LAHORE: Former Indian diplomat and politician Mani Shankar Aiyar regards the people of Pakistan as the single biggest Indian asset in Pakistan.

“The Pakistanis, from my experience, have been the people who react perhaps overreact to the other side. If we are friendly, they are overfriendly and if we are hostile, they get over hostile,” he stated during a session, Hijr Ki Rakh, Visaal Kay Phool, Indo-Pak affairs, on the second day of the Faiz Festival at Alhamra.

He said he had never been to any country where he had been welcomed with such open arms as he was in Pakistan. He said when he got posted in Karachi as consul general, everyone was looking after him and his wife. He has written about a number of incidents in his book, Memoirs of a Maverick, which shows Pakistan as a completely different country to what the Indians imagine. He said that goodwill was needed but instead of goodwill, there had been something opposite during the last 10 years since the formation of the first Narendra Modi government.

“All I ask the people (of Pakistan) is to remember that Modi has never received more than one-third of the votes but our system is such that if has one-third of the votes, he has two-thirds in the seats. So two-thirds of Indians are ready to come towards you (Pakistanis).”

Asks civil society to continue dialogues until awakening of govts

Referring to his friend, Satindar Kumar Lambah, the Indian envoy on the back channel, saying he had written a book about how he served the India-Pakistan relations under six different prime ministers. “There were five Indian high commissioners who served in the Congress government and the BJP government in Islamabad and all five of them unanimously agreed that whatever are our differences, we must engage with Pakistan and the biggest mistake that we made in the last 10 years was the refusing dialogue. We have the courage to conduct surgical strikes against you but we don’t have the courage to sit across the table and talk,” Mr Aiyar stated.

Pakistan former diplomat and ex-high commissioner to India Shahid Malik mentioned that Mani Shankar Aiyar was born in the Lakshmi Mansion in Lahore, not very far from here. He questioned Aiyar’s statement that initiative for peace must come from Pakistan, saying that recently, Pakistan had suggested to India to start the dialogue process but the Indian government was reluctant to do that. He said Pakistan would be happy to restart the dialogue where it was left in 2008 and it included all issues, including Kashmir and terrorism. “We are not shy of discussing terrorism. We have our own problems with India in the context of terrorism. Let’s start to talk about the dialogue process even if we agree to disagree. We can start with small steps like easing the issuance of visas for people-to-people contacts and trade offers the best peace possibility between two countries, involving private businessmen from both sides,” Mr Malik suggested.

When asked if any progress was possible on Kashmir, Mr Aiyar said there was tremendous progress on Kashmir during the Musharraf regime and we had arrived at such a good point during the back channel discussion that whenever Kashmir would be taken up again we would arrive at some discussion point as it was when Khurshid Kasuri was the foreign minister.

Mr Aiyar considered it silly to expect that the Hindutva establishment in India would want to talk to Pakistan. “Under Hindutva, they are trying to imitate Pakistan, which became an Islamic republic. The Gandhi-Nehru answer to the Islamic republic was that they would not become a republic based on religion but a republic based on all religions. But their philosophy that lasted for 65 years was overthrown in 2014 and for the next five years we are going to have the same mindset in Delhi.” But it’s a minority opinion because 63pc Indians have never voted for BJP, he declared.

He said the civil society in both the countries should continue dialogue until the awakening of the governments but for that neither Pakistan nor India were any help due to visa issues. He suggested that the businessmen, students and academics should continue meeting outside India and Pakistan, bypassing the governments.

AANCHAL MALHOTRA: Delhi-based writer and historian Aanchal Malhotra said her maternal grandparents were from the Shahalmi area of Lahore and it felt really good being in their city. She said her novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, was about Lahore, the city that meant so much to her grandparents.

“The Book of Everlasting Things” spans over a century, starting from the late 1800s, it moves to the present day,“ she said as she introduced her debut novel.

“The characters of the book are two families based in the Walled City, one is of Hindu perfumers and other is of calligraphers who work near the Wazir Khan Mosque.”

Ms Malhotra said during the process of writing the novel, the Wazir Khan Mosque was a place of homage for her and she was lucky to visit it during her trips to Lahore.

Coming back to the story, she said both the families were entwined through larger world events, including the World War I when Britain sent 1.5m Indian soldiers to the war as one of the characters went to war and returned to start a perfume business. “When the partition happened and the Hindu family had to go to India and the Muslim family stayed back.”

Aanchal Malhotra called her novel a love story between the children of two families. She said a larger part of her work was history and as a historian she had worked on the partition for 10 years.

“It was the partition stories whose texture, emotions and nuanced shades helped me to write the book. I have talked about the novel in many countries of the world and finally it has come home (Lahore),” she said.

When asked about her journey from non-fiction to fiction, Ms Malhotra said when she first thought of the story, it could only be written in form of a novel. “There is an ethical responsibility when you record true stories of people and you can’t change them, malign them or use them to your advantage,” she said as she differentiated between her nonfiction and fiction.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2024

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