Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi  in 1988 / White Star
Benazir Bhutto with Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 / White Star

For over 28 years, no Indian premier had visited Pakistan — a situation underscored by recent hostilities between the South Asian neighbours. On December 29, 1988, the status quo changed: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi set foot in Islamabad in an attempt to usher in a new, more peaceful era for Indo-Pak relations.

Gandhi arrived in the capital on the morning of the 29th, seemingly to attend the fourth summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) which was to be held the December 29 to the 31.

But behind the scenes, both the Indian and Pakistani governments had been working overtime to ensure that the visit did indeed take place.

For Benazir, who had assumed the office of prime minister only four weeks ago, this was the first opportunity to host leaders from across the region and liaise with them. After she had been sworn in, Rajiv had sent her a message of felicitation and expressed hope that their mutual efforts could bring about peace and prosperity to both countries and the region at large.

Indeed, the last Indian premier to visit Pakistan was Rajiv’s grandfather, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, who had arrived in 1960 to pen the historic Indus Basin Water Treaty between the two countries. The treaty had cooled political temperatures back then, and diplomatic circles were hopeful that Rajiv’s visit would thaw the ice in bilateral relations ever since.

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Pakistan in 1988 was heralded by Benazir Bhutto as a historic departure from over 40 years of hostility

The Saarc moot therefore was an opportunity that couldn’t be squandered by either leader. Security of the presidents and prime ministers of Saarc countries was paramount and appropriate arrangements were therefore being made in the fortnight leading up to the Saarc moot.

Five days before the conference was to begin, a special messenger of Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Islamabad to review security details being made for the Indian premier’s visit. He also called on the prime minister and spoke to her about the extent of normalisation of relationship and the issues she would bring up in the meeting with Gandhi.

On behalf of Rajiv, an invitation was also extended to Benazir to visit India. She duly accepted the request but was advised to delay announcing her decision till the meeting between the two leaders was held; the announcement would be made by her later on.

On the first morning of the moot, December 29, the Indian prime minister and his team arrived. The delegation included Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia, son Rahul and daughter Priyanka. A reception chamber had been set up at the airport to welcome them; the reception party included President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, various political leaders, as well as high-ranking military and civilian officials.

Within two hours of their arrival, Rajiv and Benazir had the first of their meetings. Held in a cordial atmosphere, this meeting would set the tone for their respective teams to iron things out.

In the evening, while other guests were being hosted by other high officials, Rajiv and his family enjoyed Benazir’s hospitality at a dinner hosted at the PM House. Bhutto’s spouse, Asif Zardari, and mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, were also present.

This dinner paved the way for the normalisation of bilateral relations as Bhutto later remarked: “I am sure each of us will give our best and I hope the time would come when historians would point to your time in India and my time in Pakistan for heralding the dawn of a new era.” The Indian negotiating team beamed at this comment.

At the Saarc meeting, attended by leaders from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, discussions were held as per the agenda that had been agreed upon. All leaders emphasised the need for such meetings and called for action on the decisions taken.

Some speeches, however, somewhat embarrassed Benazir Bhutto. For instance, General Irshad Hussain of Bangladesh and President J.R. Jayawardene of Sri Lankan paid tributes to Pakistani despot Gen Ziaul Haq and expressed their condolences on his death. Gen Irshad went on to say that Gen Zia was the founder of the Saarc.

Being the host, it was not easy for Bhutto to sit there and hear praise for the man who hanged her father. When she rose to deliver her address, she ignored the remarks about Gen Zia and paid rich tributes to Shaikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh and former Sri Lankan leader Bandaranaike. The first day ended on a positive and encouraging note.

On the second day of the moot, after attending regular business, Benazir and Rajiv met separately and were later joined by their respective foreign ministers. During the two-hour meeting, they discussed many issues including Kashmir.

Rajiv did not budge from the traditional Indian stand on the disputed territory; however, he emphasised that they should talk openly on the subject. But as the meeting progressed, he did not find much to support or concede in the Pakistani viewpoint on Kashmir. Rajiv concluded the discussion by calling the Kashmir issue a “dead horse.”

Besides general agreements on various issues, the two leaders inked the Nuclear Non-aggression Agreement between the two countries. Both India and Pakistan suffered a great sense of insecurity about their nuclear plants, and with this accord, both prime ministers pledged not to attack or assist foreign powers to attack either country’s nuclear installations and facilities.

On December 31, the last day of the Saarc summit moot, the two prime ministers met without aides. Later, they held a joint press conference to inform the press that two key issues had not been brought up during discussions: namely, India’s withdrawal from Siachen and Pakistan’s alleged support to the Khalistan movement.

Despite some disappointments, it was widely believed that Rajiv-Benazir meetings held on the sidelines of the Saarc summit were the dawn of a new era in Pakistan-India ties.

Almost 28 years later, we still wait for that new era.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine August 21st, 2016



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