I visited Pakistan in April 2014 and had a number of meetings in Lahore and Islamabad. Upon my return, I briefed a few people, including Narendra Modi. I did not tell anyone else about my visit. Some Pakistani sources leaked the news about my visit and a few newspapers called me about my visit. I did confirm my visit, however, I refused to provide any details. I also requested them not to mention my name. None of them published the news. However, on 21 August 2014, Hindu wrote this about my visit: “In March this year, members of the Pakistani establishment laid out the red carpet for an unusual visitor. The gentleman, who will not be named, was an envoy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an overseas supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and was said to be carrying a message from Narendra Modi. As a result, the visitor was hosted to lunch by the Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office India desk, met with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s key adviser Tariq Fatemi, and was even invited to the Army General Headquarters. The message he carried was simple: that once elected, the BJP government would pursue talks and push business engagement with Pakistan. He indicated that an invitation would be sent shortly after Mr. Modi took over, to set the ball rolling. There was, however, a rider. If there was a terror attack, said the RSS envoy, one like Mumbai 26/11 that could be traced back to Pakistan, their hands would be tied. A counter-attack on some part of Pakistan-controlled territory would be inevitable.”
This report, although correct, makes a few erroneous assertions. First, my visit was in April and not in March. Second, I did not go to Pakistan as a representative of anyone. I went there in my personal capacity and I made these facts clear to the Pakistani authorities before going to Pakistan. Neither did I carry any message from Narendra Modi nor did I state so. But I did talk to Narendra Modi from Islamabad. Finally, I did not visit the Pakistan army headquarters nor did I meet any army officer. In spite of the report, I kept quiet. But I continued to communicate with Narendra Modi and the Pakistani authorities, urging them to better the ties between the two countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent masterstroke of a Lahore visit prompts me to write this article.
In January 2014, I met Salman Bashir, the then Pakistan High Commissioner to India at Subramanian Swamy’s house and expressed my desire to visit Pakistan for two reasons: initiate my efforts towards the normalisation of relationship between India and Pakistan, and visit my birth place in Rawalpindi. Although I was a “hawk” towards Pakistan, in 2004, when I was in India, I met the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at his residence. This was just before he was going to visit Pakistan for a SAARC summit. He asked my opinion on whether he should have a separate meeting with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. I said he should. He replied, “I don’t trust Musharraf.” I responded that in politics and foreign affairs, it was not important whether or not one trusted someone; it was the bilateral relationship that was more important. If he believed that it was important to have a good relationship with Pakistan, he should meet Musharraf. He did not answer in the affirmative, however, he said that if he decided to meet Musharraf, he would not make any announcements before the meeting. Vajpayee did meet Musharraf. In fact, I have also urged Narendra Modi a few times to visit Pakistan as soon as possible.
Coming back to my visit in 2014, in Lahore, I met former Pak Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan; Ejaz Ahmad Chaudhary, who is the president of the Punjab unit of Insaf-E-Tahrik; and Syed Yawar Ali, a prominent businessman, who is the chairman of Nestle Pakistan and a member of PIA’s board of directors. He is also the chairman of the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Lahore. There was no communication between this original hospital and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi. When Syed Yawar Ali visited India in August 2014, I arranged his meeting with Dr Rana, the chairman of GR Hospital in Delhi. In Islamabad, I also met Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary, and Mrs Riffat Masood, Director General, South Asia & SAARC.
At all the meetings, I made it clear that I was meeting them in my individual capacity. All the people I met expressed the Pakistan government’s and people’s sincere desire for improving relations between Pakistan and India on both political and economic fronts. The following major issues were discussed:
1. Cross border terrorism: The Pakistan government has been trying to reduce terror to the extent possible and there is very little support for Taliban and other terrorist groups in Pakistan. Besides meeting the government officials, I was reading a number of English and Urdu newspapers every day. All the newspapers had been denouncing terrorism and advocating the elimination of Taliban and other terrorist groups. I was surprised to note the Pakistan army’s open opposition to the government’s decision of releasing 19 Taliban fighters as part of its ongoing negotiations.
2. The trial of the Mumbai attack perpetrators: Shahryar Khan told me that the trial was proceeding in camera (not being made public), because of threats to judges and prosecutors and would be concluded soon.
3. Trust between the two countries: I agreed that in India there was more distrust about Pakistan than it was in Pakistan about India. I explained that the reason was Pakistan’s open support to terrorist activities. I pointed out that Vajpayee tried very hard to normalise relations, however, the Kargil attack seriously damaged that process. They all recognised this factor and expressed great appreciation for Vajpayee. The Pakistan government expressed its intent not to repeat such actions. I also stressed that Pakistan had to try hard to reduce the distrust and offered my assistance in doing so. At one of the meetings in Lahore, when I mentioned about the Kargil attack, one person commented “Musharraf was an idiot”.
4. Open border: The Pakistan government is very much interested in opening the border between India and Pakistan to tourists and businesses, or at least easing the visa process. Currently, trucks at the border are unloaded and goods are transferred to the other side. I expressed my concern about infiltration by terrorists into India. Pakistan hopes that with its crackdown, terrorism will be reduced substantially and eventually may even be eliminated.
5. Business cooperation: Pakistan is willing to give MFN (most favoured nation) status to India and encourage bilateral business deals between the two countries, especially in agro based businesses and energy sectors.
6. Treatment of minorities’ religious places in Pakistan: Recently Pakistan has started renovating some ancient temples and gurdwaras. We discussed the formation of a committee or a trust to care for the abandoned and/or unoccupied old religious places for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists. I proposed that before the visa process between the two countries was eased, Pakistan should allow visits by these communities from other countries. This will help reduce their distrust about Pakistan’s attitude towards minorities, and also increase tourism in Pakistan. Tariq Fatemi gave me two books on the Hindu heritage of Pakistan and the Sikh heritage of Pakistan. Both are glamorously printed and have beautiful photographs of Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras in Pakistan.
7. Meeting between the PMs: PM Nawaz Sharif’s string desire to meet Narendra Modi once he became PM was conveyed to me. I conveyed this desire to Mr Modi.
8. Kashmir, Siachen and river water: Interestingly, very few references were made to these sticky issues. A general hope was expressed that these would be resolved. But there was agreement that the resolution of these issues need not be made a precondition to talks on other issues. I proposed that the rivers flowing from India into Pakistan should be used to carry goods to Pakistan’s ports and other ports in between. This is the most economic and environment friendly means of transportation.
9. Cooperation on Afghanistan: Pakistan realises that the US would soon leave Afghanistan. Pakistan is willing to work jointly with India to assure the security and economic progress of Afghanistan as long as India does not try to monopolise its hold on Afghanistan.
10. Apprehensions about Modi: Some of the persons I met and the Pakistan media expressed their concerns about Modi and the Gujarat riots. I explained that contrary to the Indian news media’s assertions, Modi tried very hard to control the riots and succeeded in doing so in a much shorter time as compared to the riots under the Congress regime. I also expressed my belief that once Narendra Modi became PM, he would move swiftly to normalise relations with Pakistan.
11. Release of prisoners: There are a number of prisoners on both sides, many of whom are fishermen and wanderers who entered the other country’s territory unintentionally. All such prisoners, other than those accused of committing murders or other serious criminal acts, should be released. Unreleased persons should be duly tried and punished according to the law of the land. Persons serving their terms should also be released.
When I was searching for flights to Lahore, I was shocked to learn that only PIA flies between India and Pakistan and has only two flights per week. I finally crossed into Pakistan from the Wagah border post near Amritsar. On the other side of the border, I rented a car with a driver for the four days I stayed in Pakistan. An expressway with three lanes on each side leads from Lahore to Peshawar through Islamabad. The highway, like highways in the US, has a speed limit of 75 MPH. In Lahore, I visited the famous Anarkali Bazar, the Ganga Ram Hospital and other old areas.
In Rawalpindi, I went to Mohanpura Mohalla where I was born. I also visited Nanakpura and Arjun Pura where our relatives used to live. The street names have not changed. Some of the people in Mohanpura hugged me and invited me for tea.
Taxila University: The Taxila museum houses items from 3000 BC to 6000 BC, items that are mostly related to Buddhism. The visitors there were mainly Pakistani Muslims, including women, some of whom were wearing burqas. They were inspecting everything with great curiosity and admiration. I also visited the ruins of the Taxila University. The guide, dressed in a traditional manner and with a beard and skullcap, was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and about Buddhism and Sanskrit terminologies. He told me the history of Taxila, and the story of Buddha’s life.
Katasraj temple: On my way back to Lahore, I visited an ancient temple built around 1,000 years ago. The complex of five temples is famous for its Lord Shiva temple, the Katasraj temple. All the temples have been renovated and the area is very clean. There is a holy pond which has been cleaned also. Due to the heavy rains, I was the only visitor on that Sunday morning. An employee of the State Archeological Department acted as my guide and opened the doors of all the temples for me. There is also a newly built hostel there where visitors can stay. Every year, groups of Hindus from India and Sindh visit this temple, generally during the time of Shivaratri.
Food: Being a vegetarian, I was apprehensive about the food. However, I was told that I would not have any problem as vegetarianism has become a fashion with the younger generation. I found this to be true as every restaurant including Mughalaj restaurants had a vegetarian section in their menu. At the Hotel Continental in Lahore and Marriott in Islamabad where I stayed, the spas were named “Nirvana”. In Taxila, there is a restaurant called Gandhara, which specialises in vegetarian and vegan dishes.
In summary, I enjoyed my visit and learned a lot about Pakistan and hopefully, I will become an instrument in improving the relationship between the two countries and enhancing peace in South Asia.
PM Modi’s recent visit to Pakistan has rekindled my hope for improved relations between the two countries.
J.K. Tuli was an advisor to former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.