From the archives: The Saarc handshake that broke the ice between Pakistan, India

We look back at the time President Pervez Musharraf prompted Indian PM Vajpayee to rise and shake hands with him.
Published September 28, 2016
Former president Musharraf and former Indian PM Vajpayee speak at the 2002 Saarc summit in Kathmandu. Skip to 2:10 to watch the celebrated handshake between the leaders.

The following story is from the Dawn archives and appeared in print on Jan 6, 2002.

KATHMANDU: In a command performance laced with humility, eloquence, fair play and a firm resolve to seek peace with dignity, President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday forced Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to rise and shake hands with him, a move that many believe could help deter the two countries from their untenable logic of war.

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Gen Musharraf’s speech at the opening session of the 11th Saarc summit in Kathmandu came three speakers ahead of Vajpayee, which gave the Indian leader time to absorb its sudden and urgent appeal as also occasion to rephrase his own draft.

Criticising the organisation for losing its way somewhat, President Musharraf suggested a remedy thus: “The way forward is to make Saarc genuinely potent and through it sink differences, resolve disputes on the basis of sovereign equality. Let none amongst us consider himself more equal than others.”

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The above remarks should have wound up his speech. But then in a gesture to which even his senior aides were not privy, he turned to Vajpayee and said: “As I step down from this podium, I extend a genuine and sincere hand of friendship to Prime Minister Vajpayee. Together we must commence the journey for peace, harmony and progress in South Asia.”

As Gen Musharraf then moved towards Vajpayee, the Indian leader got up from his seat and extended his hand to him. The applause that followed the clasp came close to deafening decibels and many in the media teams from India and Pakistan appeared to have lost their composure for a while to join the clapping.

Vajpayee’s response came as a dampener, but going by Pakistani officials’ response to his speech, it had elements that were positive albeit revealed a bit grudgingly.

“I am glad that President Musharraf extended a hand of friendship to me. I have shaken his hand in your presence. Now President Musharraf must follow this gesture by not permitting any activity in Pakistan or any territory it controls today which enables terrorists to perpetrate mindless violence in India,” Vajpayee said, also towards the end of his prepared speech.

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Then he added a standard refrain listing the number of times India had been betrayed by Pakistan whenever it tried to seek peace.

“I say this because of my past experience. I went to Lahore with a hand of friendship,” Vajpayee declared. “We were rewarded by aggression in Kargil and the hijacking an Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu. I invited President Musharraf to Agra. We were rewarded with a terrorist attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and, last month, on the Parliament of India. But we would be betraying the expectations of our peoples if we did not chart out a course towards satisfying the unfulfilled promises of our common South Asian destiny.”

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Gen Musharraf’s petition regarding the functioning of Saarc appeared to have the silent support of everyone except India, and perhaps Bhutan.

“It is a matter of great satisfaction for my government that the 11th summit is finally taking place. There have been instance of postponement of Saarc summits in the past. However, this time, we have witnessed an unprecedented delay of more than two years. It is unfortunate that the delay was caused by factors extraneous to both the association and its charter. We need to make certain that Saarc stays on course. Saarc summits once scheduled, after obtaining the concurrence of all the member states, must go ahead even if the heads of state or government of one or two members do not find it convenient to attend. No member should be allowed to hold Saarc to ransom.

“Using internal developments in one member state to disrupt the Saarc process should be unacceptable. We must also oppose any attempt to dilute the principle of sovereign equality of member states in this joint endeavour. We are all equal partners.”

He said Saarc members should use its platform to resolve their political differences. “All problems that afflict our region must be sincerely addressed and resolved. Sweeping them under the carpet can never be the answer. The only wise and courageous choice is to resolve all disputes and differences on a durable basis. And only those solutions based on justice and fairplay can be durable.”

Gen Musharraf said that “peace and tranquillity is essential for the progress of South Asia,” adds APP.

“Nothing can be achieved as long as there is tension and hostilities among any two of the (Saarc) members,” he said.

He said: “It was with objective of dissipating and reducing tensions that I undertook the journey to Agra last July,” he said referring to his last meeting with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

President Musharraf said his government remained ready to engage in a serious and sustained dialogue with India at all times and at all levels.

He said the summit meeting was taking place in a new year, a new century, a new millennium and also a new world after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11 last year.

“Pakistan condemned those terrorist attacks and joined the international coalition in the campaign against terrorism,” he said.

The president said Pakistan itself has been a victim of terrorism.

“We strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. We regard it as a grave threat to civilized society. We abhor violence. We are determined to eliminate terrorism and therefore will fully implement the Saarc Convention for combating terrorism.”

However, he said, the concerted campaign against terrorism must also identify and examine the causes that breed terrorism, that derive people to hopelessness and to desperation.

“We cannot address only the symptoms and leave the malaise aside,” he added.

Musharraf said it was equally important that a distinction was maintained between acts of legitimate resistance and freedom struggles on one hand and the acts of terrorism on the other.

Jawed Naqvi resumes: Gen Musharraf’s speech and Vajpayee’s response marked their first meeting since the failed Agra summit when the Indian leader did not even come out to see him off on July 16 as he flew home with little to show for their efforts to end a bloody dispute on Kashmir.

He did not mention Kashmir by name in his speech on Saturday. The ploy appeared to work as the foreign ministers of the two countries were able to find time for a meeting which was only the other day unthinkable.

There were different interpretations being given though to the exact nature of the meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Pakistan’s Abdul Sattar. Vajpayee, as predicted did not come for the retreat, avoiding the enthusiasm of Gen Musharraf to start something quickly for durable peace. But prospects of their meeting soon had brightened, analysts said.

Also read: Dawn editorial 'A debating forum' from January 9, 2002