Can we trust them? This is the burden of comments both in India and Pakistan after the meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif. The reaction is no reflection on the effort the two are making to break the ice. However, it shows that even after 70 years of partition, the enmity between the two countries remains as entrenched as before. Any step taken to lessen the distance between the two is viewed with doubt and suspicion.
Not many people in the two countries dare to cross the line, apart from the border, which has come to be drawn between the two over the years. Both live under the fear of hostilities because of the threat one perceives from the other. Yet, there is no getting away from the fact that unless the two countries develop trust in each other they cannot reduce the defence outlay, which leaves very little for education, health or old-age care.
Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's demand for territorial division, however justified, was fraught with dangers. The two-nation theory was bound to create a gulf between Hindus and Muslims. This happened. Even today, the people on both sides are paying the price for it. However secular in intent, the polity in India is run by Prime Minister Modi whose Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is parochial in ideology.
True, after the creation of Pakistan, Jinnah said that the people in the subcontinent were either Indians or Pakistanis and would cease to be Hindus and Muslims, not in the religious sense but otherwise. However, he had not realised that the sense of nationality based on religion had got so entrenched that his advice not to mix religion with politics would go awry.
The fallout is that the enmity is now instilled. India and Pakistan are at daggers drawn. Even a small friction gets built up into a war-like situation. So much so, the Muslims in India bear the brunt of bias against them. At the time of tension with Pakistan, the Muslims in India are not considered part of the mainstream.
Take the case of the voice sample of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who masterminded the terrorists' attack on Mumbai. The joint statement issued by Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif, who met at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meeting at Ufa (Russia), was meant to prepare the people on both sides for a détente. But Nawaz Sharif's sharing of the voice sample with India misfired.
The Pakistan establishment reacted strongly against Nawaz Sharif's gesture. That no court is willing to pursue Lakhvi's case is apparent. It has become a prestige issue. When sentiment comes in the way of proving who is more powerful, peace becomes the first casualty.
No doubt, the Pakistan Prime Minister's Advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz's sabre-rattling was in bad taste. Yet, the Modi government does realise that after its unilateral cancellation of the foreign secretary-level talks in Islamabad last August, calling off the proposed talks again - even before these are yet to begin - would be diplomatically unwise. More so because the Ufa summit between Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had taken place at India's initiative.
Even otherwise, the quick reaction of the US-led international community in welcoming the India-Pakistan summit in Ufa has further made it difficult for both India and Pakistan to wriggle out of the agreed roadmap. US Vice President Joe Biden was quoted last week as saying at a function in Washington that the Ufa talks would lead to more such dialogues in future. “The US strongly encourages both sides to build on this strategic avenue for peace,” Biden said.
One could assume for the present that the Ufa joint statement is cast in stone as far as the Modi government is concerned and India will go ahead with not only the National Security Advisor-level talks in New Delhi sometime later this month but also two other reach-out sessions planned with Pakistan at the level of BSF-Pakistan Rangers chiefs and Directors General of Military Operation. Thus, all eyes will now be on the proposed talks between Indian NSA Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz and possibly after these talks, the time and venue of the other two meetings would be decided.
Unfortunately, Sartaj Aziz has said that Kashmir is on the top of the agenda. Understandably, the Modi government's spin doctors have made light of Sartaj Aziz's remarks which they see as an attempt meant for Pakistan's domestic consumption. They rejected the notion of Pakistan making a departure from the Ufa joint statement, maintaining that there was no question of Pakistan making a U-turn when the neighbour had not even taken the first turn. They used cricket analogy to drive the point home, further saying it was unfair to speculate about the slog-overs of the India-Pakistan match when the match had not even begun.
The India-Pakistan summit at Ufa is aimed at a long-term engagement as Modi has accepted Sharif's invitation to attend the next SAARC summit in Pakistan, scheduled for next year. For this reason, the political stakes are high for both the sides. New Delhi downplaying hawkish statements from Pakistani officials is thus understandable.
I wish the slate could be wiped clean. One million people were killed by both the communities in the forced migration that followed partition. The Punjabis were victims. They did not contribute to the two-nation theory. Yet, they suffered the worst. Theirs is an example to falsify that the nationality is not based on religion. Very aptly, they have argued that if someone among them changes religion, he or she does not become a separate nation overnight.
Yet, this argument has not gone home. People both in India and Pakistan continue to react to one another on the basis of religion. This is the biggest hurdle in rapprochement between the two countries.
The writer is an eminent Indian journalist.