July 16, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Romesh Bhandari

When Rajiv met Zia
When Rajiv met Zia

Former foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari was born and educated in Lahore. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1950. During his tenure, Pakistan President Zia-ul Haq visited New Delhi. He recalls the encounter between then premier Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia:

President Zia and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met in Moscow in February 1985 at the funeral of the late Soviet president Yuri Andropov. During their talks, both men agreed they should do something to establish good relations between their countries.

Rajiv proposed to send me to Pakistan. Zia happily agreed because his foreign minister Shabzada Yakub Khan and foreign secretary Niaz Naik were pro-India.

I went to Pakistan and Zia's visit was finalised. In the middle of December, Zia came on a working visit. He and Rajiv agreed for a step-by-step approach. The compulsions of that meeting were by and large the same. Zia realised that as long as both countries remained hostile development would be elusive.

Remittances from the Gulf had started declining, so Zia had economic compulsions. Zia, being a military man, realised there could be no military solution. India had a clear advantage in conventional warfare. He knew he could not fight a war and get Kashmir. The best way was dialogue. There was also an agreement that ruled out the use of force.

There was no euphoria when Rajiv and Zia met. Because, people did not trust Pakistan. They had heard so often that peace would arrive, but it always remained far away. There was a feeling in India that many within the Pakistan armed forces wanted to take revenge for Bangladesh. So there was no hype.

The talk took place in the Yellow Room of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Zia stayed over that night at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Zia was the most courteous and polite leader I have ever met. He would always come right out to the car to see off his visitor.

There was good personal chemistry between Rajiv and Zia. There was no tension. No one was present when they spoke to each other for over two hours. We were in the committee room. Both came out, sat with us and told us what they had agreed upon.

Rajiv took me aside and said, "Zia was pushing and pushing me to commit myself to a visit to Pakistan."

Nothing came out on Kashmir. We know the stated positions. Zia was very keen that Rajiv should visit Pakistan. Rajiv said we would do it step by step; let the finance and foreign secretaries visit first.

Rajiv had a very mature view on Indo-Pak relations. But he was influenced by others. People told him Zia should not be trusted. Initially it prejudiced his approach. But later, people like us said, "Zia is saying something, test him out."

Zia's cricket diplomacy was part of getting credibility because, after all, he was a military man.

To follow up on the Rajiv-Zia talks, then finance minister V P Singh went to Pakistan. He had a productive dialogue with his counterpart, the pragmatic economist Maqbool Haque.

Later, I went for the foreign secretary-level talks .The day I landed in Rawalpindi the political forces had started their game. The Muslim League passed a resolution that economic exchanges between India and Pakistan were detrimental to Pakistan, and the Kashmir issue could be solved only on the basis of the United Nations resolution.

I was naturally very upset. My first meeting was with then prime minister Mohammad Junejo, who was from the League. I told him, "I better pack up and go home."

To which his answer was, "This was a political resolution and if President Zia has said he wants better relations with India, we are committed to it."

Next, I met the president. We had a one-on-one. Our talk went on for over an hour. I mentioned the League's resolution. He agreed that was a problem and asked me to continue our efforts.

At that point, we wanted Zia to show some gesture that could be interpreted as a friendly one. I can't tell you what we wanted. That's too loaded. I'll reveal that in my memoir. I told Zia if I go back empty-handed Rajiv would believe Zia was sincere, but not the people of India.

Three days later, when I was in Karachi I was whisked away in a car and told the president would like to talk to me. Zia told me, "I have done the best I can. Please go back, rest assured."

Subsequently, the third step -- a meeting of sub-groups -- got stalled. Forces in Pakistan that were against the normalisation of relations overwhelmed Zia's desire.

Rajiv said he and Zia had come to some agreement over Kashmir. It could have solved the issue, but unfortunately Zia died in the 1988 plane crash and the hope of an Indo-Pak agreement got crushed. That solution was to keep talking on the border issue. In the meantime we would go ahead with our economical and cultural discussions, almost freezing the Kashmir issue and allowing a better life to Kashmiris.

I firmly believe it is in the interest of the armed forces of Pakistan to keep the Kashmir issue alive. Only thus can they remain a determining factor in Pakistan. If there is peace there will be no need for the type of military establishment they have now. They would need an army the size of Bangladesh, which has a border problem but no fear of aggression from India.

Today, Pakistan is on the verge of bankruptcy. There is resentment against the dominance of the Punjabis from Sindhis and Baluchis. Therefore, there is much greater hope that Pervez Musharraf would agree to keep Kashmir on the backburner to keep Pakistan united.

With international emphasis on democracy, the armed forces realise that in the long run they will have to function under a democratic set-up. Under such circumstances, the hope to solve Kashmir increases -- but only in a long run.

Part 1: Trouble in Tashkent
Part 2: The errors of Simla
Part 4: Mission to Lahore

The Rediff Specials

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