“They are like my two eyes,” said the fabled Pakistani folk singer Reshma, speaking of India, the country of her birth in 1947, and the country she has lived in since infancy. Similar emotions are echoed by another lauded singer, the Bombay-based Seema Anil Sehgal, known as the ´Bulbul (nightingale) of Jammu and Kashmir´. Last May, she dedicated her CD, recorded at the first ever concert in Bombay on the poetry of Allama Iqbal, the man credited with the idea of Pakistan, to ‘India-Pakistan friendship’. Sehgal had been one of the 235 Indian delegates who attended the Sixth Pakistan-India People´s Forum for Peace and Democracy convention in Karachi in December 2003 – the largest delegation of Indians ever to visit Pakistan. Since both countries had snapped air-links two years back, they had to obtain special permission from Pakistan to cross the Wagah border in Punjab on foot and then take an overnight train to Karachi.
“No one could anticipate the amazing welcome we received at the Karachi railway station,” wrote Bombay-based filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, whose anti-nuclear film War and Peace, won the Best Documentary award at the unrelated, privately organized Kara Film Festival held simultaneously. “Outside the station a huge crowd had gathered. A student brass band played, rose petals were showered and pigeons were released as peace slogans rent the air”, said Patwardhan. The Karachi convention had taken place amidst an atmosphere of great hope. Barely two weeks later, this hope bore some fruit when the Pakistani and Indian leadership met in Islamabad for the SAARC Summit. In bilateral meetings, they produced a joint statement that paved the way towards a thaw in their relationship. Meanwhile, there was talk of getting a 5000 strong Pakistani delegation across to India for the World Social Forum in Bombay (17-21 January 2004). With the Indian Embassy in Islamabad, the sole visa granting authority in Pakistan, desperately short-staffed (both countries had slashed their consular officers during the tensions of the last two years), this number was pared down to 2000 and finally only some 600 Pakistanis were granted visas. Even so, this was the largest ever delegation from one country to visit the other. Moreover, the visas were the ´non-police reporting´ kind – normally, Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other´s countries must report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure.
“It would have caused their police a lot of trouble”, laughs Arif Pervez, a young environmentalist, waiting in the Pakistanis-only line at the immigration counter at Bombay´s Sahar international airport. The suspicion with which each government views the citizens of the other is also reflected in the fact that they grant each other visas for up to three cities only, and not for the country. And visiting Pakistanis and Indians must enter and exit from one of three authorised points (Delhi or Bombay by air, or the Wagah border in Punjab by road or rail) which cannot be changed once the visa has been granted.
And so it was that Karamat Ali, a peace activist based in Karachi, could not avail of the recently restored air-links to take the direct Karachi-Bombay flight (duration an hour and 20 minutes), since he had applied for his visa before flights were restored. He had to take the hour-and-a-half flight from Karachi to Lahore, cross the Wagah border on foot, then take the train to Delhi, and fly down to Bombay. “I have to take the same route back “, he said. Hopes for peace between India and Pakistan are marred by scepticism as the two nuclear nations gear up for ´composite talks´ in February; many are taking a ´wait-and-see´ attitude. “It´s like two lovers who can´t live together but can´t live apart either,” said young Bombay-based film curator Shai Heredia pensively. “Let´s hope the talks work out, but they´ve talked before, and every time there is a bit of peace, something happens to shatter it”.
Ali Mir, an economist from Hyderabad, India, who now lives in New Jersey, USA, is equally sceptical. “We´ve seen this happening before”, he shrugged. “It´s all a big drama,” scoffed his friend from Delhi, the political activist Shabnam Hashmi, who runs the non-government organisation, Act Now for Harmony and Democracy. “Ten, fifteen days before the elections, they´ll be singing a different tune”. Senior Delhi-based journalist Bharat Bhushan disagreed. He believes that Pakistani president Musharraf is “riding the tiger of anti-terrorism and can´t get off”, while Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee “has a sense of history, and is obsessed with settling the issues with Pakistan, including Kashmir”. The ´core issue´ of Kashmir is never far from the surface while discussing the India-Pakistan dispute. Subhashini Ali, a former Communist Party member of parliament who heads the All India Women´s Association, welcomed the peace process but feared that “those who believe in using religion for political ends” will spoil things. “How can they come to an understanding on Kashmir?” she asked. But she does believe that both governments are “responding to the tremendous desire for peace by both peoples”. And peace, she added, “is linked to the betterment of lives, to economic and social betterment. These areas will not improve as long as our resources are diverted to war”.
Jean Dreze of the Delhi School of Economics agreed: “There´s a huge burden on both countries because of unfriendly relations. This would ease if the military expenditure was reduced. But some hawks are deliberately trying to keep the tensions up because it also hurts Pakistan´s economy”. Subhashini Ali was of the opinion that even if the United States pushed India and Pakistan to the talks table, as is generally believed, that was a positive development. Her views were echoed by the Congress party´s Digvijay Singh, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. “It´s a good step, even if it took some outside pressure for what we should have done on our own,” he said. He too pointed to the Kashmir dispute and suggested that, “If the Kashmiris want self-rule, India and Pakistan will have to sit together and work out some form of autonomy for them…We are poor countries, we have similar problems, and we have to put our heads together to resolve them. Both peoples want friendship, opening up of trade, commerce and industry”.
“We´ve wasted too many years coming to this point”, said another Congress leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who headed the Indian Consulate in Karachi before it was closed down a decade ago at the same time as the Pakistani Consulate in Bombay was packed up. “What we have just now is yet another paper agreement which doesn´t say how the process is going to continue. It´s important that the dialogue should be structured so that it is uninterrupted, and un-interruptible. Otherwise it won´t work”.
The legendary anti-dam activist Medha Patkar also questions the peace rhetoric, but like many others, agrees that even if it is happening under pressure, it must happen. “Day by day we see progress towards anti-terrorism and democracy”, she observed. “We have to have a peaceful solution to Kashmir, the referendum that was promised should take place, and people should be allowed to democratically decide their own fate”. Many ordinary Indians express similar views; most simply want the visa regimes to be relaxed and for ordinary people to be able to meet. But some like the Delhi-based scientist and poet Gauhar Raza think that the “artificial border,” as he termed it, should simply be abolished, “if not in our lifetimes, then for our children. But it´s an important vision, a goal to move towards”.
“They should just do away with the border so people can meet,” agreed Doris, a Roman Catholic teacher, talking to this writer while returning from work to Santa Cruz, the northern Bombay suburb where she lives. Doris thinks that the two countries should unite and find a new name that is acceptable to all if ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’ will not do. “A new name that has something to do with peace…Why not? It is possible if the two leaders put their heads together and think about it”, she mused. Abdul Jalil, an auto rickshaw driver in Bombay echoes a similar sentiment, but disagrees that he is espousing a right-wing Hindu line, which believes in ´Akhand Bharat´ or a Greater India. “I don´t know about them, but this is the voice of my heart…that we two countries should become as one. Then no one can push us around,” he said.
Most Pakistanis view such sentiments of unity with deep suspicion, seeing them as confirmation of the long-held suspicion that India has never really accepted Pakistan, and that the larger neighbour´s long term ambitions are covertly to swallow up their country. But most Indians one encounters, like Shashi, who drives a car for its owners in south Bombay, simply want the two countries to live in peace. “The Kashmir issue must be resolved peacefully”, he said. “It´s only the poor people who get killed. India and Pakistan must live in friendship, then we will together be strong and America will not be able to bully us”.