An interview with Sudheendra Kulkarni

Mumbai 14/10/2015: Picture to go with Satish Nandgaonkar's story. Chairman of Observer Research Foundation, Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai on October 14, 2015. Photo: Vivek Bendre   | Photo Credit: VIVEK BENDRE

Sudheendra Kulkarni, former Vajpayee aide who led the BJP poll campaign in 2004, and chairperson of the international policy think tank, Observer Research Foundation, talks to Satish Nandgaonkar in the aftermath of the black paint attack by the Shiv Sena on Monday. Mr. Kulkarni shares his insights on why Shiv Sena was wrong in its actions, why there is a need for dialogue with Pakistan, the need for de-villianising Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and how the pages of shared history between the two nations could have the seeds of a real Indo-Pak rapproachement

Shiv Sena accused you of being a Pak agent and rolling out the red carpet for a Pakistani ex-minister when the Pakistan hasn’t done enough to ensure the trial in that country completes smoothly. In hindsight, do you feel you should not have invited Kasuri to Mumbai since 26/11 wounds are still fresh in minds of Mumbaikars?

I fully stand by my decision to invite Kasuri to Mumbai. Mumbaikars have shown a strong sense of solidarity for the cause for which he was invited here. They have firmly rejected the Shiv Sena on the right to have freedom of expression and an event for promotion of Indo-Pak dialogue and normalisation of our relations. I think my decision has been vindicated in my own conscience, and very spirited show of solidarity by people of Mumbai despite the threats by the Shiv Sena.

You had met Uddhav Thackeray and tried to dissuade Shiv Sena from disrupting the book launch. I believe you also offered the book launch platform to Sena to voice their point of view peacefully. They didn’t listen to you? Does the Shiv Sena have animosity towards you?

I told him that I share your concerns, your anger with Pakistan over terrorism because terrorists operating from a neighbouring country and killing people here is not acceptable. And Mumbai has been the worst victim of this terrorism. There is no compromise with it. I said primarily this is the responsibility of the govt, and security forces to counter this, but we cannot have a situation where no Indian goes to Pak, and no Pakistani comes to India. India and Pak have not cut off diplomatic relations. I told him that you are part of the government and our PM has been meeting Nawaz Sharif, and their meeting produced a joint statement in Russia which was a productive and constructive statement.

Shiv Sena attacked Chief Minister Fadnavis accusing him of bring Maharashtra into disrepute allowing Kasuri’s book launch in Mumbai. Your comment?

Sena’s argument that government should not have given permission for Kasuri’s book launch is ridiculous. This book was released in Delhi with Manmohan Singh, and Advaniji present. If Indian government does not have an objection to this programme in the national capital, how can a state government ban the programme in Mumbai. It is a ridiculous demand that just goes to show that here is an organisation that thinks that it can demand anything.

Shiv Sena also accused Kasuri of making anti-India statements, engaging with the Hurriyat Conference and talking to Kashmiri separatists against India’s wishes. Kasuri is also now aligned with Imran Khan’s party which has a even stronger line on Kashmir than Nawaz Sharif.

Let’s leave aside Kasuri’s political affiliation in Pakistan for the time being. Let’s come to another contentious issue about Pakistani high commissioners meeting the Hurriyat. I have a different point of view from the government on this. Prime Minister made a historic decision to invite all Saarc leaders for his swearing-in. What an inspiring gesture it was and it sent such a positive message that the largest country wants to take the entire region along. But, when the time came for foreign secretary-level talks, they were cancelled because Pak High Commissioners met some Hurriyat leaders. Later, more recently the meeting between National Security Advisors was cancelled on the same issue. I think India is taking a needlessly rigid stand, unhelpful stand on the Hurriyat issue. If the Hurriyat leaders meet Pakistanis, Pakistan is not going to gain much, and India is not going to lose much. If anything, ultimately it may benefit the peace process.

When I was in the PMO, the government engaged with the Hurriyat Leaders in a very constructive way. Advaniji held several meetings with Hurriyat leaders and they met the PM also. This was close to the 2004 elections. These HC leaders who started off being anti-India, they were very happy with the dialogue. In fact some of them wished the BJP to come back to power. One Kashmiri leader said Vajpayeeji should contest from Kashmir. So it’s all a question of gaining confidence through dialogue.

Kasuri has explained in the book that ultimately we need a solution to the Kashmir issue. The Kashmir issue cannot be resolved through military means. So where lies the solution? Now, a creative solution has been attempted, this is what Kasuri talks in the book, when Dr. Manmohan Singh was the PM. This solution, or some solution modified by the Modi government, ultimately has to be acceptable to the people of Kashmir. For India to say if Pakistanis talk to Hurriyat, the talks are off is an unreasonable stand, and sooner Indians realise this it is better.

Shiv Sena says India shouldn’t talk to Pakistan till they shun terror. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj also said the same thing recently at the UN.

Both India and Pakistan are claiming in their respective countries that their jawans and civilians are being killed by the other side. Therefore, it is necessary for two governments to ensure peace and tranquility on the border. In Europe, there are no soliders deployed on France-Germany border. That is the point they have reached after having fought two World Wars and much longer wars before World War I. Is it not necessary for far sighted leaders to envision such a future for India and Pakistan. Our PM said before his China visit that not a single shot has been fired on India-China border. There is peace and tranquility on the border. If we can achieve this with China, why not Pakistan? We have dispute with China too but there is peace. Why can’t we have similar tranquility with Pakistan which is beneficial to both.

What Kasuri has captured in his book is this process where some progress was made, and I believe that it is necessary for Indian people to know what kind of dialogue took place between the two governments, what were the contours of the solution on the Kashmir issue which was so close for it to be inked. Now that there is a new government, it is also necessary for the BJP to know what was the framework that was already evolved. After all, this process was begun by Atal Behari Vajapyeeji. So if Modiji knows this is what has been accomplished, he can re-evaluate it, and if he feels it is good, then he can carry it forward. That is a suggestion that Kasuri has made in the book. So we felt that all these things need to be debated. The Shiv Sena doesn’t believe in this kind of things, but we have done our duty.

Having worked with Vajpayee’s team, what difference to you find between approaches of two Atalji, and the present PM?

Modiji’s approach is a still evolving approach. Having called off secretary level talks, the two PMs met and it surprised both countries and the world that they came up with a constructive statement in Russia, which is a very good sign. When PM goes to Islamabad next year for the Saarc summit, they should make such good preparation that it becomes a great visit. I mean it will be a personal triumph for Narendra Modi.

Now Pakistanis are saying no talks based on conditions and we are losing the opportunity for meaningful talks. We are only talking about how to have talks. If we can make a distinction between the essential and the inessential, then we will focus on the essential, and we will make the compromises on the inessentials, and the process or sequences – Kashmir first, terrorism first or discussing both together etc. India, Pak have been talking for decades. For the sake of future generations, lets now show some statesmanship. Let’s build on what has already been discussed on numberless occasions and come to some conclusion. And convince the people of India as well as Pakistan that this is the best workable solution and let’s go ahead.

Now the people need breakthroughs. Breakthrough require boldness in thinking and boldness in action. And Narendra Modi, with the massive mandate he has, should use the mandate to show boldness in his Pakistan policy.

There are some really good openings which can be seized. We have to accept that Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and many Pakistanis are worried about this fact. We are absolutely right in saying Pakistan is taking action against terrorists crossing over Af-Pak, but not taking action against terrorists crossing over into Kashmir. This can be put across in a very convincing way, and Pakistan has to accept this. A common approach by India and Pakistan is possible on the issue of Kashmir. Manmohan Sinh’s backchannel negotiators have discussed something. The BJP should not outright reject it and they should examine it objectively, see what is workable, and move forward on that basis. Otherwise, we will come back to square one.

Why did you choose to take Mr. Kasuri to Mani Bhavan?

Mr. Kasuri has said in his book, and I complement Kasuri for saying this, we have mutilated history teaching in India-Pakistan, and more so in Pakistan. They have a distorted view of history. They know nothing of the contribution of the common civilisation, of the contribution of Hinduism, of Buddhism or contribution of a great person like Gandhi who fasted for Hindu-Muslim unity; who demanded whatever is due to Pakistan after Partition should be given to Pakistan. In fact that was one of the immediate reasons for his assassination. His assassin believed that he was pro-Muslim and Pro-Pakistani. So, Kasuri says in his book people do not know about this. They believe Gandhi said one thing, and did another thing, that he injected Hinduism into the freedom movement. They only have a negative portrayal of Gandhi. He was very happy to visit Mani Bhavan. He was fascinated to hear the story of Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to Mani Bhavan from it’s director Usha Thacker. Martin Luther King Jr visited Mani Bhavan as a guest of Nehru, and was staying in a five star hotel. But when he visited Mani bhavan, he said he would like to stay there. He said I am feeling vibrations of Gandhi in this place, and they had to make makeshift arrangements for the couple to stay there.

Your personal interest in Jinnah prompted you to take Kasuri to Jinnah House?

It is not possible to enter Jinnah House, but it is of great emotional value to Pakistanis. At Jinnah House, Gandhi took the initiative and held talks with Jinnah in Sept 1944 for 18 days. He was trying to convince Jinnah not to partition India on the lines of two national theory, on the basis of religion. They not only had talks for 18 days, they exchanged letters which are of immense historic value. The letters were published as a booklet by Rajgopalachari, who had devised the formula which was known as the Gandhi-Rajaji formula for Pakistan. Jinnah, ofcourse, rejected the formula, and history changed course. But, if Jinnah had accepted the formula, we would have had a different Pakistan, and different kind of India-Pakistan relations. The irony is later on Jinnah says the same things. One of the things Gandhiji proposed was let there be two nations, but some things like the defence be commonly formulated. In 1944, Jinnah doesn’t accept it. Subsequently, he proposed the same things.

I told Kasuri that Jinnah is a much maligned person in Indian history, he is only a villain in the eyes of Indians. He was a very different kind of personality. Jinnah, after the creation of Pakistan, he tells the first Indian high commissioner, Sriprakasha, tell Jawaharlal that I want to go back to Bombay and live in my house. He was so attached to the mansion that he had built in Bombay. This is after the creation of Pakistan, which meant that he did not visualise the kind of partition that we have had, the kind of invisible wall that we have built. That was not Jinnah’s understanding of India-pakistan relations nor that of Gandhiji. In fact, Gandhiji wanted to go Pakistan to convey the message of Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan harmony, but he was assassinated and could not go. These are pages of history that we must know.

In Jinnah’s speech in Pakistan constituent assembly on Aug 11, 1947, three days before Pakistan’s independence, he talked about Hindus Muslims, Parsis, Christians all finding an equal place in new Pakistan. So we need to devillianise Jinnah. We have also distorted history like Pakistan has. As a result, both India and Pakistan developed prejudices. We have to take unprejudiced look at history so that we can create an unprejudiced future. That’s why I think Kasuri going to Jinnah house and Mani Bhavan is of great significance, and we should persist with encouraging more and more of Pakistanis to know the greatness of Gandhi and other Indian leaders. Similarly, we should take a relook at Jinnah and other personalities.

You are also soon releasing an interesting book which is relevant to Indo-Pak relations?

I am going to publish August Voices – What they said on 14-15 August 1947 and its relevance for India-Pakistan rapproachement. The book will have an explanatory essay written by me. The book brings together what Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sri Aurobindo, Anand Coomarswamy, Maulana Azad, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Swami Ranganathananda said and wrote on the day Pakistan and India became independent. This is a heterogenous group -- some of these were political leaders, some were visionaries, philosophers, poets. We need to take a relook. My essay explains why the seeds of India-Pakistan rapproachement lie in what this heterogenous group. There is an interesting episode. On Aug 14, Pakistan Independence Day, Aug 15 was Indian Independence, and Jinnah backs a proposal to unfurl both Indian and Pakistani flags together. So, should we look at this aspect of Jinnah? We must show the courage to look at history truthfully and Mumbai has played a glorious role in India’s freedom movement. Mumbai was the karmabhoomi of both Gandhi and Jinnah and we must celebrate this. Mumbai can bring India and Pakistan closer with its Bollywood, many other things. Not with this narrow minded, sectarian, chauvinist ideology of the Shiv Sena. Or its muslim counterparts in Pakistan.

But your attempts to re-look at Jinnah’s legacy during Advaniji Pakistan tour in 2005 had not gone down well with the BJP and the Sangh Parivar?

It is part ignorance, and part prejudice, and part refusal to have an open mind to history. Look at this irony, people talk about akhand bharat, and on the other hand they say it’s good partition happened. Our objective should be not to engage in academic discussion, that we should approach a day when there is peace between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and whole of South Asia. How do we go there? History can be our guide, and therefore we should learn history truthfully, know what mistakes we committed and what honest efforts we made.

The attack on you happened on Monday, and was widely condemned across party lines and on social media. Advaniji also unequivocally condemned the attack. But, Prime Minister’s statement describing as the attack on you as “unfortunate” came only today (Wednesday). Don’t you think the PM should have condemned such incidents more strongly?

It is good that the PM has, belatedly at least, made this comment on dadri incident. I personally consider what happened in Dadri as far more important than what happened to me. It is uncivilised and such things should never happen. The atmosphere that creates such incidents, that atmosphere needs to be changed. It is the responsibility of the PM as the leader of the nation. The leader of the nation must speak in favour of tolerance. And I am happy that he has done so. President and Vice President have made statements that no Indian irrespective of their identity is discriminated and should feel secure.

We must unitedly strive to make India a tolerant nation. Tolerance for even what we do not agree with - that is the heart of democracy. I also want to say that issues like these should not be politicised. In politicising them, we do not serve the purpose. Then it becomes a political tug of war. Let’s all political parties should not base their politics on issues that divide people and the party in power has greater responsibility that other parties.

Do you see a paradox in Prime Minister Modi’s strides on economy, diplomacy, Digital India, Swachh Bharat and what the right wing fringe of the BJP and Sangh Parivar?

It is quite obvious that there is a certain dissonance in the state goals of the PM and what some elements in the BJP and the parivar have been trying to push. The PM must set the agenda for the nation and unite the people around that agenda. PM can become a unifying force for a common agenda which pushes the welfare of all the people, then it is possible to create a greater positive energy to turn the agenda into performance. Unfortunately electoral considerations come in the way of leaders and parties even though they want that to happen. However, I believe that no single party can be singled out for this. We have all got into a certain political culture where united action is becoming more and more difficult. This needs to be changed.

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