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Hopes of thaw as ISI chief attends Indian envoy's iftar

By Hamid Mir
September 11, 2009 13:42 IST
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One day before the eighth anniversary of 9/11, a very important development in India-Pakistan relations took place in Islamabad. It was the first time that Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate, was a guest at Indian High Commissioner Sharat Sabharwal's iftar dinner at a local hotel in Islamabad.

For the evening the ISI director general wore a Jinnah-style black sherwani, which is the national dress of Pakistan.

General Pasha was not the only top ISI officers present at the dinner; two other ISI officers were present along with their staff. The DG, ISI, and the Indian high commissioner exchanged smiles while sitting at the same table in the presence of the former speaker of the national assembly, Gohar Ayub Khan, whose father General Ayub Khan was Pakistan's ruler in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Sabharwal informed his guests that he was serving in Pakistan for the second time, having served as deputy high commissioner from 1995 to 1999. That was the most difficult period in recent India-Pakistan history because 1999 was the year the Kargil war happened. Those days the ISI kept all those visiting the Indian high commission in Islamabad under surveillance. Pakistani diplomats were beaten up in Delhi and Indian diplomats faced the same treatment in Islamabad.

The situation became normal after 9/11, but the Mumbai terror attacks in November last year once again sabotaged the peace process between India and Pakistan.

India accused the ISI of masterminding the Mumbai attacks. Immediately after 26/11, the Pakistani government announced that the ISI DG would visit Delhi to help the investigations into the Mumbai attacks, but after some tough posturing from the Indian foreign minister this decision was reversed.

One Indian journalist present at the dinner commented that "the ISI DG's presence at the high commissioner's dinner is unbelievable; it's glasnost in India-Pakistan relations".

Former ISI DG Lieutenant General Asad Durrani (retd), who was also present at the dinner was surprised at General Pasha's presence and termed it "a very, very positive development."

Many diplomats present at the dinner were of the view that a lot of "quiet developments" have been taking place between India and Pakistan.

Intelligence officials from both countries are in constant touch with each other and the talk is that something positive may emerge very soon. Many Pakistanis asked their Indian hosts: "Will the head of R&AW attend a reception at the Pakistani high commission in Delhi?" The hosts responded: "First you invite our intelligence chief to your high commission in Delhi and then we will see."

High Commissioner Sabharwal and the ISI DG were tight-lipped about the developments. When this journalist told General Pasha that Pakistan was doing a lot to improve relations with India, but the response from India was not very encouraging, he said, "Let's hope for the best, things will definitely improve."

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Hamid Mir in Islamabad