Tuesday, Aug 19, 2003
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By K.K. Katyal
Abid and Abida narrate the story of their stay in Washington in the early 1990s how they established a feeling of togetherness, a good working relationship and, thereby, confused the United States administration. Abid Hussain, an accomplished civil servant, was drafted for the key diplomatic assignment as India's Ambassador to the U.S. around the same time the Nawaz Sharif Government in Pakistan sent Abida Hussain, a dynamic political figure, to Washington to head the mission there. The near-similarity of their names was not the only factor that broke the tradition of adversarial ties between the envoys from New Delhi and Islamabad in Washington (and most other capitals). Both of them were temperamentally attuned to working in a friendly rather than hostile relationship (of course, while representing the conflicting positions of their respective governments on major issues).
Abid Hussain was in Lahore last week after attending the SAFMA-sponsored conference in Islamabad as an expert. Abida Hussain divides her time between Lahore, Islamabad and her hometown of Jhang. She invites the former colleague to dinner at her palatial house in Lahore's posh Gulbarg area. I am among a small number of guests. My credentials are perfectly sound. Jhang was also my hometown for the first 20 years of my life, till 1947, and I had followed with interest Abida's role in politics, while in the Government and in the Opposition. I had met her and her distinguished husband, Fakhar Imam, a former Speaker of the National Assembly and a former federal Minister, on a few occasions.
Her eyes glow and voice becomes heavy with emotion as she reminiscences about their time in Washington: "One day, the Indian Ambassador telephoned me saying he wanted to come to see me. I said that instead I will call on him." That was the starting point of the contacts. The call on him served to bring out the points of contrast the Indian ambassador's house was bigger, had a longer driveway and a lot of pieces of art while the Pakistan envoy's house had bare walls. Shocked at the absence of the sense of culture, she immediately sent for two artists from Pakistan to make good the deficiency.
Their presence in Washington, they recalled, was the subject of lively chatter among diplomats. Who is looking over whom? Their letters at times got misdirected to each other's embassy. Did it create problems for them?
Abid Hussain recollects how their ties confused the U.S. administration. Since the two of them criss-crossed what had been a major dividing line, the administration did not know where to draw the line, he says. Later, however, a U.S. Deputy Secretary of State admitted that most of the problems that arose in the past because of the lack of cordiality between the Indian and Pakistani Ambassadors had disappeared.
At various stages before the Washington assignment, Abida Hussain was at the centre-stage of politics. During the party-less election in the mid-1980s, she broke the tradition of trying to enter the National Assembly through indirect election, as provided for in the Pakistan Constitution. Instead, she decided to try the exclusive male preserve, contested a general seat and won. I happened to be at her house in Jhang (that was her constituency) when the result was announced some 500 maliks and elders from the area had gathered to greet her, hearing her attentively and often bursting into loud applause. Later, she was a senior Minister in the Nawaz Sharif Government for a while, spokesperson of the Cabinet. At the moment, she is on the sidelines. Such are the ironies of politics.
Earlier, our stay in Islamabad was notable, apart from the two-day SAFMA conference, for the meeting with the President, Pervez Musharraf, the lunch hosted by the Prime Minister, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, and dinners by the Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, and the Speaker of the National Assembly, Amir Khan. By far the most significant was the lunch at the Frontier House, hosted by the NWFP Chief Minister, Akram Durani (of the MMA Government). Present were the provincial Ministers, MNAs and Opposition leaders from the province, clerics belonging to both the Brelvi and Deobandi religious schools and last but not the least, Maulana Fazlul Rahman, Opposition leader and secretary-general of the MMA, whose recent visit to India had evoked tremendous interest. Said a senior Pakistani observer: "The lunch is certain to send significant signals to every part of the country signals of peace and amity with India, not of hate or jehad. It is bound to be reflected in the sermons in mosques and discourses in madrasas." The Chief Minister, talking to Indian journalists, drew attention to the presence of Hindu and Sikh members of the NWFP Assembly, saying the minorities there were safe and secure and that the Islamic personal laws did not apply to them. If the Maulana's visit to India threw one set of pleasant pointers, the Frontier House lunch sent a number of equally positive signals.
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