One of the most awaited sessions of the day, named after Khushwant Singh’s heart-wrenching novel on Partition riots, Train to Pakistan, which brought him instant recognition, delved into ways to improve Indo-Pak relations and bury the ghosts of Partition, which haunt both the countries to this day.
The first speaker, former union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, known for his prudent suggestions on improving Indo-Pak ties, began his speech by identifying the demand for separate electorates by Mohammad Ali Jinnah as the root cause of Partition. He said Jinnah had gone overboard by demanding separation of Sindh from Bombay Province and 33% reservation for Muslims in the armed forces. “The Congress committee accepted the demands, thus, knowingly or unknowingly, sowing the seeds of Partition. But the Islamisation of Pakistan was contrary to Jinnah’s idea of a secular state.”
Maintaining that the quintessence of secularism cannot be realised in India unless Muslims are integrated, Aiyar said, “The notion in Hindu minds that an Indian Muslim is more of a Pakistani in spirit needs to be dispelled. Muslims are yet to be absorbed in the Indian mainstream. India has also failed to acknowledge the integration of Hindus in Pakistan over the years. It has not moved adequately forward. We should stop looking down on Pakistan. We should think of them as Indians as if Partition never took place.”
The former diplomat-turned-politician observed that the Pakistan society was in the process of growing up. “It knows how to evolve. Though it is not fundamentalist, as many in India believe, it must realise that Islamisation is dividing Pakistan and encouraging sectarianism. It has to accept the principle of diversity and plurality. Pakistan has not been able to bring about unity in uniformity because of its diverse social milieu.”
Stressing that the two countries should join hands to take on terrorism, Aiyar, who has served for three years as a diplomat in Pakistan and been there 30 times, as he proudly proclaims, said, “We should not forget that Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism. Both the Pakistan society and its army are against terrorism, but the mad clerics want it. India and Pakistan can end terrorism only through collaboration, not confrontation.”
The second panelist, noted columnist Prem Shankar Jha, traced the thaw in relations to the Indo-Pak test match played in Mohali in 2004, which was marked by bonhomie on both sides of the border, but he cautioned Pakistan against acting as somebody else’s proxy in its own interest. “Things can improve further if we do the right things. We should not allow 26/11 to become a stumbling block.
We have got encouraging signals from Pakistan, which has given us MFN status. The commerce ministers of the two countries have met seven times in recent months. India, on its part, has offered tariff concessions to Pakistan. It has also lifted the ban on investment and the restrictions on the banking sector. All this happened in just one year. It will take three years to derive its benefits. We now need to expedite the Iran gas pipeline project and open up communication channels by having more journalists in each other’s countries to come up with positive stories.”
Khushwant Singh’s journalist son Rahul Singh concluded the session with some valuable suggestions on the way forward for the two countries. “We need more people-to-people contacts. Pakistani-Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi is here with us today. We should have more such exchanges. The new generation, which has not seen Partition, must build on that. Let’s build on what we have in common. We have so much in common, yet we are so hostile to each other,” said Rahul, advocating a semi-autonomous Kashmir with soft borders.
The absence of Bond
Much to the disappointment of his admirers, master storyteller and poet Ruskin Bond could not turn up for the event. The organisers said he had suffered an ankle fracture. The scheduled auction of the first autographed copy of Khushwant Singh’s latest work, The Free Thinkers’ Prayer Book, which was to take place after the release of the book on Friday, was not conducted on Saturday either for reasons best known to the organisers. The literature festival generated an impressive response, as the jam-packed ballroom suggested. Many foreigners with an old Kasauli
connection were also in the audience.