Pakistan Day celebrations

Pulwama spillover

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood on Pakistan National Day in New Delhi in 2018. This year India decided to boycott the celebration protesting against the invitation extended to the Hurriyat Conference. Photo: PTI

Security officials outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi intimidate guests, including journalists, on the occasion of the Pakistan National Day celebrations.

For some years now, the Pakistan National Day (March 23) celebrations at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi have been more of a minor irritant than a cause for bonding. Successive Indian governments have sought to underplay the event by deputing a relatively junior Minister to attend the celebrations. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, too, stuck to that path when it deputed Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh to attend the first such celebration after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.

The next year, too, V.K. Singh attended the event, which was attended by Kashmiri leaders Yaseen Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The then envoy, Abdul Basit, sought to claim that the Indian government was not against confabulation with the Kashmiri leaders. “I do not think the Indian government is objecting. I would rather suggest to my media friends not to make an issue out of a non-issue,” he is reported to have said then.

In succeeding years, Ministers Prakash Javadekar, M.J. Akbar and G.S. Shekhawat represented India at the celebrations in the High Commission. In no small measure did their presence send a message that the event was being removed from the priority list of the Ministry of External Affairs. Yet, every year, a Minister represented the government without fail. However, this year the Indian government decided to boycott the celebrations on March 22.

The event commemorates the Lahore Resolution, which was signed on March 23, 1940, and laid the foundation for a separate state of Pakistan. The day also marks the adoption of Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1956.

Journalists who were invited by the Pakistan High Commission complained that security officials (most of them from the Delhi Police) were standing outside the High Commission and asking them to leave as the Indian government had decided to boycott the event in response to an invitation extended by Pakistan to 30-odd leaders of the Hurriyat. “We are very clear that any attempt by the Pakistan High Commission or the Pakistani leadership to engage with the Hurriyat representatives will not be taken lightly,” a spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said.

Also, the event was held under the shadow of the Pulwama attack, which left more than 40 soldiers dead. The invitation to the Hurriyat for the function has been a sore point between the two countries. India has objected to the Hurriyat leaders’ presence and insisted that Pakistan talk directly with the Indian government to solve the Kashmir imbroglio. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been keen to pick the Hurriyat’s brains. No Hurriyat leader, however, showed up this year.

Significantly, no separatist leader could possibly make it to the event as many were in jail or under house arrest. Those who were free thought it prudent to stay away.

Complaint to Editors Guild

The guests were asked not just for their car registration number, as is the wont, but also their professional details, including the name of the organisation they work for, designation, address and contact details. Those who did not provide these details were denied access to the High Commission.

A senior journalist drew the attention of the Editors Guild to this, stating: “Last evening outside the Pakistan High Commission, masked men claiming to be part of the security apparatus prevented guests, which included many journalists and editors, from entering the HC [High Commission] to attend Pakistan National Day…. These masked men were taking down names of guests and car numbers and aggressively asking [them] not to attend the function due to Pulwama terror attack. This was quite threatening in its implications and it was clearly an attempt to prevent journalists from doing their job. This is highly unusual. If EGI [Editors Guild of India] does not forcefully react to this bizarre incident then the security agencies could get emboldened to prevent the media from entering any mission in the future, too, if the GOI [Government of India] is having indifferent relations with that country.”

The decision to boycott the celebrations, however, failed to bring down the number of guests at the event. Reportedly, around 600 guests were present for the evening, around 60 of whom were from the Chinese embassy.

It was claimed that the celebrations were subdued this year in comparison with previous years. However, a video shared by Major General Asif Ghafoor, Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations, from his personal account, shows the High Commission officials in good spirits and responding to the cries of “Pakistan Zindabad!” with fervour. The event, as is the tradition, got under way with the playing of the national anthems of India and Pakistan.

On the occasion, High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood reiterated the need for India and Pakistan to resolve long-pending issues peacefully through dialogue. “The founding fathers of Pakistan and India had envisaged amicable relations between the countries,” he said. According to him, “the lack of engagement created a dangerous vacuum and serious risks for the relationship”. Even as he urged for “the long winter” in bilateral relations to come to an early end, Mahmood said there was a need to reassure citizens of the two countries to consolidate the process of de-escalation, and stabilise the ties. “Our two countries passed through a very difficult time recently. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhinandan, [the] return of the two High Commissioners to their respective missions and bilateral meetings for the operationalisation of the Kartarpur Corridor are steps in the right direction,” Mahmood stated.

However, barely a week after Mahmood’s statement, the proposed meeting to discuss the Kartarpur Corridor connecting Sikh shrines in both countries was rescheduled as India objected to the presence of two Khalistani separatists on the Pakistani panel. Stating that the Kartarpur facility should not be used to further anti-India propaganda, India objected to the presence of Maninder Singh Tara and Gopal Singh Chawla on the panel; the latter is said to be close to Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed.

Interestingly, in a twist to the celebrations, a message from Prime Minister Modi to his Pakistan counterpart, Imran Khan, came out on social media. In the message, Modi extended his felicitations to the people of Pakistan: “It was time for the people of the subcontinent to work together for a democratic, peaceful, progressive and prosperous region, in an atmosphere free of terror and violence.”

Imran Khan responded in a tweet, saying: “As we celebrate the Pakistan National Day, I believe it is time to begin a comprehensive dialogue with India to address and resolve all issues, especially the central issue of Kashmir, and forge a new relationship based on peace and prosperity for all our people.”

While the message was hailed by China as a step towards peace in the region, India sought to underplay it, calling it a routine message forwarded as part of protocol.