When Handshakes Move the Needle of History

Syed Badrul Ahsan

5 July, 2020 12:00 AM printer

When Handshakes Move the Needle of History

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Handshakes in modern times have either contributed to a making of new history or have been pointers to irony. A handshake in politics, local as also global, has sometimes done wonders. At other times, it has been a limp affair amounting to little of significance.

In July 1972, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s new leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto concluded, at the last minute, a deal in Simla on a reconfiguring of relations between their two countries a bare six months after the end of the Bangladesh war. With Bhutto arriving in Simla a few days earlier, it was rather awkward for them to shake hands, given that it was their first meeting and given too that Bhutto had long been notorious for his anti-India stance. But of course the handshake happened.

Indira Gandhi and Bhutto never met a second time. As for the Simla Agreement, it really did not amount to much, as circumstances down the years were to demonstrate. The handshake did not create history in much the same way that the handshake between Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayub Khan in Tashkent in January 1966 caused barely a ripple in regional diplomacy. The summit between India’s prime minister and Pakistan’s president was brokered by Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin a few months after the September 1965 war between Pakistan and India. Some drama defined the early moments of the summit when Shastri and Ayub entered the hall through two different doors at the same time, to be received by Kosygin, who in turn had them shake hands.

Prime Minister Shastri died of a heart attack soon after the deal with Ayub Khan had been initialled. As for Pakistan’s president, he would come into grave criticism over the deal at home, principally from his foreign minister, who was none other than Z.A. Bhutto. Those handshakes in Tashkent and Simla, in hindsight, could have recast history. They did not, which is a pity.

There have been instances when hands proffered have not been taken, the rudeness coming back years later to haunt the man responsible for such narrowness of mind. In 1954, at the Geneva Conference on Indo-China, Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, a cultured politician by any means, spotted US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles a few feet away. He moved with outstretched hand toward Dulles, only to have the American, a diehard Cold Warrior, turn around and walk away.

Eighteen years later, in February 1972, it was Chou En-lai’s hand that President Richard Nixon went seeking as he stepped off Air Force One in Beijing. Footage of the scene remains poignant. Nixon, grinning from ear to ear, approaches Chou with outstretched hand and the Chinese leader takes it graciously. The damage done by Dulles was being rolled back by Nixon. And do not forget that at the time Dulles headed the State Department in Washington, Nixon was an equally rabid anti-communist serving as vice president under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1972, back home from China, he would describe his talks with Mao Zedong and Chou effusively as the week that changed the world.

Speaking of rudeness, Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s arrogance is part of the partition story of the Indian subcontinent. His comments on Gandhi’s assassination were niggardly. He recalled Gandhi merely as a great leader of the Hindu community. And in his campaign for Pakistan, he was always ready to run down those Muslim politicians who did not agree with his two-nation theory. Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, known for his scholarship and for his nationalistic politics, was Jinnah’s particular object of contempt. At a meeting between the Congress and the Muslim League, Jinnah shook hands with Gandhi and Nehru but pointedly refused to do the same with Azad. It was rudeness which did not go unnoticed.

A dramatic moment came in February 1969 within days of the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case in East Pakistan. On arriving in Rawalpindi to attend the round table conference between the Ayub Khan regime and Pakistan’s opposition, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman responded to newsmen’s questions on how he felt being a man out of prison. His comment was cryptic: ‘Yesterday a traitor, today a hero.’ The drama of course came the next day, when President Ayub Khan held out his hand to his former prisoner Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to welcome him to the round table conference. Supreme irony was in the air.

Similar irony was unmistakable when as Bangladesh’s founding father and Prime Minister, Bangabandhu shook hands with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Lahore airport in February 1974. It was in Lahore that the Bengali leader had announced his Six Point programme for regional autonomy in February 1966. More to the point, here was Bhutto, whose intrigue with General Yahya Khan had led not only to the collapse of the political negotiations in Dhaka in March 1971 but had also been instrumental in Bangabandhu’s imprisonment and the launch of the genocide by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. He was welcoming the man whose electoral victory he had refused to acknowledge. More irony was there on the day. General Tikka Khan, at the time Pakistan’s army chief but in 1971 the man who had unleashed his soldiers into killing Bengalis, saluted Bangabandhu. ‘Hello, Tikka’, said Bangladesh’s leader, shaking his hand and moving on.

A handshake which gave history a definitive turn was when in his search for peace, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat travelled to Jerusalem on a November night in 1977, to be greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The two men, with support from US President Jimmy Carter, would subsequently conclude a peace deal at Camp David. In later years, egged on by President Bill Clinton, it would be for Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to shake hands in Washington.

A handshake which cheered observers of global politics came when US President Ronald Reagan and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva in late 1985. Gorbachev was the very epitome of vitality, persuading people into believing that the world would have to deal with him for a very long time. In the event --- and this no one could predict at the time --- the Soviet Union would fragment on his watch and he would become a footnote in history.

Handshakes are sometimes a sarcastic comment on men and events. Again, there are times when they leave a world transformed, as when Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk negotiated an end to apartheid in South Africa. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose shook hands with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, a happening which remains a disturbing episode in the otherwise brilliant political career of the Indian nationalist. Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger shook hands in Paris, inaugurating a process they hoped would end the war in Vietnam.

The hand is all. Or it is nothing. It all depends on what impact a handshake between powerful individuals has on succeeding generations.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is a columnist and writer