who looks beyond showmanship to substantive results knows where to draw the line. Playing to the gallery may be good politics. It is poor statesmanship. The goodwill generated by Mr Modi’s earlier invitation may be eroded if all his actions are written off as empty and expensive public relations gimmicks.
There have been other hitches over pilgrims. Only in February, 173 Hindus bound for the Katas Raj temple complex in West Punjab were forced to withdraw their visa applications because although the Pakistani authorities were willing to receive them, the external affairs ministry failed to issue the necessary clearance. Earlier, Indian Sikhs missed the opportunity of taking part in the death anniversaries of Guru Arjan Dev and Maharaja Ranjit Singh even though Pakistan had offered to send a special train for them. India’s negative action is sometimes linked to a specific outrage, like alleged Pakistani harassment of Kulbushan Jadhav’s wife and mother. Sometimes it is retaliation for unprovoked firing across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Sometimes it is a protest against Islamabad’s abetment of terrorists. This absence of consistency means relations will always be hostage to the whim of the moment. Even a settlement in Kashmir may not change that if Pakistan remains unresponsive and recalcitrant. But India should not give up trying.