Palestine at the heart of all Middle East problems

Mani Shankar Aiyar says one can never get anywhere by only being pragmatic. (AN photo by Boutros Ayad)

Published: Mar 1, 2012 21:52 Updated: Mar 1, 2012 21:52

DAMMAM: Indian diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyer wants Delhi to continue to champion the cause of the Palestinians. In an interview with Siraj Wahab, he says peace in Palestine will bring peace to the region.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, 71, is India’s former minister of petroleum. A powerful and learned diplomat, he went into politics during the tenure of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Always a Gandhi family loyalist, he drafted some of Rajiv Gandhi’s famous speeches. He is currently the member of India’s upper house of Parliament.

A staunch secularist, Aiyar has always fought for the rights of minorities, especially Muslims, and is a big supporter of peace between India and Pakistan. He was six when India and Pakistan became two independent sovereign nations. His father had a thriving practice as a chartered accountant in Pakistan at the time of partition and Aiyar was born in Lahore.

Aiyar’s television program, Politically Incorrect on NDTV, has a huge following in India and abroad. He was in Saudi Arabia last week at the invitation of the alumni of India’s historic Aligarh Muslim University. In this interview with Arab News, he answers questions on Rahul Gandhi, Congress Party’s electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh and his views on partition and Indo-Pak ties.

Following is the interview:

Q: How is India balancing its relationships with Riyadh and Tehran? Managing all those contradictions must be difficult.

A: We do not see Riyadh and Tehran as mutually exclusive. If there are differences between Riyadh and Tehran, they are to be resolved by Riyadh and Tehran. If anybody wants our assistance in this regard — and I don’t think anybody does — we are prepared to offer ourselves. Saudi Arabia is the single biggest Arab country and the single richest Arab country and Iran is the inheritor of a major civilization. They are entirely capable of resolving their issues between themselves. I don’t think anybody in Riyadh is demanding that we break off our relations with Tehran, and I don’t think anybody in Tehran is asking us to break our relations with Riyadh. The problem is neither Riyadh nor Tehran. The problem is Washington. I think Washington is right in worrying about Iranian nuclear weapons but why aren’t the Americans also worrying about Israeli nuclear weapons? Israeli nuclear weapons exist. The Iranian nuclear weapon, if anybody is making it, lies in the future.

Q: So India’s role should be to defuse tensions rather than promote them?

A: We should be promoting a cooperative atmosphere in West Asia (the Middle East) rather than becoming a party to internal disputes within the continent. We must be consistent in championing the Palestinian cause because, after all, it is the Palestinian cause that is at the heart of all problems in West Asia. If there were peace in Palestine there would be peace in West Asia as a whole. But you cannot have peace in Palestine without justice in Palestine. And I don’t see that the Americans are able to persuade the Israelis to give justice to the Palestinian people.

Q: You have seen Rajiv Gandhi’s family from a close quarter. What is your assessment of Rahul Gandhi?

A: Rahul Gandhi has decided to become a probationer in Indian politics. He comes from such a distinguished political lineage that he could have easily done what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has done — “Since my father was the boss, so I am the boss.” Rahul Gandhi has definitely said no. He said, “First I want to go into the most difficult state for the Congress Party which is Uttar Pradesh.” In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was the dominant party till 1989. For the last 20 years, we haven’t had any presence there. In the elections of 2002, the Congress Party got four seats. We succeeded in getting more in 2007 after Rahul Gandhi went in. Now we are an accepted and acknowledged political presence in Uttar Pradesh largely because of Rahul Gandhi. We know that the Congress Party’s votes are going to increase considerably, but we don’t know by how many seats. What I think commendable is that Rahul Gandhi has said that he is not obsessed with becoming prime minister; that he is in Uttar Pradesh for the long run; that the Congress is not going to align with any political party after the elections; and that the Congress will either pull itself up by its own bootstraps or fail, but we are not going to rise by catching somebody else’s coattails. Rahul Gandhi wants to rebuild the Congress in Uttar Pradesh because he knows that without capturing Uttar Pradesh the Congress will not be able to capture Delhi on its own. All this indicates a humble but mature young man.

Q: What are Congress’ chances in the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh? The results are going to be out next week.

A: I am not an astrologer and I do not make predictions. It seems to me that the vote of the Congress Party is definitely going up, that the vote of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is definitely going down, and that the Samajwadi Party remains an important political force in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), because of its agitation over the Babri Mosque, has completely destroyed itself in Uttar Pradesh for which I thank Allah. It is a nonentity. So the one result I will predict is that the BJP will come fourth. I think all these spoilers such as the Peace Party and others will only remain spoilers. They are not going to become major political elements.

Q: You are a great supporter of peace between India and Pakistan and have served as India’s high commissioner in Pakistan. What is happening vis-à-vis the peace process?

A: We are at a very encouraging milestone. I think we should seize this opportunity. Having known Pakistan very well, I think the velocity of change in the mindset in Pakistan vis-à-vis India is faster than the velocity of change in the mindset in India vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Q: And why is this?

A: Pakistan has reached a stage where it does not need to define itself negatively in terms of India. Fortunately, that generation is gone. I think 95 percent of the population of Pakistan never knew what it is to be an Indian. Similarly in India, 95 percent of our people have not known an India of which Pakistan was an integral part. We have reached a stage where we can easily look at each other as neighbors and not as dissidents and not as separatists. Pakistan is a separate sovereign entity as is India. The pull of West Asia on the Pakistani mind is very strong. In West Asia, or what they say here is the Middle East, uniformity is the basis of unity. In South Asia diversity is the basis of unity. Therefore, the attempt to put Pakistan in the West Asian framework has resulted in confusion over the nature of their nationhood. You have to respect diversity, not only of language and culture but much more importantly of religion. In South Asia, Islam has always coexisted with other religions. We in South Asia live with the most amazing linguistic diversity. Here in West Asia, from Muscat to Mauritania, they all speak one language. There may be variations in pronunciation or accents but otherwise it is one language. So Pakistan, essentially being a South Asian country, has to define its nationhood in a manner that places Pakistani nationhood in the South Asian context of unity in diversity.

Q: And what about the concept of nationhood on the Indian side?

A: On the Indian side, our nationhood will never be complete until and unless we have complete secularism. Secularism is the bonding adhesive of our nationhood. Pakistan can more easily affirm its diversity if it has a good relationship with India. And India will not be able to consolidate its nationhood until we resolve our relationship with Pakistan so that no Indian is left looking with suspicion and the Muslims of India don’t feel under siege that they have to prove to their non-Muslim brethren that they are not Pakistanis. India will never acquire the status that it deserves in the international world so long as the Pakistan albatross is around our neck. By quarreling with Pakistan we diminish ourselves. As for Pakistan, it has spent 65 years being the front-line state in somebody else’s interest. It is time Pakistan became a front-line state in its own interest. There is recognition in Pakistan that a good relationship with India is in its interest. The only way we can successfully move forward is to initiate an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue.

Q: Sometimes you sound like an idealist?

A: I don’t think you can ever, ever get anywhere by only being pragmatic. It is having a larger vision that enables you to get somewhere. If you don’t reach for the stars will you ever get onto your roof?

Q: Were you a witness to the horrors of partition?

A: What happened in those two weeks in August 1947 destroyed the 1,000 years that Hindus and Muslims have lived together. Rivers of blood flowed and our hands are still stained with that blood. Unless and until we wash away the stain and unless and until we don’t see tomorrow in a new light and in a new way without the baggage of the past, we will continue to remain trapped in those weeks of bloodletting in August 1947. When the country was partitioned, my mother and the four of us children stayed in Simla. So, on Aug. 14, 1947, we found ourselves Indians and because my father was in Lahore, he found himself a Pakistani. Let me narrate one incident from my childhood. I remember I was a six-year-old and the house in which we lived in Simla was known as Three Bridges. There were very few buildings in the area which had three floors. In Three Bridges there were three floors. On the ground floor, there was a Muslim family. All members of the family had come to this place for safety. There were little ones. I remember one night, about 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., there was a knock at the door and a large group of Sikhs with bloodshot eyes was waiting outside. They asked my mother: “Where are the Muslims?” My mother said, “They have all gone to Pakistan.” At that moment I wanted to say, “No, no, they are on the ground floor.” I was about to say that when I saw something in the eyes of my mother that told me to keep my mouth shut. I did and the group left.

Q: And what was your father’s experience on the other side?

A: As I told you, my father was in Lahore at the time of partition. His chartered accountancy and income tax advisory practice spread from Lahore to Rawalpindi and Peshawar and down to Karachi. I was born in Lahore on April 10, 1941. When my father was asked where he would go, he said, “My entire practice is here so I will become Pakistani. What do I have to do with India?” My father’s grocer of Beadan Street suggested that he place a big lock on his door, and if somebody were to ask about him, then the grocer would say that Shankar Sahab had gone back to India. “When this madness is over in a couple of weeks, things will be all right,” he said. Three days later the same man pulled a knife and attacked my father but my father survived. To this day, I wonder whether he pulled the knife to actually kill my father or to convey a message to those who were baying for his blood. I don’t know. We were consumed by madness. That era is over. We can now all live together as good neighbors.

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