Should we be suspicious of Modi’s visit to Lahore?

The reporter asserted, quite hysterically, that Narendra Modi entered Lahore without procuring a visa first.

Ishtiaq Ahmed December 29, 2015
The hysterical outburst, as if the man was in a state of utter delirium, at Lahore Airport of a reporter of a Pakistani news channel on the surprise visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lahore on December 25, 2015, left me gaping with disbelief. He asserted, with such certainty, that never in the history of international diplomacy have foreigners ever entered the territory of a sovereign and independent state without procuring the visa first.

I must admit that for a moment even I was taken aback at the alleged singularity of such a diplomatic irregularity. However, my own sense was that visas are merely a formality that states introduce for purposes of convenience. A legitimate government can always waive the visa or stamp it in at the port of entry and in any case foreign dignitaries can always be excluded from such formalities.

But more importantly, the cocksure reporter forgot General Muhammad Ziaul Haq’s cricket diplomacy. He landed at the Jaipur Cricket Ground ostensibly to watch an India-Pakistan match in 1987 when in reality it was to defuse the tension which had been growing along the international border in the wake of the Indian military’s Operation Brass Tacks exercises. In those days, India was greatly concerned about Pakistan’s support to the Khalistan movement. The Pakistanis, on the other hand, remembered that India provided sanctuary and support to the Mukti Bahini during the civil war in East Pakistan. There is no dearth of both sides being caught with their pants down on almost all matters. At any rate, the visit by Ziaul Haq resulted in some sort of a rapport being established between Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi and him. Thereafter Pakistan’s support to the Khalistanis was low-key until Zia died in a plane crash and Benazir Bhutto wounded up the Khalistani bases on Pakistani soil.

However, Operation Brass Tacks produced an unintended consequence: Pakistan decided it would at all costs acquire a nuclear weapon because in a conventional land war it would always be at a disadvantage to India. This is how politics always happen in the international arena. I have called it the anarchy of the international system in which ad hoc-ism rather than properly planned chess moves are taking place, especially when it is the India-Pakistan imbroglio.

The problem of India and Pakistan is that both countries interact with each other in the backdrop of a trust deficit which is not mere mistrust but morbid distrust.

Let me underscore that chauvinism and jingoism in the Indian media, and defence and security establishment, is no less pathetic than what we have on our side.

But let me make another point, which is far more important. The response to the Indian premier’s visit needs to be categorised between those who were surprised and those who were shocked. Surprise is a response which happens when something unexpected happens. Shock is an extreme form of response to the unexpected. It usually, though not necessarily, conveys negative vibes and is indicative of fear and angst.

There is no denying that Narendra Modi’s visit surprised most of us even though, ever since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif graciously attended his inauguration and a few times when they have met at international conferences and summits, their body language has been friendly. To me the visit to Lahore on December 25, 2015, was a continuation of an initiative which was taken in February 1999, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Lahore and an accord was signed to establish peace and to resolve all conflicts between the two countries through peaceful bilateral negotiations. The Kargil incident was sabotage. I have argued in my book, “Pakistan: The Garrison State (Oxford 2014)”, that no other action by Pakistan has done more harm to its Kashmir stand than that foolish Kargil misadventure.

It is, of course, true that Mr Modi’s track record is very different from that of Mr Vajpayee and we all have legitimate reasons to be suspicious of him, since it was during his tenure as chief minister that carnage of Muslims took place in Gujarat in 2002. There are video clips available on YouTube in which Modi’s tone is most unfriendly, event brutish, when talking about Pakistan.

Yet, we know that politicians say things to gain cheap popularity but many are also sharp enough to understand the limits of such antics.

In fact, one can argue that those who are ultra-nationalists can deliver peace more reliably. Have we forgotten that it was Anwar Al-Sadat who launched the surprise attack on Israel in 1973 (in 1967, it was the other way round and Israel launched a war against the Arabs)?

But it was also him who went to Israel to make peace with the man who was a certified terrorist but had been elected as the prime minister of Israel? I’m talking about Menachem Begin.

So, people change their minds and they do it both from an assessment of the objective reality and their own ability to think out of the box. If Modi is just being clever, and if for Nawaz Sharif friendship with India is yet another opportunity to make money, then such gimmickry would be exposed soon.

I think we should give peace a chance and if Mr Modi is now a man of peace then he should always be welcome to Pakistan. It has been reported in the press that this time the Pakistan Army has encouraged the revival of peace talks. Both Imran Khan and the Pakistan People’s Party have also welcomed the visit. So, this is the right moment to catch and make history.

On the other hand, we can be sure that those who are in a state of shock are going to do their utmost to sabotage any revival of the peace process. I had a hectic intercourse on social media with some self-styled experts who said that Modi should be arrested instead of being welcomed when he entered Lahore. Others went even further.

However, such remarks will end up in the dustbin of history. While there were a few voices that intended to spread discord, there were many that lauded the diplomatic gesture.

It is futile to squabble over the premise of Modi’s visit to Lahore. The fact is that it happened. The two heads of state met cordially. The entire world is witness to it. The process of peace that has been set in motion should not be thwarted. Instead of making such a foolish fuss about visas, we should demand that visas should be altogether abolished between India and Pakistan.
Ishtiaq Ahmed The author is a professor emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has been a Visiting Professor at LUMS, Pakistan and is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is an award-winning author of "The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed" and "Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011)".
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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