An unfortunate fallout of the terrorist attacks on September 11 has been the increasing tendency within New Delhi’s policy-making establishment to see things in black or white. That is the way Was- hington’s present neo-conservative rulers see the world — either you’re with us or you’re against us — an attitude fuelled by America’s media, which is largely unquestioning when it comes to questions of terrorism. Since such an attitude has increasingly become policy in South Block, barring few notable exceptions, it is not surprising that speeches and statements by key members of the Saudi royal family on a visit to Pakistan last fortnight have not made policy-makers in New Delhi sit up and take notice.
From India’s point of view, the two-day visit to Pakistan of the Saudi crown prince, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, can only be described as historic. It is regrettable that the public focus of the visit in India has been confined to the alleged nuclear deal between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and now, on the bugging of the crown prince’s guest suite in Punjab House by Pervez Musharraf’s hatchetmen. At a joint press conference with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, was asked by India-baiting journalists what his kingdom, whose monarch is the guardian of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, intended to do about the “oppression” of India’s Muslim minority.
The usually soft-spoken Prince Saud tried to be polite and humoured the questioners at first, but a point came when the suave scion of the al Saud family, one of the longest serving foreign ministers anywhere, could stand no more of such India-baiting by the Pakistanis. “I would hate to think of the Muslims in India as a minority, coming from a country that has less Muslims than the Muslims of India,” he said. “So these Muslims are not tattered in the wind”.
But the Pakistanis refused to take a hint and let go of the issue. When they persisted with this line of questioning, Prince Saud did some plain-speaking. “They are people with substance,” he said of Indian Muslims, “They are people with courage and with enough of that courage to stand up for their interests by themselves and not to wait for the help of others.” While Kasuri sat red-faced by his side, Saud went on to say that Indian Muslims needed no help either from Saudi Arabia or from Pakistan, the self-appointed champion of India’s minorities.
Later that night, a speech delivered by the crown prince at a state banquet hosted by Musharraf was memorable for what he said between the lines. Abdullah, who is not known for making speeches either within his kingdom or without, said one of two urgent tasks before Muslims in every Muslim country “is the establishment of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a healthy and sound base”.
Pakistanis at the banquet must have had a sense of déjà vu when Abdullah said that “dialogue cannot be conducted with bullets”. The words were taken out of the mouth of the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The crown prince did not mention Kashmir in this context, but in a visit which was dominated by Islamabad’s obsession with India, there was no need to do so explicitly.
He said that “our relations to non-Muslims should not be based on disinformation, misinterpretation, or false slogans, but on God’s eternal dictate” to deal justly and kindly even with those from other religions who fought against you and even displaced you. There was more to come the following day. It had been decided in advance of Abdullah’s visit that there would be a joint statement at the end of the two-day trip by the Saudis. For Musharraf, whose back is increasingly approaching the wall, it was absolutely essential to placate Pakistan’s religious constituency that an impression should be created that there was not an inch of space between Musharraf and Abdullah as the two stood together in support of each other.
The Saudis, easy-going as they normally are with perceptions, were willing to go along. But the joint statement hit a bump when it came to Kashmir. The Pakistanis wanted explicit criticism of India for its failure to adhere to United Nations security council resolutions on Kashmir. The foreign secretary, Riaz Khokar, assumed that since the Saudis were once active at the UN in the Organization of Islamic Conference’s contact group on Kashmir — which is now virtually defunct — they would have no problems with it. But what Abdullah said in his banquet speech stunned the Pakistani foreign office.
He praised Musharraf alright for his efforts for peace in the subcontinent but supported “a plan of action to finish the problem of Jammu and Kashmir by way of negotiations...that safeguards the legitimate rights of the people of Kashmir and avoids destructive war between India and Pakistan”. There was no mention of UN resolutions!
The negotiations which followed produced a curious formula for resolving Kashmir. In a single paragraph of their joint statement, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia together supported both the UN resolutions on Kashmir and the idea of bilateral dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad to end the dispute. “The Pakistani leaders brief- ed the crown prince on the current political and military environment in the south Asian sub-continent”, the joint statement said, “The two sides agreed on the need for the immediate resolution of the Kashmir dispute through negotiations, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions”. In the same breath, the statement said that “they emphasised the need for sustained dialogue between Pakistan and India to resolve all outstanding issues, leading to normalisation of the regional situation in south Asia”.
If there is not enough appreciation in India of the significance of what Prince Saud said at his press conference and what Crown Prince Abdullah said in his banquet speech, it is because lost opportunities in Indo-Saudi relations in at least a decade have obscured what is possible for New Delhi to do with Riyadh. Saud’s assertion in Islamabad on Indian Muslims is as significant as the 1994 speech in Lucknow of the then Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, extolling Indian secularism and declaring his faith in the strength of India’s constitutional process to safeguard India’s Muslims.
Rafsanjani’s declaration in Lucknow, of all places, was so unambiguous that it upset Mulayam Singh Yadav, who feared that the statement would take its toll on his vote-bank and his main constituency of the Uttar Pradesh Muslims. If only India had invested in Riyadh half its efforts in Teheran and Ankara to wean both Iran and Turkey away from Pakistan, Indo-Saudi relations would have changed beyond recognition by now. Unfortunately, successive prime ministers and external affairs ministers in New Delhi have viewed the kingdom primarily as a gateway for Haj pilgrims — a convenient way to keep Indian Muslim leaders in good humour and their vote-bank intact.
It was hoped that this would change after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power: after all, the BJP has no use for the Muslim vote-bank. Things did change, but nowhere on a scale that was needed to transform ties between Riyadh and New Delhi the way P.V. Narasimha Rao changed Indo-Iranian equations or the way L.K. Advani transformed Indo-Turkish relations. Jaswant Singh visited Riyadh as external affairs minister in January 2001, but there has been precious little by way of follow-up. Before Singh’s trip, a visit of any significance to the kingdom was by Rao’s finance minister, Manmohan Singh, but that visit was seven years before Singh included Riyadh in his travel plans.
It may come as a surprise to many Indians that after Vajpayee became prime minister, the Saudis have, in fact, tried to expand political relations with India in a way that matters to New Delhi. Shortly before Singh’s trip to Riyadh, the Saudis sent out clear signals that they wished to use their influence and authority as guardians of the Holy Islamic shrines to moderate the situation in Kashmir. A few months before Singh was to originally visit the kingdom — his travel was subsequently postponed from late 2000 to January 2001 — the Saudis got together some major players on Kashmir from Pakistan and gave them a talking to on the need to arrive at a peaceful compromise on Kashmir.
Indeed, as a result of these Saudi efforts, some contacts were established between those who could influence the course of events in Kashmir and the then home secretary, Kamal Pande. The Saudis also tried to play a positive role in making the ceasefire, announced by the Vajpayee government, meaningful. A little known aspect of the aborted efforts earlier this year for a settlement of the Babri Masjid dispute was the crucial role behind the scenes played by the Saudis. It would be inappropriate to dwell on its details since the settlement efforts are likely to be revived at some stage, notwithstanding the setbacks it received a few months ago.
There is a perception in sections of the South Block that the Saudi efforts for moderation in Kashmir is the result of changes in American policies in south Asia and a direct consequence of what the United States of America did during the Kargil conflict. Nothing could be farther than the truth. If anything, changes in attitude towards India in Teheran and Ankara, two prominent Muslim capitals, have played a part. But more than anything else, it is India’s new image as an emerging power, economically and otherwise, which has changed the outlook in Riyadh.
Some of the changes have become imperatives for the Saudis after September 11 and the worry that they can no longer take an alliance with the US for granted. India ought to cash in on the opportunities that Saudi Arabia offers as a result of all this. There could be no better signal for change in bilateral relations than those sent out by Saud and Abdullah, significantly, while they were in Pakistan. But unfortunately, the view of Riyadh in influential parts of Raisina Hill continues to be either black or white with no shades of grey.