From one Yuletide to another, two Christmas days saw the springing of hope of betterment in India-Pakistan relations, only for the usual bitterness to creep back in, even as voices of civil society activists continue to call for peace.
On December 25, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the unexpected and unannounced step of paying a visit to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house in Lahore, to stop by for a tea meeting, on a day that happened to be the Pakistan Premier’s birthday and also his granddaughter’s wedding. The encounter at Sharif’s house in Raiwind and the warm vibes exchanged between the two leaders, with the Modi blessing the new bride while his Pakistani counterpart arranged for special vegetarian fare cooked in desi ghee for his Indian guest and saw him off at the airport, was fairy-tale like and was the cynosure of all eyes in the subcontinent.
But true to form, the Pathankot attack happened a few days later, and all went in vain. Bilateral ties since then scaled one bitter peak after another, as the Uri attack in September and the Surgical Strikes followed. In between came Burhan Wani’s killing and Pakistan raised the Kashmir bogey, and then Saarc fell victim to it all.
Cut to December 25, 2017. This time it was the meeting between Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian naval officer sentenced to death by Pakistan on charges of spying and terrorism, and his wife and mother. All eyes were riveted on the meeting, arranged at the Foreign Office building in Islamabad. The meeting, set-up through diplomatic channels, could have worked to bolster the sagging relationship. But Pakistan’s treatment of Jadhav’s wife and mother, who were made to remove their bindi, mangalsutra and bangles for the meeting, has left ties as they were, bitter.
India has slammed Pakistan’s treatment as violative of the human rights of the two women who, it said, were made to ‘appear like widows’ minus the Hindu emblems of a married woman. Pakistan has justified its treatment, saying Jadhav is no ordinary prisoner, but a ‘convicted Indian terrorist and spy’ for which extra security measures were needed.
The meeting was overshadowed by ceasefire violations and the killing of Indian soldiers. Two days before Christmas, Pakistani soldiers killed three Indian soldiers, including a Major, in Poonch. A day after Christmas, India retaliated, saying Indian Army commandos had penetrated 300 metres across the Line of Control and killed four Pakistani soldiers.
Adding to the tensions has been Pakistan taking umbrage at the US’ promotion of India as its friend, especially in dealing with Afghanistan, though on the ground Islamabad-Washington ties continue to oscillate under the Trump administration. Also, China and Pakistan cosying up, with India as an intended target, has not helped much.
But in the midst of all the strain, there have been many instances of good will, with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s constant outreach to Pakistanis in need of medical attention bringing cheer and smiles to many. The issue of medical visas to Pakistanis took a political turn in May when India said these have to be accompanied by a letter of recommendation from no less than the country’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz. However, India has been giving several medical visas to Pakistanis over the past few months, thanks again to Sushma Swaraj, who many on the other side idolise for providing succour.
The issue of the disappearance of Aaghaz-e-Dosti peace activist Raza Khan, though not highlighted much by the Indian media, has gained a lot of traction on social media in both India and Pakistan, with appeals to find the Lahore-based activist. Khan, the convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a joint platform of Indian and Pakistani activists who are trying to create an atmosphere of peace between two countries, went missing on December 2 and has not been heard of since.
Though the Lahore High Court has asked intelligence agencies to locate Khan, there is no news of him. But social media is rife with appeals to find him, with #FindRaza a major hashtag on Twitter, along with photos of the activities of the forum to forge peace. As the New Year dawns, let us hope Raza Khan is found, and peace prevails.