As the High Commissioner of the “enemy” nation sat before the youth of another “enemy” nation, a remarkable set of arguments emerged. At a first of its many commendable initiatives, Youth Forum on Foreign Policy (YFFP) as part of its Embassy Dialogue Series organised a meet with the honourable High Commissioner of Pakistan, Mr. Abdul Basit at the Pakistan High Commission on 9th September 2015. The baronial gathering consisted of students from the Swedish and Sri Lankan embassies, students of International Relations and other varied backgrounds from Delhi, organised under the aegis of Mr. Gaurav Gogoi, the founder of YFFP. Amidst the panoply of memories and narratives, Mr. Basit commenced the session putting the audience through an inquisitive wringer on foreign policy and its variance from diplomacy. Rather humorously, he defined it as ‘One damn thing after another’.

The session took pace with a reflection on both nations’ persistent engagement in a history of turmoil and conflict, carrying the baggage of one of the bloodiest partitions in world history. Mr. Basit talked about the emergence of Pakistan through formidable times when its foreign policy largely tried to shield its sovereign and national security interests. He connoted that both nations have been hostage to conflict and have deployed effective use of propaganda and rhetoric to further their interests. Things got awry with both nations treading towards different paradigms of development and creating ‘self-serving images of each other’.

There have been countless opportunities unleashed by globalisation and transnational flows from the West. But he was conscientious to admit that Pakistan has failed to reap the benefits of the world’s historic developments. The receding effects of partition and the concurrent wave of globalisation have not placed the nation onto the global map. Terrorism he mentioned, has been another major impediment to the growth of the nation. It has led to 60,000 casualties since 9/11 causing an economic whammy of around 120 billion dollars.

Unlike the European Union or our neighbouring ASEAN, South Asia has no true sense of “integration”, and the hostile relations of Pakistan and India were identified as a cause of this. “South Asia, in economic terms, is the least integrated region in the world. It is primarily India-Pakistan relations which do not allow SAARC region to realise its potential,” Mr. Basit said. He believes that today’s changing times call for a greater understanding of the neighbours in the vicinity than the greater imperium of the world, he mentioned.

His remarks reflected an inherent desire to normalise relations with India. For him, a realistic dialogue entails a global change in people’s perception of Pakistan not being the nation manifested through TV screens and newspapers but as the ‘confident country’ moving steadily in all areas of civil society, education and so on.

The lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session, characterised by his unfailingly glib retorts. One of the first questions asked was about Pakistan’s contribution to the issue of climate change, specifically the conservation of water. Pakistan has come short in terms of developing dams or other infrastructure, and revising the Indus Waters Treaty. Admitting the fact that Pakistan has not been able to do much about the issues of water, Mr. Basit noted how India and China, being the bigger and more developed nations, should take the mantle of environmental conservation. Nonetheless, he believes in cultivating a wider awareness of climate issues amongst the Pakistani public, which would be a step towards a better corporation with South Asian countries in the realm of environmental concerns.

A striking question was raised about the role of politicians. It often seems that the perpetual conflict between the two nations feeds the fire of politics on both sides of the border; as if politicians need this conflict for their political campaigns. An anti-India or anti-Pakistan rhetoric always catches the imagination of voters. To this, Mr. Gogoi responded negatively. Through his experience in politics, he claimed that ultimately, national interests were of the utmost importance and made up the core of their agendas. Politicians in India, he notes, want good relations with Pakistan, while protecting Indian national interests. The discussion brought to the fore an interesting contrast between politics, diplomacy and military. And politics, for him should be a de-militarized discussion.

Undeniably, the major point of contestation has often been witnessed on the voice of the Hurriyat as being the true representatives of the voice of Kashmir. The Hurriyat largely became extraneous in mainstream Kashmiri politics due to turf wars and internal bickering. With the rise of the PDP espousing the values comparable to that of the former, the Hurriyat have acted as the third party insurance and championed the cause of nationalism. Mr. Basit blatantly remarked that elections do not represent the true aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir even if mainstream parties reach out to the Hurriyat. Thereby, political instruments such as that of a referendum or a plebiscite should naturally cast the die in deciding the fate of the people of J&K. In a quick reply, he pointed out that their position is based on ‘principle’, referring to the modern day independent nations of East Timor and South Sudan. If the issue of J&K is resolved, then other issues naturally become peripheral.

Though the agenda was post Ufa recourse and the laying out of the strategic roadmap between the two nations, the dialogue was high on sentiments. Analysts have timelessly doled-out blame-game for fall-outs which is why the bilateral relations become so hurdle-prone. Here, Pakistan’s fatal obsession with the ‘K-word’ resulted in the scuttling of the NSA-level talks and dismantled the foundations of a strong possible course of action.

The astute diplomat with his ingenuous appeal and razor-sharp comments kept the audience engrossed and motivated to ask questions. But the corollary of the dialogue lied in fostering an understanding to undertake small confidence-building measures in areas of consular, cultural and civil society interest to address long-standing differences.The last 68 years seem to have been squandered in the constant squabbling of the two nations. Mr. Basit only hopes that 68 years later from now, our future generations are not fighting in circles over the same issues. Friendly relations in future will bring into focus more pressing issues like that of poverty, education, gender inequality, trade relations etc; issues that cannot be tackled in a “political vacuum”. The status-quo demands more productive political relations between Indian and Pakistan that would open up an array of opportunities for both sides. The end was followed by a vociferous appeal to the youngsters to denude themselves of historical animosity by not surrendering to pessimism and instead renewing ties with perseverance. In hindsight, the evening was a sound reflection on our geopolitical ties from the vantage point of our neighbour and how self-improvement and bilateral augmentation can be sought from both sides with the youngsters being at the helm of the change.

[YFFP-Embassy Dialogue Series Event Report

Dated: 9th September, 2015]

Posted by The Indian Economist