Former president Gen Pervez Musharraf, whose interactions with Indian audiences have traditionally evoked hatred, love and applause, faced a gruelling battery of questions with aplomb here on Saturday, as he single-handedly revived hopes for peace with India and even planted the idea of a joint battle by both countries to eliminate religious extremism.
Although billed as a private visit, there was little to suggest it was different from the last time Gen Musharraf visited New Delhi in April 2005 as the head of state.
He thanked Indian officials for looking after his protocol and security, indicating New Delhi’s support for the first major visit from across the border since the Mumbai terror attacks.
The presence of Pakistan's High Commissioner Shahid Malik at the conclave bestowed it with Islamabad’s concurrence. In the end Gen Musharraf appeared to vindicate the trust of both.
The theme of his lecture was the ‘challenge of change’, and he didn’t lose time to start off. ‘When I say change, I say it implies breaking status quo, burying the past, moving forward positively.’
The former army chief used this formulaic approach to underline his strategy for peace as well a tactics in dealing with hostile questions.
Possibly the last question spelt the way forward and it was asked by former Indian army chief Gen V.P. Malik. What could India do to help Pakistan fight the battle to defeat religious extremism and terrorism?
That the question was asked by a man of stature in the teeth of a hostile atmosphere in the country towards Pakistan could be the turning point of the evening.
The answer too would have been as unthinkable till the other day. ‘Help Pakistan army and ISI tackle the situation don’t malign them,’ replied Gen Musharraf. ‘That is the way we will be able to meet the challenge. Please don’t create misunderstanding in the world against the Pakistan's ISI and army.’
Gen Malik had asked another question, the kind that understandably creates a fear among pro-democracy activists in Pakistan of India’s apparent soft corner for military rulers.
Gen Musharraf was asked by the former Indian army chief how long the current civilian government in Pakistan would last, and when the military was going to take over, and if he would be anointed as the next head of state.
Gen Musharraf said he would not be drawn into a comment on the political state in Pakistan, but he was categorical that the army should not interfere in domestic politics. He also hoped that the current government would be able to find the solutions to the complex problems facing Pakistan.
He was not pleased when a questioner quoted Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s alleged intercept cited in a book in which he is supposed to have said that the Taliban were a strategic asset for the Pakistan army.
‘I deny this as a lie to defame the army but I do not know why it has been spread... It is strange that I was accused of being a sympathiser of Taliban in the west and the Taliban tried to assassinate me because they saw me as a western ally...'Please speak responsibly. It is very important that you do.’
Gen Musharraf berated the media and the politicians on both sides for raking up public hostilities, but said in India the venom was deeper and more widely spread. He said even India Today, the host magazine, was culpable in this.
Gen Musharraf described himself as a man of peace. He, however, refused to comment on his role in the Kargil standoff, saying it was too sensitive and would serve no purpose in the agenda to move forward for peace.
He was asked by senior lawyer Soli Sorabji to consider repatriating Dawood Ibrahim, India’s underworld fugitive. He denied knowing if the don was in Pakistan.
‘But I can tell you, unless we change our attitude towards each other, nothing will help. Even if Dawood Ibrahim or whoever was sent here, nothing will bring peace between the two countries unless we change our attitudes towards each other,’ he said.
‘Suppose we hand him over to you, can you promise that you will send him back to us should we fail to make progress in our search for peace,’ he quipped.
In a quick survey of the bilateral relations as they exist, Gen Musharraf was confident that the Line of Control dividing Kashmir needed to be ‘torn down like the Berlin wall.’
He still believed that the Kashmir dispute had to be solved as soon as possible to fortify the forces against terrorism and extremism.
‘We have to head for a solution. I had given a formula, which could form a basis for moving forward. These were: identifying zones of Kashmir, going for de-militarising, especially from the cities, so that people of Kashmir can heave a sigh of relief. And give tem maximum self-governance. Siachen too was easy to solve.’
‘Both sides are suffering. Indians are suffering more because of the nature of the terrain.’ The standing ovation was for the effort of coming to India despite warnings by his daughter that he would face a hostile crowd.
Gen Musharraf is expected to visit Aligarh Muslim University on Sunday.