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The bus ride that almost helped Vajpayee, Sharif rewrite history of South Asia

While the Lahore bus diplomacy failed in retrospect, what Atal Bihari Vajpayee achieved in just over 24 hours in Pakistan was utterly unprecedented.

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On 23 May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi won the most decisive mandate by any incumbent since Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in 1971.

Just three months before, in February, in response to a terrorist attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian Air Force crossed the Line of Control and conducted air strikes in the town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. This strike was a central theme of the BJP’s re-election campaign.

Nearly seven decades ago, in 1947, militia from the same Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region, then known as the North West Frontier Province, dressed in plainclothes, conducted a surprise invasion on Jammu and Kashmir. Just a few months after Independence, this invasion would kick-start the protracted India-Pakistan conflict centred on Kashmiri territory.

What connects the two events? Twenty-one years ago, in May 1998, both India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. Over the next 12 months, these two rivals went from making one of the most significant peace overtures to fighting the world’s first and only hot conflict between two nuclear powers.

These 12 months in 1998-99 transformed the India-Pakistan rivalry. Nuclear weapons have since ensured a certain deterrence, and demonstrated that they may not be used in the resolution of political disagreements. But even seven decades after Partition, the rivalry with Pakistan is a substantial vote-fetcher in Indian politics.

This is ThePrint’s PastForward. Through a series of interviews, research and reporting, the aim is to recreate The Year That Changed South Asia. This is the second of a three-part story that begins with India’s nuclear tests in May 1998 and ends with the Kargil War in 1999. But its origins and impact are not limited to these 12 months.

New Delhi: On 19 February 1999, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee boarded the inaugural bus to Lahore at Amritsar, and in about 30 minutes, reached the India-Pakistan border at Attari-Wagah.

“In 30 seconds, Vajpayee crossed a time zone and gained 30 minutes. For the two countries, however, the gain was more tangible. India and Pakistan, which nine months ago seemed to be on the verge of triggering a nuclear arms race in South Asia, had crossed a time warp,” journalists Swapan Dasgupta and Harinder Baweja wrote in India Today.

In the next 26 hours on 20-21 February 1999, Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, would make a valiant effort to rewrite the history of South Asia. Vajpayee visited the Minar-e-Pakistan — a monument within shouting distance of Aurangzeb’s Badshahi Masjid and Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi — which commemorates the foundation of the Islamic republic, thereby forever laying to rest concerns fuelled by the BJP’s political predecessor, the Jana Sangh, that India was really ‘Akhand Bharat’ and would never recognise the existence of Pakistan.

Vajpayee and Sharif signed the ‘Lahore Declaration’, and in a moving speech at the Governor’s House in Lahore, Vajpayee said it was the destiny of both countries to end five decades of hostility and move towards peace and good-neighbourly feelings.

But the road to Vajpayee’s Lahore trip was far from smooth. Just nine months before, in May 1998, both India and Pakistan had successfully conducted nuclear tests. South Asia’s gravest security conflict now featured the potential use of nuclear weapons. In the span of a few weeks, South Asia emerged as the world’s nuclear hotspot, and drew the attention of all major global powers.

Also read PastForward Part 1: How Pokhran nuclear tests kicked off a year that changed India-Pakistan ties forever

There was tremendous pressure on both India and Pakistan to reopen their diplomatic channels and establish the basic protocols pertaining nuclear behaviour.

It was in this global setting that Vajpayee and Sharif made one the boldest bids for lasting peace.

But there was more to these diplomatic manoeuvres. “Vajpayee’s bus yatra (trip) was as much about Indo-Pakistan diplomacy as about Vajpayee the politician… He was a crafty old man, who conducted nuclear tests to demonstrate India’s might, but at heart he was a peacenik,” former R&AW chief A.S. Dulat told ThePrint.

Sharif’s interest in a peaceful solution

The origins of the Vajpayee-Sharif peace overture lie in 1996, when Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister and Sharif was the leader of the opposition. Pakistan was set to hold general elections in a few months.

At this time, Frank Wisner, the US Ambassador to India, was visiting Pakistan and called on Sharif. During their meeting, Sharif asked Wisner whether there was a way to break the Indo-Pakistan logjam. To this, Wisner replied that there wasn’t, unless “you guys give up on your maximalist positions [on Kashmir]”.

During his electoral campaign, Sharif did exactly that. He announced that he would hold intense discussions with India on Kashmir, and try to improve the country’s relations with India.

After the campaign, Sharif told Sartaj Aziz, who would later become his foreign minister: “Sartaj sahib mai gal kar di (I have said it).” Effectively, Sharif had tied his own hands by declaring that he would try to negotiate with India. Sharif won the elections and returned to power.

In Delhi, the 13-day Vajpayee government had given way to a government led first by H.D. Deve Gowda, and then Inder Kumar Gujral. Gujral had been a refugee of Partition, his roots lay on the other side in Pakistan, and he believed that as the much larger nation, India should be generous with its smaller neighbours. After a meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Male in the Maldives in May 1997, India and Pakistan had launched a comprehensive dialogue at the foreign secretary level to discuss terrorism and Jammu & Kashmir, while six more working groups dealt with other contentious issues between the two countries.

The Gujral government fell by the end of the year. By May 1998, India-Pakistan were testing nuclear weapons.

The Sharif-Vajpayee negotiations

Once Vajpayee came back to power in March 1998, he immediately authorised a nuclear test. And Pakistan responded with tit-for-tat nuclear tests. Following the tests, there was tremendous international pressure on both India and Pakistan to reopen their diplomatic channels.

“We had to get rid of that international pressure. And what better way to tell the world that … ‘okay I am going to meet Nawaz’ … We don’t need all the international mediation. We will manage our affairs with Pakistan,” said G. Parthasarthy, the then-Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan said of Vajpayee’s thought process on the issue.

But Vajpayee’s road to Pakistan wasn’t so straightforward.

In September 1998, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Vajpayee had invited Sharif for an informal chat. Only a few months after the two states tested nuclear weapons, the aim of the meeting was to establish normalcy in Indo-Pakistani relations. Moreover, the discussion centred on possible confidence building measures (CBMs) between the two countries.

The idea of starting a Delhi-Lahore bus service had been mooted a few times during various Indo-Pak track two dialogues. During the New York meeting, Sharif talked about how he had driven to Delhi in 1982 in his own car to attend the Asian Games. Upon hearing Sharif, it was instantly suggested that an India-Pakistan bus service be started.

According to the book India at Risk, penned by then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, it was also during these discussions that an idea was floated that Vajpayee should visit Lahore, and Sharif would give him a grand welcome. Vivek Katju, who was then heading the Pakistan desk at Delhi’s Ministry of External Affairs, whispered into Jaswant Singh’s ear, “Suggest going by bus from Amritsar.”

On Katju’s advice, Singh promptly suggested that Vajpayee should go on a bus to Lahore. Both Vajpayee and Sharif instantly liked the idea and it was approved right away.

However, just executive approval was not sufficient. Over the next few months, from September 1998 to January 1999, intense diplomatic negotiations would take place. Often these negotiations were stuck and delayed owing to complex inter-agency wrangling in both countries. Through this tiresome bureaucratic process, the idea of Vajpayee visiting Pakistan had been lost. The plan now was that Vajpayee would flag the bus service from Amritsar and Sharif would do the same from Lahore.

Just a few weeks before the bus service was supposed to be inaugurated, Sharif called up Vajpayee and asked him: “How can you return from my doorstep without visiting me?”

Vajpayee instantly accepted Sharif’s invitation, though there was no public announcement regarding his trip to Lahore. The public acceptance to Sharif’s invitation would involve an interesting sub-plot.

Sharif agreed to give an interview to Shekhar Gupta, then Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, and now Founder and Editor-in-Chief at ThePrint. Sharif told Gupta that during the interview, he would officially invite Vajpayee to visit Pakistan in the inaugural bus. Subsequently, Gupta checked with Vajpayee whether he should go ahead with Sharif’s proposed plan. Vajpayee gave the green light.

In a long interview, Sharif extended the official invitation, and soon after, during an interaction with media, Vajpayee publicly accepted Sharif’s invitation.

Also read: Outing a personal secret as a lesson for Imran: Featuring Vajpayee, Nawaz & a bit of me

Vajpayee goes to Lahore

On 19 February, Vajpayee boarded the bus from Amritsar to Lahore via the Attari-Wagah border. Accompanying him were several Punjabi and Urdu-speaking eminent persons, including journalist Kuldip Nayar, Punjab politician Parkash Singh Badal, classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai, actors Dev Anand and Shatrughan Sinha and poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar.

On crossing the border, Vajpayee was received by Sharif and his entourage at Wagah. The reception featured a 21-gun salute, a guard of honour presenting arms, and national anthems of both countries. The absence of any of Pakistan’s military chiefs was noted and widely reported.

“This is a defining moment in South Asian history and we will be able to rise to the challenge. It is with a sense of elation I found myself on Pakistani soil after a gap of 21 years,” announced Vajpayee.

After the border reception, the Indian delegation was flown to Lahore. Reflecting on the helicopter ride, Jaswant Singh noted that the governor of Punjab was travelling with him. Knowing Singh’s background, the governor asked him if he was a good pilot.

“And when I had somewhat non-committally shrugged my shoulders in response, he had added: ‘Well, I am philosophical; I leave everything in God’s hands’.

“‘So were we, were we not?’ I had responded inwardly,” wrote Singh.

No one knew the possible outcome of this diplomatic initiative. But the same Vajpayee who put the nuclear tests on his manifesto a year ago had now taken a massive leap of faith into the unknown. Though, in retrospect, Vajpayee’s efforts went in vain, but what he managed to achieve in Lahore over the next 24 hours was utterly unprecedented.

Two significant incidents

Over the next 24 hours, Vajpayee attended a state banquet at the Lahore Fort, signed the Lahore Declaration with Sharif, visited the Minar-e-Pakistan, and gave one of the most heart-wrenching speeches at the Governor’s House.

Two of these incidents deserve to be recounted here.

Vajpayee not only expressed his desire, but also insisted that he be taken to Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument where the Muslim League passed its 23 March 1940 resolution to create a separate state for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. For an Indian leader inculcated in the traditions of Hindu nationalism, which rejects the two-nation theory, this was an immensely significant move.

Dulat said he later learnt that the Pakistani government feared if Vajpayee might say something odd about Pakistan’s creation or existence — something that might strike an unpleasant note.

Sharif, though reluctantly, accompanied Vajpayee to the Minar, and to everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be the single biggest highlight of the visit. Vajpayee wrote in the visitors’ book at the monument: “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt, India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.”

Speaking at a civic reception held at the Governor’s House, Vajpayee again delivered the same message. In his signature tone, he told the audience that when he returns to India, people will ask him, “Kya aap Pakistan par mohar lagane gaye the? (Did you go to Pakistan to certify it)?

Lekin Pakistan ko kisi ki mohar ki zaroorat nahin hai (But Pakistan does not need any one’s endorsement),” remarked Vajpayee. This received a long standing ovation, reportedly lasting five minutes.

In the same speech, Vajpayee went on to quote from his own poem: “Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge.”

The trip was just over a day long, but in many ways, Vajpayee covered an unprecedented amount of distance in the India-Pakistan relationship.

The unknown aspect: Kargil

As mentioned before, several news reports talked about how none of the three Pakistani military service chiefs were present at the border to receive Vajpayee. But they were present at the Governor’s House to greet him once he arrived in Lahore.

Pakistan’s army chief at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, did not salute Vajpayee. Gen. V.P. Malik, the then Indian Army chief, noted that at this point, the Pakistan Army was already invading India’s Kargil sector. By February 1999, Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry had made deep incursions into Indian territory and set up camps. Given the ongoing invasion, it might have been strange for Musharraf to engage Vajpayee in the rightful manner.

The day Vajpayee left for India, Musharraf boarded a helicopter and flew to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Musharraf wanted to signal to his military not to fall in the trap of the peace-making Lahore Declaration, and continue with the on-going operation in Kargil.

Also read: How Modi speaks a different language with Pakistan than what Vajpayee did

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  1. They key to thinking about the Lahore declaration is Kargil. For Pakistan, peace talks are simply a cover for a continuing war. How many times do we have to be fooled that until Pakistan takes irreversible steps towards peace? Words are meaningless.

  2. Peace between India and Pakistan will come. Perhaps not in our lifetimes. The subcontinent will not realise its full economic potential till that happens. The fate of one and a half – actually not far short of two – billion people requires statesmanship and courage of the sort PM ABV displayed.

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