So far, and yet so close

A Nepali delegate observes a rare get together of Indians and Pakistanis in Peshawar.

The sight at the Atari-Wagah border between the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs was unusual. Pakistani porters in red kameez and white salwars downloading loads of Afghani dry fruits from colourfully painted trucks, carrying them on their heads for a distance of about 50 metres of good road and passing them on to Indian porters in blue shirts and white dhotis, who loaded them on to trucks parked 50 metres of, again, good road away.

This was not trade between India and Pakistan but between India and Afghanistan, and Pakistan was onlybeing used in transit. All trade between India and Pakistan is done via Karachi and Bombay or Calcutta. In other words, if something had to be legally sent from Lahore to Amritsar, a distance of some 50 km, it would have to go to Karachi, from there to Bombay and then onwards to Amritsar

I was standing along with others, on 20 November 1998, on the Pakistani side at Wagah waiting for the Indian delegates of the 4th Joint Convention of the Pakistan-India People´s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).

The Forum, formed during a meeting between a dozen Pakistanis and Indians in Lahore in September 1994, is a joint attempt to pull down the walls of prejudice and hate by bringing the people of the two neighbours together and building a movement of cross-border democracy.

The delegates had hoped that they would be among the first ones to cross over using the much-publicised Delhi-Lahore bus service, but in spite of the stated commitments of both governments, it had not started. Instead, the delegates had gathered at Amritsar and bussed it to the border.

The warmth between the two sides was evident as soon as the Indians stepped on Pakistani soil. The Indians were welcomed with big smiles and bigger hugs by the Pakistanis. It was hard to imagine that the governments of these peoples were enemies. A sense of achievement was evident on the Indian faces. This was not an ordinary border crossing. "The most memorable day in my life," exclaimed an Indian.

Altogether 114 Indians crossed over in two hours that afternoon. The Pakistani High Commission in Delhi had issued visas only at the last moment. A lot of clearances were needed, and more so because it was a large Indian contingent and they were crossing over at Wagah.

Paradoxically, it was the Indian authorities who made things difficult for their own citizens at the border. Said an Indian delegate, "We waited three hours on the Indian side for clearance. The Pakistani side finished the paperwork in 10 minutes."

If I was not aware of the history of the two countries, I would have found it difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. For me, Pakistan was only a more courteous India. (While haggling with shopkeepers for a bargain, one was embarrassed to be told, liKya mol kartay hai janab, aap hamara mehman hai" (Why bargain, sir, you are our guest).

They were surely the same people. When I spoke to the Pakistanis in the Hindustani that I had learnt from Bombay films and my travels in India, I was told I spoke very good Urdu. The food was similar, except that Pakistanis ate more meat.

Then there is the same history. The Indus Valley civilisation lies in today´s Pakistan. Conquerors and plunderers of the Subcontinent came via the Khyber Pass on Pakistan´s border with Afghanistan. Buddhist art, from which Hindu iconography has borrowed liberally, flourished in Taxila, Pakistan, before anywhere else in present-day India. Sher Shah Suri built a road from Peshawar to Calcutta which the British later called the Grand Trunk Road.

The Mughals ruled from Delhi but also had their palaces in Lahore (probably the most plundered city in South Asia). Ranjit Singh ruled from Lahore. Later the British came. And there was Partition.

While I went around with the Indian delegates people asked wherewe were from. The Indians said they were from Delhi, Calcutta or Bombay, hardly ever India. And the Pakistanis would reply, "My heart wants me to see India. I have a relative in HaryanaI.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan welcomes former Indian navy chief Admiral L. Ramdas at Wagah and (below) an Indo-Pakistani panel in Peshawar.(or UP, Punjab or Delhi). But you know, it´s so difficult to get a visa.

In Peshawar, where the two-day meet was held, we experienced two days of Pakistani/Pakhtoon hospitality. The guests were treated like long-lost brothers. Pakistan was a homecoming to many. Said an Indian delegate, "Whenever someone asks me where I am from I say my mother is from Peshawar and my father from Lahore and I live in Delhi. Since I am close to my mother, I have always thought Peshawar to be my hometown. And this is the first time that 1 have been here."

A 77-year-old Indian man had come to Peshawar for the first time since 1948. Another said that he was going to Multan after the convention. His parents were from there. Though he did not have any relatives there, he just wanted to see the place. It was also his first visit to Pakistan.

Usually Indians are given visas to specified cities only (and vice versa), but the delegates had granted permission to visit six cities and exempted from the daily reporting at the police station as is the rule in both countries.

The convention got much media coverage. Among other things, the Peshawar Declaration of the pipfpd denounced the nuclear tests and on Kashmir demanded that the government of India pull back its troops from civilian areas and that the Pakistani government make efforts to stop armed activities of militants in the valley. More cultural exchanges between the two countries were called for. At dinner on the first day, given by the local chamber of commerce and industry, the hosts stressed the importance of trade ties.

Nothing underscored the flavour of the convention better than the dance performance by Karachi-based Seema Kirmani in honour of the Indian delegates. She had come for the convention, and it was her first time in the city. While watching her rendition of Rabindranath Tagore´s poem "Where the Head is Held High", one wondered: Will they ever allow her to perform that in India?

After two days of the convention, the Indians dispersed to various cities. Some to meet relatives, some to see ancestral homes, some simply to get a taste of this ´forbidden´ land. For many the convention had been the only way they could get a visa to Pakistan—a land so close, yet so far.

An incident has struck firmly in my mind. At Wagah, a Pakistani Ranger came to the Indian group I was with and, assuming we were Pakistanis, asked, "Are you expecting a woman from Jallandhar? There is someone looking for her relatives who were supposed to come from Saibal."

My friends shook their heads. A Pakistani woman from another group said, "You should have said yes. After all she has come from so far away just to catch a glimpse of her relatives and shout across the border."

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