Indian Decade

Khar and the Shadow of 1971

Hina Rabbani Khar may be free of some of the baggage that other Pakistani leaders have brought to talks with India.

Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's recently appointed foreign minister, drew a great deal of media attention during the foreign minister-level deliberations between India and Pakistan late last month.

There were a number of reasons for this. First, she is the first woman to hold this position in Pakistan. Second, her youth (she’s 34) was a remarkable contrast with her Indian counterpart, S M Krishna, who at 79 is also the oldest foreign minister in the world. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the media didn’t fail to point out Khar's fashion choices (although to be fair to her she was quick to point out that her priority was her job, not her appearance).

Overall, there wasn’t anything particularly surprising in the talks, although as Rajeev noted there were some measures taken to bolster the movement of goods and people across the Line of Control. It was also refreshing to note that even though nothing substantial came out of the discussions, both foreign ministers were guarded in their choice of words and resisted posturing.

Still, it wasn’t a faultless visit, and Khar's meeting with Hurriyat leaders certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the Indian government and media. Some have said the move was aimed at keeping the hardliners in Pakistan on side, since the ‘K word’ wasn’t mentioned during the course of the talks.

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It’s tempting to be cynical over Khar’s visit, and to note that this isn’t the first time that Pakistan has extended an olive branch to India. And every time a Pakistani leader has done so, they’ve faced the wrath of hardliners and the military, which has then forced a U-turn. But the latest moves deserve a closer look.

The meeting with Hurriyat leaders was likely carried out with the sole intention of ensuring that Khar doesn’t instantly get labelled as a sell-out back home, as has happened with some leaders in the past. This suggests that she is a savvy politician who doesn’t want to antagonize hardliners or the army. In fact, in an interview with one Indian TV station, when asked how much of a free hand she has, Khar was quick to respond that her role in framing Pakistan's foreign policy was equivalent to that of her Indian counterpart in framing India's foreign policy. Khar also admitted that foreign policy can’t be made in isolation from domestic politics.

The second thing to note was her emphasis on looking to the future and not harping too much on the past. This sentiment is especially significant because Khar happens to be the first politician born after the 1971 war between India and Pakistan to hold this position in Pakistan. Interestingly, none of the post-’71 members of the Rahul Gandhi youth brigade hold any positions that allow them to directly impact the country’s foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Being from this generation doesn’t mean Khar is completely free of historical baggage as far as India is concerned, but the burden of the past still may have been lightened significantly. This is important as the Pakistani military has exploited the 1971 war often enough to have influenced public opinion. Indeed, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that 1971 sometimes overshadows 1947 in the anti-India discourse in Pakistan. This isn’t surprising because while partition resulted in acrimony between both countries, many refugees had bitter-sweet feelings vis-à-vis their erstwhile homes, and partition didn’t completely disrupt linkages as happened following the wars of 1965 and 1971.

It’s time that in the context of Indo-Pakistan relations, we genuinely leave the bad memories of 1971 behind us. It’s a herculean task, but necessary if we are to secure a harmonious relationship. One way of blunting this painful piece of history could be the giving of a greater role to promising young politicians in both countries. In India, too, 1971 shouldn’t be utilized to instil false nationalism as was done by Rahul Gandhi during the Uttar Pradesh election of 2007.

Obviously, there are numerous other issues that have exacerbated distrust and animosity between the two countries, such as Kashmir, water and terrorism. But for all of these problems, the only solution is for the two countries to sit across the table from each other. And individuals less constrained by the burdens of past rancour may be better placed to negotiate in a more dispassionate and constructive manner.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.