What’s in a hug?
Every culture has its own form of greeting. The Maoris rub noses. Indians put their palms together with the Sanskritized saying Namshkar, Namaskar, or Namaste, the Dravidians saying, Vanakkam.
The Japanese bow low. The Europeans and Americans shake hands, but male and female friends lightly brush the cheek of the other sex. Arab males kiss each other on the cheek. In Pakistan, the muhajir immigrant from India is often the butt-end of jokes for repeatedly salaam-ing and muttering aadaab, aadaab. The standard Pakistani greeting among men and women, respectively, is the bear hug.
What makes for the difference between the Indian and Pakistani forms of greeting? Well, for one, Namaste derives from “nama haste” or “I greet the immortal in you.” A conservative Muslim might have some difficulty in accepting that Allah resides in everyone. But why is the bear hug the commonest form of greeting not only among Pakistanis but also among Indian Muslims?
I think I started answering that conundrum to myself when Foreign Secretary Ram Sathe asked me what suggestions had I for the Indian Foreign Service after spending three years in Karachi. I promptly replied: “Sir, send all probationers to Pakistan for a month.” Sathe was intrigued. Why did I think that would make them better IFS officers? It will teach them, I replied, how to open the car door for ladies and older persons. Sathe laughed.
Remembrances of things past have recurred to me in the context of the controversy being stoked by the Hindutva brigade over Navjot Singh Sidhu hugging Pak COAS Gen Bajwa in Islamabad. In Muslim courts, not only in India but in all Muslim courts from Afghanistan to Iran to Turkey and the Arab countries, the highest accolade the sovereign could bestow on a hero -- his preferred vizier or a general returned victorious from the battlefield -- was to rise from his throne and embrace his distinguished servant. Perhaps that is the reason why Muslims everywhere embrace to bestow their highest regard on the one they are embracing.
The analogy I would draw is with my own Tamil culture where the Dravidians, in particular, have adopted the royal custom of exchanging cloths of gold by always draping anyone of distinction with a colourful, shining shawl, saying as they do so: “I honour you with this cloth of gold” as a demonstration of their regard and respect.
Sidhu did no more than “do in Rome what the Romans do.” Giving a hug to Bajwa would have received only passing notice if the BJP had not, as they always do, sought to communalize the issue and create salience between “Pakistani” and “Muslim” to push forward their divisive agenda.
For anyone to make a fuss over Navjot Sidhu being caught in flagrante delicto with the Pakistan chief of army staff is therefore to make a mountain out of not even a mole hill. Should this cricketer and humourist have first asked every Pakistani he met whether they were for or against Kargil before determining how to greet them? Would Sidhu not be at the front-line to defend his hometown of Amritsar against any Bajwa attempting to cross from Wagha to Attari with evil intent?
I went through something similar when I invited then Pakistan High Commissioner Riaz Khokhar to launch my Pakistan Papers at the India International Centre auditorium in 1994.
When I invited Riaz to do me the honours, Riaz, unlike many who release books, had actually read mine, and launched into a detailed refutation of much of what I had written. That notwithstanding, I gave him a real big hug of thanks when we stepped out of the auditorium. The picture made it to the front page of several Delhi papers, leaving the naysayers grumbling that I was giving a Pakistani, of all persons, a jhappi as if I were greeting a baraati.
It is such narrow-mindedness from which we should be seeking escape. How am I to take Modi’s missive to Imran seriously when the prime minister of India, none less, has accused me of conspiring with the Pakistanis to foist a Muslim chief minister on Gujarat and, without even a wink in his eye, asked whether I visit Pakistan to take out a supari on him?
The record shows that it was Modi, none other, who sabotaged the prospects for a sustained India-Pakistan dialogue when he suddenly made it a precondition for the foreign secretaries of the two countries to meet by demanding that Pakistani dignitaries and the Pakistani High Commission cease all contact with the Hurriyat.
It was Modi’s far worthier predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had encouraged such contact and Vajpyee-Advani who had even arranged for Hurriyat leaders to visit Pakistan. With one abrupt last-minute diktat, Modi ended his honeymoon with Sharif in under a hundred days.
It is not the change of government in Pakistan that will herald a change in India-Pakistan relations. It is only when there is a change of government in India that any change could take place. What Modi has failed to accomplish in four-and-a-half years is not going to happen in the few weeks or months before he goes into an election in which his only hope of prevailing is to polarize the electorate along the religious divide.
It is only when a process of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue” is initiated that the sun will rise over the horizon. The new foreign minister, my decades-old friend, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has accepted the first half of my suggestion by declaring that the dialogue must be “uninterrupted.” I urge him to follow the example of his PPP predecessor, Hina Rabbani Khar, and stretch that to “uninterrupted and uninterruptible.”
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a senior Congress leader and former MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. This article first appeared on NDTV.com.