`Will someone please get this man out of my hair'. The Pakistan Foreign Minister of the day, Zukfiqar Ali Bhutto, turned in despair to no one in particular, seeking to wriggle out of the web of words which his Indian counterpart, Sardar Swaran Singh had woven for nearly three hours.
That was one of those early uncertain steps taken by India and Pakistan were taking to untie the knotty Indo-Pak relationship, a task still defying a solution. The talks had been shifted to Calcutta to keep the intrusive media away. The scourge of the omnipresent TV crews was a little known phenomenon then.
Then there was that other brush with Singh when he stalled the UN call for a cease-fire in the Bangladesh war. He held out for hours, virtually lulled the Security Council into sleep. His monologue never ending until word came from home and he literally came alive to announce that it was his pleasure to announce that the guns in Bangladesh had fallen silent and Pakistan had withdrawn from the scene. Bhutto had had the last laugh though forcing Mrs Indira Gandhi and her crew to literally burn the midnight oil till he got his price, the one he had sought. Kashmir was recognized as a dispute to be solved bilaterally by the two warring neighbours and the 90,000 Pak POWs were to be released. Bhutto deemed a loser by some returned home a hero. Many years have passed since and many have been the times the leaders of the two countries have met, always raising hopes on either side of the border, always causing great disappointment.
I remember Aziz Ahmed a former ICS official and later Foreign Minister of Pakistan tangling with the self-same Swaran Singh who had exasperated Bhutto with his Jullundur lawyer's skills of obfuscation. The same man who nearly had the Lok Sabha tearing its hair apart with that preamble of his reply to a foreign affairs debate "as the honourable members know North Vietnam is north of South Vietnam and South Vietnam is the South of North. The good thing about Swaran Singh was he rarely lost his cool observation that the high ceilinged corridors of South Block were cool. So, as he was walking Mr Ahmed from his room to the conference hall at South Block, he slung a friendly arm over his guest's shoulder to observe that the high-ceilinged South Block corridors were much cooler in the summer heat. Swaran Singh was obviously trying to sound cheerful only to be caught midstream by who intoned Aziz Ahmed ( the ex-ICS) "your excellency, in those days we used to move to Simla in the summers". If Swaran Singh was embarrassed, he didn't show it.
Again a few years later when I met then Pakistan Foreign Minister, Agha Shahi in New Delhi, an effort that materialized courtesy then Pak Foreign Secretary, Shah Nawaz Khan I was surprised to find Mr. Shahi inspecting almost every single item, flower vases to telephones, placed in his elaborate suite . I politely asked if I could help. "It could have there, in the flower pot, inside the telephone or high up in the ceiling – the bug (listening device). And I had indeed noticed on arrival on his floor, seated bang across the lift, the familiar face of an intelligence officer. I saw Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpaye making the predictable pilgrimage to Islamabad (and receiving their counterparts in Delhi) always sounding hopeful and yet rarely optimistic.
I saw Mrs Gandhi hosting a lunch for Gen. Zia on his way to Nepal. A very, very spare meal it must have been. And The General and his entourage making the lonely journey back from the meal to the Palam air force base to his aircraft. It fell to my lot to shout after the General whom I had met a few times earlier and interviewed once on a flight from Karachi to Lahore and his Secretary, Col. Salek, as he was being driven to his plane.. The General , always his own PR man, with that bouncy walk of his, came to the six of us journalists on that hot sunny day, with his young daughter in tow. Yes, my friends, what can I do for you. He was sorry, he said, that he was not told that we had waited for him for the whole of three hours plus he was away at lunch. He could do very little except giving us a couple of paras to write home about .
I could go on and on but must desist. The truth of the matter is that left to the people on either side of the divide the two countries should by now have been closer than, say, the Americans and the Canadians. But the other truth is that so much hatred and mistrust has been injected into our body politic over the years that nothing short of a miracle can turn us into good neighbours. The problem is not the people, the problem is the ruling class, the political class in India as much as it is the civilian and military leadership in Pakistan.
The atmosphere is so vitiated that when a popularly elected Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in the instant case, talks of peace between the two nations he is promptly dubbed by the so-called national TV networks as a traitor. It doesn't stop there. People somehow seem to have developed a vested interest in the two countries continuing to be inimical to each other. Frankly I personally often do not agree with the current New Delhi dispensation's dim view of our relationship with Pakistan. But I do confess and must confess that the BJP Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj's the other day was by far the clearest enunciation of how we can hope to mend our relations.
Stop the LOC and International boundary incursions. Let the border rangers on both sides learn to be more effective and the DGMOs finally agree to call their men to order. I for one wouldn't be bothered one whit if the Hurriyat leaders did or did not, meet the Pakistani delegation whenever it chooses to come.
The most important thing is to clear the field of so many extraneous distractions for the principals to meet and to come to grips with the problems that beset the relationship between the sub-continent's two major countries, and neighbours at that. I had rather naively believed that the Ufa declaration by Modi and Nawaz Sharif, as clarified by Sushma subsequently, had offered a window of opportunity. That's no reason why the other two options should not be explored. The word is very much there and not to be wished away.