Bus to Pakistan
The Fourth Convention of Pakistan-India Peoples' Forum for Peace and Democracy was held in Peshawar, Pakistan, on 21-22 November 1998. Over three hundred Pakistanis and Indians participated in this convention to discuss the ways and means of breaking out of the political and militaristic impasse created by the decision-makers of the two nations. CERAS was represented by its president, Daya Varma. A complete report of the convention can be obtained from our office.
Anand Patwardhan, the renowned Indian filmmaker participated in this convention. Below we reproduce his impressions.
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 which can better be told by others who were there from the beginning. But succeed they did and so far on four separate occasions, between a hundred and two hundred 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. After an initial preparatory meeting in Lahore the first conference took place in Delhi. The next venue was Lahore. Then came Calcutta. It was now to be the turn of Peshawar.
My first contact with this historic process began in Calcutta in December 1996. Close to two hundred Pakistanis, writers, lawyers, artists, activists, retired military, people 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 realized that the composition was not so random. People had selected themselves. What we had under one roof for those few days at the end of December were amongst the best minds and hearts of our two countries. People who had the brains not to believe the vicious propaganda of their respective States and the courage to trust their instincts of friendship and solidarity despite the ever present malevolence of the Bal Thackerays and Jamat-e-Islamis of our two lands. After several days of involved debates and cultural exchange, on the eve of the new year, Indians and Pakistanis linked arms and marched through the streets of Calcutta singing "Mandir, masjid, gurdwaron ne baant diya bhagwan ko, dharti baanti, saagar baanta, mat banto insaan ko."
That was Calcutta. It was all very exciting but it was still familiar soil. On the 20th of November, 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 speaking freedom fighter from Peshawar whose heart was broken by bloody Partition. There was also retired Admiral Ramdas of the Indian Navy who had participated in armed conflict against Pakistan but who had transformed himself into an ambassador of peace. Along with them were people like me setting foot into Pakistan for the first time.
On the Indian 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. Along the way we passed hundreds of porters with headloads of badams and kishmish from Afghanistan. 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.
Inside, our long journey was brightened by songs by Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi often accompanied by one of our hosts Ahmer Rahman who seemed to know and relish all the Hindi filmi geet. We were in a picnic mood. Peshawar arrived close to midnight. Earlier, unknown to us, at a truck stop near Islamabad almost a hundred people had waited for three hours to greet us en route but in the dark the drivers missed them.
We were divided into three hotels each 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 this 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. Admiral Ramdas along with scores of high ranking military men on either side of the border had publicly decried the idea of nuclear deterrence as a form of "security." At a PIPDF meeting Pakistani physicist Dr. Abdul Nayyar had been physically attacked by fundamentalists opposed to his pacifist views. Cross-border solidarity was proving itself to be the silver lining in the mushroom cloud.
What I did not expect was the warmth with which we were greeted by the man in the street and by people who were in no way connected with progressive causes or movements. In India and I'm sure in Pakistan we are all brought up on the myth of the others 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 I explained why we had come and the nature of our mission, the love and friendship overflowed. I talked to bus drivers and attendants, students and hospital workers, economists and theatre people, telephone operators and wedding photographers, shopkeepers and repairmen, literally any and everyone I met. Street urchins ran after us shouting out messages for Indian matinee idols Sharukh 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 Ghafar 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 Hazarika 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 who presented a Bharat Natyam rendering of Tagore's poem "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high into that dawn of freedom, let my country awake".
Another surprise for me was that poverty in Pakistan is nowhere of the same magnitude as in India. Our politicians have often boasted that the Pakistani economy is in much worse shape than India's. Obviously they are measuring something other than the poverty line. But though beggars are less visible and slum dwellers fewer in number, they do exist. And they like their Indian counterparts do not get excited with patriotic fervour. They know that all talk of war and preparation for war is food stolen from their bellies. Everyone puts the blame for continuing tensions on "siyasati takaten". And true to life the only jarring notes I came across in Pakistan was a political worker for Benazir's PPP who insisted that Nawaz Sharif had no right to take credit for the Pakistani bomb because it was the creation of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and a group of Muslim Leaguers who defended the imposition of Shariat law as the path to progress.
On the way back from Peshawar to Lahore we stopped at the site of an ancient Buddhist university, Taxila. From here two thousand years ago must the Buddha have preached his message of universal love and compassion.
On our last day, in a Lahore classroom a student asked if we could convince Indian leaders like Bal Thackeray to allow the visit of the Pakistani cricket team. We said no 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.
- Anand Patwardhan