Shobhano Bhattacharji, o Delhi-based educationist, visits Lahore and Islamabad with a group of Indian women interested in peace with Pakistan. This was the first crossing of so-called peace groups after the Kargil disaster and the coup in Pakistan, and it was followed a week later by a meeting of the India-Pakistan Peoples’ Forum, which brought 200 Pakistanis to the southern Indian city of Bangalore. At a time when opportunities for discussion seem to have been replaced by verbal belligerence, we believe that informal ‘track-1/’ contacts between Indian and Pakistanis is good for all South Asians. Needless to say, we do not agree with commentators like Swapon Dasgupta writing in the 17 April Indian Today, who terms the ladies who crossed over from Lahore romantic peaceniks who became “pawns” of General Pervez Musharraf. The fact that 35 Sikhs were massacred in Chitisingh Pora, and that there were 500 Indian soldiers who died in the Kargil war, which Mr. Dosgupta puts forth as the very reason not to have met the General, is for us the very reason why contacts between the two countries is essential, so that each side humanises rather than demonises the other.
Forty women from India were in Lahore and Islamabad from 25 to the 31 of March, on a peace mission. Thirty-six of us gathered at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium bus stop at 4:30 in the morning. Lots of security checks followed. Hair dryers and irons had to be plugged in and shown to be other than bombs. Batteries from cameras were to be removed, but we were let off after one despairing policeman told another that these women were all carrying cameras.
Trying to keep so many excited women within the timetable was like trying to control drops of mercury. Everyone shooting off in different directions. Running behind schedule. But the staff manning the Pakistan Tourism bus were patient and courteous. In his green blazer and tie, our driver looked like an executive from a private firm. On the return journey, he had on a shalwar-kurta and a silver spangled Sindhi cap. Only his resemblance to a young Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan indicated that it was the same gentleman.
As we traversed, we rehearsed songs by Kamala Bhasin, Syeda Hamid and others to Neelima’s dafli. Tunes were invented on the spot. And we inflicted our singing indiscriminately on policemen, reporters and restaurant staff. Biological functions were well taken care of with frequent, as someone named them, tea-pee stops. The police escort was doubled in parts of Punjab but even so, we maintained a reasonable pace throughout so that we were not very late getting to the border.
“Ladies, we are about to arrive at Attari, please comb your hair!” Mohini Giri’s command was repeated at Wagah, after the crossing, and at Lahore. The famous Punjabi hospitality was evident at Attari where Shri Harcharan Singh of the Indian Customs spared us the meticulous search that we had gone through at Delhi. He had arranged for tea as well, and when we got to the other side, we found that Harcharan Singh had primed Choudhry Abdus Sattar of Pakistan Customs about the “lady jaththa” that was about to invade. There, too, we were saved a laborious search, and delicious egg sandwiches and tea awaited. On the return leg, Choudhry Sahib had crates of apples and kinoo for me. “What have you done to deserve this?” someone asked. “Married a guy in the Customs 30 years ago,” I replied.
At this point I have to say that if the governments of Pakistan and India had not started this bus, and had visas not been given with “no police check required” stamped on, we would not have been on this trip. Nor was this all. Azra Kidwai, who flew to Lahore a day earlier, left without two vital papers. At Lahore airport she was told that people like her are ordinarily deported but because she belonged to this peace group, a short confabulation with her relatives was all it took for Pakistan immigration to clear her.
In Lahore by late evening. Most of us stayed with families, two to a home. Our hosts seem to have put everything on hold as they drove us around, attended meetings with us, and even accompanied us to Islamabad and back. Early on the 26th we left in two coasters for Islamabad by the motorway. Very efficient. Very impressive. Yet we missed driving through villages and towns, seeing people, reading road signs and so on. But one sign was terrific: “Dr. Hamida was available in a shack on the roadside”! We also passed what looked like a Christian village with a fair-sized mud-walled church.
Arrived very late in Islamabad where the Foreign Ministry hosted lunch. Met the singer Malika Pukhraj’s beautiful daughter who is a teacher and a gender trainer. Strawberries grow in Pakistan now like passion fruit in Himachal. Desserts are fresh strawberries with ice-cream. Fatima has a strawberry farm. We suggested that she might market strawberries as cosmetics since one of us had just used them in Gwalior to bleach freckles. An old Regency beauty tip picked up from a Georgette Heyer romance.
Some of us then went to visit the Chief Executive in his home and told him of our three-fold mission: “golf nahin boll” (dialogue, not guns), a nuclear-free Subcontinent, and a reduction in defence expenditure by both countries so that money could be spent on development. Since this meeting has been well covered in the Indian and Pakistani media, I need say no more here. From the Chief Executive’s, the next stop was the famous Islamabad Sunday Bazaar where we experienced first-hand the warmth of Pakistanis meeting Indians: “You are our guests, how can se accept money?”
Fatima took Kumkum Chadha and some others to Pindi to search for Kumkum’s maternal grandparents’ home. Her uncle had drawn a map for her. A shopkeeper spent two hours or more with us, poring over the map, talking to neighbours, and roping his son in for the search. Eventually we found the place nearby, but the old house had been pulled down to make way for an amusement and wedding hall. Some Pathans who run the place said that the old well was still in the basement, and so it was, supplying water with the help of booster pumps. The owner called us to his home, where he showed us some artifacts he had saved from the old house. He has used the wrought iron railing as a decorative fence on his boundary wall.
Tea with the Indian High Commissioner. Then dinner at the Marriott was hosted by the Islamabad chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, which was itself preparing for its next big meeting in Bangalore just a few days hence. I had mentioned to Fatima that I had to contact my cousin Sonu Rehman in Lahore, whereupon she said, “In that case you have a cousin here as well.” And so I met a relative I have met only once before. In Lahore I met two others. With our simplified subcontinental system of identifying family relationships, one of these two, the painter Laila Rehman, has made me grandmother of twins. How easy it is to transcend the tightest international border!
Taxila via Punja Sahib in Hasanabdal next day. Tirpat Kaur, widowed in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, has worked since then for cessation of war. She was the only Sikh in our group but all of us went in, many “maththa tekoed” (bowed before the Granth Sahib), and all of us made offerings of money. This was where, said Tirpat Ji, Guru Nanak blocked a rock thrown at him by an annoyed pir —there is the imprint of the Guru’s upraised palm (punja) on the rock. The water that flows around the Punja Sahib gurudwara is clean and clear.
On the night we returned to Lahore from Islamabad, exhausted, it was the Lahore chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum that invited us to dinner at the Gymkhana Club. A treat awaited us. Nadira Babbar had trimmed her play, Sakku Bai, to some 40 minutes. Sarita Joshi, the remarkable Gujarati actress who had performed the otherwise two-and-half-hour-long solo play in Bombay, was also with us. Nadira and Sarita moved a few chairs about and pitched us into a mesmerising performance about Everywoman. Sakku Bai is a maid servant in a middleclass home in Bombay who tells the story of her life from the time she lived happily with her family in a village to her having to move to the city because of economic pressures. As she washes dishes, sweeps and tidies, she conveys the stories of other women, her mother, her mistress, the master of the house and his affair with another woman, the educated sales girl in tight clothes. Without any heavy-handed “message” thrown at us, Nadira and Sarita used the merest hints to convey a great deal, moving us to laughter and tears.
It was so well done that a longer version was performed at the Human Rights auditorium on the 30th. The place was packed. People sat in the aisles and propped up on the walls. There was a standing ovation. And after it was over, Uzma Butt, veteran actress and sister of Zohra Sehgal, went up tearfully to congratulate Sarita.
The next day, in Lahore, a meeting with the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, which is chaired by lawyer and human rights activist Hina Jillani. All of us introduced ourselves with a small account of our feelings about Pakistan and India. Many of us had relatives in the other country. I had that very morning spoken to my 85-year-old maternal uncle in Karachi and though I am not the weepy type, I had broken down. Many of us had grown up on stories and memories of the elders in our families, of how it was on the ‘other side’. There wasn’t a dry eye by the end.
But it wasn’t all sentimentality. One woman said that the Indian media’s portrayal of Pakistan was sometimes such that she had heard her son saying he hated India. Since there is no hate talk in her home this shocked her, but the more serious point was to try and change these sources of hate. We were to hear a similar feeling from a Lahore school student. But there and elsewhere, other students immediately said that Pakistan also demonised India. Another lady’s grandchild had asked her, “India is our enemy isn’t it?” His school teacher had told him it is.
A wonderful dinner that night at Asma Jehangir’s beautiful home. Vidya Rao sang thumris while some others discussed what they would say the next day, the 29th, at a seminar hosted by The News of Pakistan.
It turned out to be a great meeting with eminent speakers—Asma Jehangir, Tahira Mazhar Ali, Jugnu Mohsin, Devaki Jain, Nirmala Deshpande and many others whom I had read about, but was hearing for the first time. The meeting was memorable for the way it steered clear of Kashmir and CTBT for most of the time and focussed on the real issues of the region, which are poverty, illiteracy, the status of women, human rights. None of us in the Subcontinent can afford to be pessimistic, and this meeting gave us grounds for hope. We were described as “deewanas” (the mad) but deewanas have been known to change history.
The teaching of fundamentalism through curricula and textbooks, and the role of the media in maintaining the levels of hostility, were also discussed. Much of the enmity was due to the negative portrayal of India in the Pakistani media and of Pakistan in the Indian media. But there was also widespread ignorance about each other’s countries because there is no free access to information. We could not read each other’s newspapers, could not get each other’s books. This situation had to be rectified. Jugnu Mohsin of The Friday Times said the news that did get televised was incomprehensible. Persianised Urdu and Sansktrised Hindi simply added to the media blackout, she said. A Pakistani student pointed out that though the news was difficult to follow, Bombay films were quite easy to understand, so why couldn’t that language be used for news. Meanwhile, many Bombay films were simply conveying unpleasant propaganda.
Possibly. But Hindi films are popular in Pakistan. We were shown them on the bus. They are reviewed in The Herald (with an aside on how the beauty of a film is ruined in pirated cassettes). A student asked why we didn’t send Aishwarya Rai to them. Film songs, Daler Mehndi, and Hindustani classical music (called “eastern music” in Pakistan as far as I was able to gather in our rushed visits to shops), from India are freely available. So are other Indian goods like Dabur Vatika hair oil. Except for some music, I have not seen Pakistani goods in New Delhi shops, and we have no news, about their films.
As for media distortions, at the very least my interview to the Urdu Nawa-i-Waqt was faithfully reported, though the young lady reporter did not carry my reference to an Indian Muslim fundamentalist injunction on Muslim women students that they were to wear burqas.
Some of us were invited to Lahore College of Arts and Science (LACAS) to speak with their A-level students. About 70 boys and girls, packed into their library, fired questions at us—Kashmir, the media, and so on. Towards the end of the long session, they asked Vidya Rao to sing for them. Vidya chose the song that Begum Akhtar had sung on her first visit to Pakistan after Partition. The words are something like “Beloved please visit me, why don’t you visit me? Once you are with me here, all our differences will be resolved.” It was a magical moment of togetherness. We understood the music, the words and the point.
My mother-in-law had studied at Kinnaird College, Lahore, before Partition. She had instructed me to visit the place and “to deliver a lecture there”. A chance conversation with Nina Zubair in Islamabad led me to her sister Kauser Sheikh who teaches English at Kinnaird. Kauser asked whether I would speak to her MA students on Coleridge (our colonial legacy has its uses). So I did.
Before we knew it, it was time to take the Pakistan Tourism bus back to Attari and on to Delhi. Was the Peace Mission of any use? Sure, we made friends at a personal level and experienced the warmth of Pakistan, but it surely went beyond that. The very fact that General Musharraf agreed to meet us, at a moment of such tension between our countries, was gesture enough. We had received messages of greeting from the former prime minister of India, I.K. Gujral and his wife Sheila Gujral, and also from India’s External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh. It seemed to me that our group of ladies from India and our gracious Pakistani hosts together conveyed the underlying feeling of the people—the yearning for peace. It seems to me that it is not only a bunch of deewanis who want things to change, and seek a way out of the bind of hostility we have got into.
Kauser, the teacher at Kinnaird College had arranged for me to bring back a plant for my mother-inlaw. Mohini Giri says it must be nurtured as a symbol of friendship between Pakistan and India.