By ANAND PATWARDHAN The Times of India, December 29, 1998
FIVE years ago, a tiny group of “progressives” from India and Pakistan got together to implement a dream — establishing direct people-to-people contact between the populations of nations whose governments and politicians have spent five decades fomenting hatred and war. How they overcame legal, political, bureaucratic and psychological barriers is a long story, but succeed they did. So far, on four separate occasions, between 100 and 200 individuals from one country have crossed the border to meet with their counterparts in what their respective governments and dominant ideologies have always considered to be “enemy” territory.
My first contact with this historic process began in Calcutta in December 1996. Close to 200 Pakistanis from a wide spectrum of occupations had come-by road across the Wagah border and proceeded to Calcutta where they stayed courtesy of the West Bengal government at the Great Eastern Hotel. There they were joined by a seemingly similar random composition of Indians and a smattering of the South Asian diaspora living in the West. I soon realised that the composition was not so random. People had selected themselves. After several days of involved debates and cultural exchanges, on the eve of the new year, Indians and Pakistanis linked arms and marched through the streets of Calcutta singing “Mandir, masjid, gurdwaon ney baant diya bhagwan ko, dharti baanti, saagar baanta, mat baantow in-saanko.” (Temple, mosque and church have divided God, Earth and sea, Let them not divide humanity.”)
That was Calcutta. It was all very exciting but it was still familiar soil. On the November 20,1998, after weeks of suspense over whether our visas would come in time or at all, 160 Indians set out in three buses from Amritsar to Wagah. At the front of each bus a banner declared “Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy”. In the buses were old people who had last seen Lahore and Peshawar in 1947. A Sikh from the other side of the Punjab, and a Pushtu freedom fighter from Peshawar whose heart was broken by Partition. There was also Admiral Ramdas a former Admiral of the Indian Navy who had participated in armed conflict against Pakistan but who had transformed himself into an ambassador of peace.
On the India side of the border, there was a long confused delay as a sleepy, computer-less security post double and triple checked our papers, apparently bewildered by this sudden increase in border traffic. Then came a five-minute walk through no man’s land with its barbed wire fencing and armed guards and watchtowers. Finally, we were in Pakistan being greeted by our hosts at the other end of the barbed wire. The Pakistani border post seemed better prepared for our visit and we were cleared in record time.
We now boarded Pakistani buses and headed to Peshawar roughly seven hours away. Outside, I noticed we had a jeep escort, something the Indian authorities had not bothered with, perhaps a sign that in these troubled times the Pakistani state had taken on itself the responsibility of providing us with security.
We arrived in Peshawar close to midnight. We were divided into three hotels «ach with its own armed guards. The next day the conference began in earnest. Two days of Indians attacking atrocities by India and Pakistanis attacking atrocities by Pakistan and in the mutual criticism of their respective states, affirming the principle of human rights, peace and friendship. This I had expected after my last experience and though we were now meeting under a nuclear shadow, I had no doubt that all our participants would remain immune to jingoism. Many of our members had already spoken out passionately against the bomb. Cross-border solidarity was proving to be the silver lining in the mushroom cloud.
What I did not expect was the warmth with which we were greeted by people on the street who were in no way connected with progressive causes or movement In India, and I’m sure in Pakistan, we are all brought up on the myth of the other’s hatred for us. The contrary is true. Without exception wherever I announced where I had come from, people went out of their way to be hospitable and when told why we had come and the nature of our missies, the love and friendship overflowed. I talked to literally any and everyone I met. Street urchins ran after us shouting out messages for Indian matinee idols Shahrukh Khan and Sunil Shetty.
Some of us had been secretly nervous about the conference being located in Peshawar, so close to the Afghanistan border and the dreaded Taliban. We expected to see visible signs of fundamentalist dominance. I, for one, came across none. Perhaps I looked in the wrong place; I spoke to many Pathans (or Pakhtoons as they prefer to be called). Despite their reputation of being armed and dangerous, they invariably remembered Gandhi with fondness. For Gandhiji was the comrade (without arms) of their own greatest hero, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan known to us as the Frontier Gandhi and to his own people, simply as Badshah.
As in Calcutta where a dance troupe and singer Bhupen Hazari-ka had enthralled both visitors and hosts, the extent to which our cultures are intertwined was brought out in the evening sessions of dance, poetry and music. At Peshawar, one of the highlights of the night was Pakistani artiste Seema Kirmani and her troupe which presented a Bharatnatyam rendering of Tagore’s poem “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake”. The next morning Indian singer Neela Bhagwat replied with a ghazal by Kabir.
Another surprise for me was that poverty in Pakistan is nowhere of the same magnitude as in India. Though beggars are less visible and slum-dwellers fewer in number, they do exist. Our politicians have often boasted that the Pakistani economy is in much worse shape that India’s. Obviously, they are measuring something other than the poverty line.
On our last day, in a Lahore classroom, a student asked if we could convince Indian leaders like Mr Bal Thackeray to allow the visit of the Pakistani cricket team We said we could not convince him but we can remove him. We promised that the days of political parties in India thriving by playing the communal card were numbered. Communalism had run across the law of diminishing returns. The next day we flew home to the news that the BJP had been roundly defeated in three state elections.