Prominent journalists, activists participate in a farewell event for the outgoing Pakistan ambassador to India
“If we can look at bilateral ties rationally rather than emotionally, the need to normalise relations becomes apparent”, comments senior Indian journalist Nirupama Subramianiam. She was speaking at a panel discussion on 29 July 2017 held to honour the outgoing Pakistan envoy to India, Abdul Basit at the India International Centre, New Delhi.
Organised by the South Asia Forum for Art and Creative Heritage (SAFACH) just two days earlier as Mr Basit announced his early retirement, the event drew an enthusiastic and warm response from the audience that turned up to hear Mr Basit and other panelists despite the short notice.
“One of the most eventful tenures of a Pakistan High Commissioner in India is coming to an end”, says young filmmaker Harsh Narayan, the driving force behind SAFACH, a cultural forum “established in the 70th year of India-Pakistan’s Independence”.
Abdul Basit’s term in India, he adds, “Has been full of twists and turns and tides, but all of us who have known him, know that he has been one of the biggest proponents of peace between the two nations. This event is even more significant as he’s not just getting transferred, but his 35-year services in the foreign office is coming to an end as he is retiring. We organised this event to say our loving goodbye to his Excellency, janab Abdul Basit”.
Pulled together at the last minute, the panel included social activist and writer Harsh Mander, a former Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer. Nirupama Subramanian, now National Editor, Indian Express, was one of the two journalists speaking at the event who have been posted in Islamabad as correspondents. She was a reporter for the Hindu when posted in Pakistan, 2006 to 2010, while Vinod Sharma reported from Pakistan for Hindustan Times, from 1991 to 1994.
Moderating the discussion, Jyoti Malhotra, Consulting Editor Indian Express, stressed the need for dialogue and recalled her visits to Pakistan where she has many friends.
Harsh Mander stressed the importance of people-to-people relations. He recalled how in the context of the sedition cases being filed against students and pro-democracy activists in India, he had written about taking his mother to Pakistan for her 75th birthday, relating the incredible warmth and generosity they encountered from Pakistanis, including those who live in his mother’s childhood home in Rawalpindi. That, he said, was his act of sedition. He stressed that irrespective of religion, the state of minorities in both nations is a matter of concern, and the state must protect rights of its minorities.
Veteran journalist Vinod Sharma recalled his early days of reporting from Pakistan and underlined the need for people-to-people dialogue. He added that there are questions about Pakistan not just supporting Kashmiris politically, but morally and diplomatically, that India’s leadership now takes a sterner view of.
Discussing her four years of reporting from Pakistan, Nirupama Subramianiam talked about warmth of Pakistani society that she has written about. She spoke about the need to station journalists on both sides to promote better understanding of each other. “The collective inability to resolve our problems in 70 years even as the world has changed so much is a monumental failure that our leaders are responsible for”, she said.
Abdul Basit noted that one of the main issues between the two countries is the Kashmir dispute and linked issues Siachen and Sir Creek. He emphasised the importance of dialogue, saying that the nuclear neighbours must commit to an uninterrupted dialogue process like they did in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. That was when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in 2009 agreed to de-link dialogue from the issue of terrorism.
“If we muster the political will, we can find a solution to our problems. Whenever we engage, we manage to get good results. We need to commence a dialogue process and ensure that the CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) are adhered to in letter and spirit. We must not allow artificial barriers between the two countries,” he said.
Noting that Pakistan will have a new Pakistan PM by next week and “there will be no change in Pakistan government”, Basit stressed that while “talks might not produce immediate results, engagement is necessary”.
Setting the tone at the start of the event, Harsh Narayan read out a famous quote from ‘The Life of Pie':
I wept like a child. I was weeping because Richard Parker left me so unceremoniously. It broke my heart. After all we had been through, he didn’t even look back. But I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me. I know it, I felt it. Even if I can’t prove it. I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go. But what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye. I was never able to thank my father for all I learned from him. To tell him, without his lessons I would never have survived. I know Richard Parker is a tiger but I wish I had said, ‘It’s over. We survived. Thank you for saving my life. I love you, Richard Parker. You’ll always be with me. May God be with you’.
At the end, the organisers gifted the outgoing ambassador a statue of Buddha “as the symbol of peace”, says Narayan, and a book titled ‘The Fakir’, “symbolising the uncertainty of life like a nomad”.