Nirupama Subramanian

ISLAMABAD: In a sign that behind the hard talk on both sides a quiet thaw may be taking place between India and Pakistan, the Inter Services Intelligence chief attended an iftar hosted by the Indian High Commission here.

Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha was among the earliest guests to arrive at the maximum-security five-star Serena hotel. He stayed nearly 45 minutes, chit-chatting with guests.

This was the first time that a serving military official, let alone the head of the country’s most important intelligence agency with a well-known dislike for India, has attended an Indian event here.

Lt.-Gen. Pasha’s presence at the iftar comes some two months after his meeting with the Indian defence advisors posted at the High Commission. The July 3 meeting was in itself a highly unusual development.

Wearing a black sherwani over a white shalwar, the small-built Lt.-Gen. Pasha blended in with the other, mostly Pakistani guests.

Many did not even notice his presence until it was brought to their attention. The guests included former diplomats, military officials, journalists, politicians, lawyers, civil society representatives and businessmen.

‘Positive development’

But everyone agreed it was a highly “positive” development.

“It’s a huge gesture by him,” said the former ISI Director-General, Lt.-Gen. (retd.) Asad Durrani. “A very positive development.”

Another former soldier, Lt.-Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, said it was an indication that India-Paksitan relations were not as bad they looked.

“It is very symbolic. It means things are improving between the two countries, and there are people who want it to improve in spite of all the tough talk going on.”

“A thaw,” said Aitzaz Ahsan, a Pakistan People’s Party politician.

High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal and other officials preferred to say nothing.

Lt.-Gen. Pasha broke his fast with a bowl of fruit; he was seated at the head table along with Mr. Sabharwal and several other Pakistan guests, including the former Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, ANP leader Hashem Babar and well-known TV anchors Hamid Mir of Geo and Nasim Zehra of Dunya.

Mr. Sabharwal and the ISI chief exchanged nothing more than pleasantries. But Mr. Mir asked Lt.-Gen. Pasha about the India-Pakistan situation.

“Will things improve between the two countries,” Mr. Mir asked.

“Yes, I think they certainly will,” was the ISI chief’s reply.

The anchor said he was sure they would not.

“You seem to be giving a fatwa” was the good-humoured riposte by the ISI chief.

Lt.-Gen. Pasha stayed to offer namaaz after breaking his fast, and left soon after in a flurry of bodyguards and Indian officials who escorted him to the door.

Lt.-Gen. Pasha’s presence was also encouraging for all the other guests at the iftar. At any Indian function, Pakistani intelligence agents standing in a scrum by the gateway take down car numbers of Pakistani guests and either confront them straightway or call them later to ask what they were doing in the company of Indians.

For this reason, many Pakistanis fear attending Indian High Commission events and only the bold show up. Politicians and government servants worried about a black mark from the intelligence agencies are rare species at Indian dinners or other functions. But this time, joshed one journalist, there would be no such problem. “Their boss was here, wasn’t he? So we are safe.”

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