Interview: Abdul Basit, former High Commissioner of Pakistan to India

Abdul Basit, former High Commissioner of Pakistan to India: ‘I don’t see India walking the talk’

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Abdul Basit (second from right), with Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Hurriyat Conference chairman, at the Pakistan National Day at its High Commission in New Delhi on March 23, 2015. Basit says: “I still strongly feel India should not have gone public in August 2014 demanding that Pakistan should not be interacting with the Hurriyat....” Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Interview with Abdul Basit, former High Commissioner of Pakistan to India, on his newly published Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan-India Relations.

During his three-year term (2014-17) as the High Commissioner of Pakistan in New Delhi, Abdul Basit had seldom been away from public attention. At the best of times, he was seen at a Ram Leela, trying his hand at the enactment of the banishing of evil, or offering prayers at a mosque. And visiting places like Lucknow, where his family had a personal connection, Kolkata, and Mumbai, where he was dismayed to find the Jinnah House on Malabar Hill “deserted and in a dilapidated state”. “The house on Malabar Hill was built by our founding father in 1936. He lived there for about ten years and had retained it even after he had moved to Karachi in August 1947. India did not agree to hand over the property to Pakistan for the residence of Pakistan Consul General. Pakistan closed down its consulate in 1994.”

Often he was firefighting on behalf of his country during the tumultuous period (2014-17) which coincided with the rise of Narendra Modi to prime ministership. When Modi invited all leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), including Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, it probably caught the neighbour unawares, not sure whether to attend or skip the function. To attend seemed a bit like being invited to a king’s durbar by the Big Brother; to shun it was to give an easy handle to hawks on this side of the border.

Finally, Sharif came. The matter did not end there, as Basit details in his book Hostility: A Diplomat’s Diary on Pakistan-India Relations. Published by HarperCollins, the book hit the stores on April 20 and is much talked about for the seemingly frank account by the retired diplomat about his differences with the authorities in Islamabad over many issues. At pains to say that the book is not a memoir, Basit writes persuasively of his meeting with Hurriyat leaders, his much tougher approach on Kashmir than many in Islamabad, and how the Kashmir issue is central to mutual relations between the two countries.

He does not hold his punches, revealing that it was a chance meeting with a Kashmiri writer that probably led to the writing of the book. “It was on 12 April, 2020 that I was talking to Mr Murtaza Shibli, a well-known Kashmiri writer and columnist, with whom I had shared my plans to write a book when I first met him in India…. This book may engender a few controversies,” he writes.

Controversies, yes, the book talks of many. Not just about blowing hot on Kashmir, but even in references to attacks on minorities in India, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the final judgment on that case, the Gujarat violence, and the “anachronistic caste system” prevalent in India. “At the public level, opinions are usually formed with half-truths and on the basis of what is shared or not shared by governments. But Hostility will still reveal many inside details hitherto unknown to the people on both sides of the border,” he claims.

He does not allow himself the same freedom in this interview with Frontline and is measured in his responses, but he admits that he fails to see an immediate upswing in India-Pakistan relations. “At least I don’t see a silver lining, but then diplomacy is the art of the possible. At this stage, I would not suggest rushing to resume a formal bilateral dialogue. We must have a clear road map, especially on Kashmir and this can better be done on the back channel. We must break the vicious cycle of moving from an impasse to an impasse.” Excerpts from the interview:

You say ‘Hostility’ is not a memoir. Yet, it reads like one, the way you talk of your Berlin days, allude to London time, and finally the times in India.

Yes, Hostility is not a memoir of my entire diplomatic life of over 35 years. I rather pithily mention about my postings to different capitals in the Introduction so that the reader has some idea about my career.

When you talk of the minorities in India and the sense of discrimination they feel, the examples you quote are oft-repeated ones, the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat violence, etc. You fail to mention the lynching of Muslim men in the name of cow protection. I mention this because these instances coincided with your tenure as the Pakistan High Commissioner here.

You will appreciate that this book primarily covers my stint in New Delhi as Pakistan High Commissioner and how we handled the ups and downs during that period. I am considering writing another book on India’s internal issues, its failures and its successes.

You do mention the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and its allegedly discriminatory nature. How come the Pakistani authorities were relatively muted in their criticism of the Act which clearly implies that the minorities are being persecuted in Pakistan?

I do recall our government making strong statements on the subject, but how could this Indian policy be directly or indirectly linked to minorities in Pakistan?

In a clearly not-so-diplomatic manner, you do talk of the minorities’ problems in Pakistan, the attacks on temples and forceful conversions of Hindu girls. However, you underplay it by calling it a local issue. Are there not double standards at play, one rule for the minorities in India, another for those in Pakistan?

I may not be diplomatic, but the fact cannot be denied that in Pakistan incidents against minorities are rather minuscule and most cases are ignited to settle personal scores. And wherever there is an incident involving an organised group, the government has always moved against those people with an iron hand as recently happened in the case of those who tried to desecrate a temple in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

INDIA-PAKISTAN RELATIONS

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a bold statement by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony; the latter graciously agreed. How come the momentum could not be sustained despite Modi’s outreach? Also, what were the possible reasons for Sharif not talking to either Hurriyat leaders or even bringing up Kashmir in his interaction with the Indian Prime Minister? Did he regard Modi to be like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ready with the message of Insaniyat and Jamhooriyat for Kashmir?

A good start was made, but the two sides could not sustain the momentum. I still strongly feel India should not have gone public in August 2014 demanding that Pakistan should not be interacting with the Hurriyat, but then there were elections in Kashmir later in the year and we all know about the BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata Party] Mission-44. In my view that was a calculated move by New Delhi to rally support in Jammu. And we know that India subsequently didn’t raise any objection to my meetings with Kashmiri leaders.

You have often been accused of actions that sabotaged possibly positive India-Pakistan talks. For instance, the statement following the Mumbai attacks on 26/11. Or, as you say in the introduction to the book, your meeting with Hurriyat leaders before the Foreign Secretaries’ meeting. It could not all have been coincidental. Weren’t you possibly guilty of blowing hot at a time when your own government was blowing lukewarm on Kashmir?

As I explained, it was India which tried to unilaterally change the rules of the game. The way India handled the entire issue left much to be desired, but then Indian political parties have been using Pakistan and Kashmir in both Union and State elections.

I was not the High Commissioner at the time of 26/11.

[In the book, Abdul Basit writes, “When (Salman) Bashir [Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary] was visiting New Delhi the second time, the Indian officials and the media were totally focused on the Mumbai attacks of 26 November 2008 as if that was the root cause of all the bilateral problems. In order to put things in perspective, the day our delegation left for New Delhi, I, with the Foreign Minister’s approval, issued a press release underlining that terrorism was also Pakistan’s major concern, adding that India was showing no seriousness of purpose to bringing the culprits of the Samjhauta Express blast (18th February 2007) in which 42 Pakistani nationals were killed to justice.”]

But didn’t many of your actions sabotage the talks between the two countries?

This is vacuous, to put it mildly. Diplomacy is about building bridges, not burning them. I wish it was in the hand of the High Commissioner alone to have steered the relationship. The process collapsed because of the unreasonable stance of the Indian government on our interaction with the Hurriyat leadership. Even many top Indian journalists and former diplomats then upbraided their own government for cancelling the Foreign Secretary’s scheduled visit on a flimsy ground.

You have been known for your tough stand on Kashmir, particularly for a plebiscite in the State which has now turned into a Union Territory. How does the change in the status of Kashmir impact the geopolitics of the region? I ask this because you mention your apprehension with respect to the BJP and Article 370, something which your government was in denial of.

By revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, India has not only violated the relevant U.N. resolutions but also its own Constitution. It is now for India to right the wrong. I don’t know if the Indian Supreme Court would be able to declare the constitutional amendments as null and void.

Somewhat undiplomatically you call Modi ‘a maverick, a man of theatrics’ in your book. But didn’t he often end up dictating the rules of engagement with Pakistan? His cricket diplomacy, his alleged meeting with Nawaz Sharif in Kathmandu, his going over to Sharif’s family function, etc.

Indeed that was all theatrics. There was no substantive discussion to settle the core dispute that is Kashmir.

Where does the reality lie between your persistent realism, even pessimism, and Islamabad’s engagement with the Indian political establishment? Not often were you and your political bosses on the same page.

There is national consensus in Pakistan on Kashmir. Approaches may differ but no government in Pakistan would ever abandon Kashmiris. Islamabad will continue extending its support to the legitimate cause of Kashmiris.

COLLABORATION BETWEEN ARTISTES

You refer to the Hindi film star Amitabh Bachchan as being known for an anti-Pakistan stance. Then you rave about his hospitality when you called on him. Can we in the future hope to have better collaboration between artistes of India and Pakistan?

My apprehensions aside, we were very warmly received by the Bachchans and we would always remember their impeccable hospitality. I think sky is the limit when it comes to bilateral cooperation, but that is not likely to come about without settling the Kashmir dispute. We cannot expect different results by doing the same thing again and again. The time has come to gather some courage and settle [the] Kashmir [issue] in a fair and just manner.

In your book you have advised young Pakistani diplomats to avoid serving alcohol at even private parties. While that would be fine as a practising Muslim, can a diplomat really play out his faith in professional interactions?

I never faced any problem. Why would anyone have a problem if a Muslim diplomat is not serving alcohol or pork? I always found my colleagues from other countries fully respecting and appreciating our religious and cultural ethos.

You admit to an inability in seeing a silver lining in the India-Pakistan relationship. Cannot the two countries move on without necessarily solving the Kashmir jigsaw at the first step?

At least I don’t see a silver lining, but then diplomacy is the art of the possible. At this stage, and as I proposed in my book, I would not suggest rushing to resume a formal bilateral dialogue. We must have a clear road map, especially on Kashmir and this can better be done on the back channel. The ball is in India’s court. It must show that it is serious in settling Kashmir rather than engaging in another dialogue process that doesn’t move beyond reiterating positions on different issues.

We must break the vicious cycle of moving from an impasse to an impasse. Otherwise, it will remain more of the same. We must think of posterity and pass on a legacy of mutual trust, peace and prosperity. Pakistan is willing but I unfortunately don’t see India walking the talk.

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