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The value of symbolism: Jt. Conventions of Pak-India Peoples Forum


By Rita Manchanda

The irony can not be missed and so too its political significance- at a time when the Indian government is self righteously determined to freeze, atrophy and indeed break off links with Pakistan, bilaterally and internationally, 200 Pakistani citizens with non reporting visas came to Bangalore to jointly assert with Indian citizens, the existence of a cross border peace constituency which will not be denied.

It was the fifth Joint Convention of the Pakistan Indian Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy on April 6-8, nearly a year after the Kargil "war like situation", the military takeover in Pakistan and a surge in the jingoism of a "winnable" limited war between two nuclear powers. Pakistanis and Indians, had come at considerable risk to themselves, to pay the price of peace, not despite but all the more because of Kargil and the bellicose readiness by jehadists and officialdom to trivalise the cost of war and talk of "final solutions’ by military means.

But then, when have the Joint Conventions of the Forum not been haunted by the ever growing threat of war and hatred, as India and Pakistan hurtle from one confrontation to another. Whether it was the war hysteria which engulfed the first Delhi Convention in 1994 or the mushroom clouds which hung over the fourth Peshawar Convention in 1998, (Calcutta Convention in 1996 alone breathed in the détente of the Gujral doctrine), the Forum has persisted in giving a joint voice to a people centric definition of security that strengthens democracy, not undermines it.

The Forum’s mass joint conventions symbolise that there nothing essentialist in the India Pakistan hostility as the state sponsored orthodoxy would have us believe. A "hundred years war" is not inevitable. On the contrary, in the Forum citizens of India and Pakistan- former Ministers, Cabinet Secretaries, retired Admirals and Major Generals, social activists, environmentalists, feminists, professionals, scientists, trade unionists and academics- have found that even on contentious issues, like Kashmir, the areas of agreement are more than the areas of disagreement.

Keeping peoples apart has been essential to the demonising of the other. And the idea behind the Forum strategy is an exceedingly simple one, though no less subversive for that. Let more and more people cross the border and meet and brick by brick pull down the walls of prejudice and myth which have locked them in hostility, militarised their polities and in the name of security made people less secure and impoverished them. This is why the act of hundreds of Pakistanis and Indians walking across the no man’s land on the Wagha -Attari border to attend the Forum’s Joint Conventions, is symbolically significant to keep up a peoples pressure to liberalise links. It may also explain why this time the Interior Ministry of Pakistan cooperated with the Indian Home Ministry to withhold for a land crossing to Pakistanis obliging them to fly or come by the Samjhauta Express. The survival of the train (and bus) link itself is routinely threatened by the recurring crisis in relations.

Severance of even these links will reinforce mutual isolation and play into the hands of antagonistic forces who have a vested interest in mystifying the India Pakistan hostility as essentialist. The Forum’s vision is just the opposite, to involve in a trans border people to people initiative, hundreds of citizens. The mass Joint Conventions of the Forum are central to the vision of fostering a honeycomb of cross border coalitions capable of democratically transforming the India-Pakistan relationship. Track two efforts, and there have been many, are essentially select inter elite communications. The Forum’s vision set its sights on a broad based peoples movement.

But planning big entails such massive logistical and home generated financial mobilisation, that in effect the Joint Conventions threaten to become an end in itself leaving the Forum few resources or energies for the necessary smaller year around activities which should ideally culminate in a Convention. Indeed at Bangalore Convention, for many of the founder members of the Forum, it was time for some hard introspection. Was the Forum only a jamboree? Were we little more than travel and tour operators?

In fact after the "historic" Delhi and Lahore Conventions, these misgivings have shrouded the other Conventions as the rhetoric of promises has become longer and substantive achievements on the ground remain unrealised. All members have to subscribe to the peoples Lahore Declaration of November 1993. However, as in the earlier Conventions, the seemingly motley group which the Joint Convention brought together seemed more "outside" than "inside" the Convention and seriously engaged with the four plus one themes- Kashmir, Demilitarisation, Religious Intolerance, Governance and Globalisation and Regional Cooperation.

But wasn’t that what the Forum was also all about? That is letting people interact in structured or unstructured ways. In Peshawar, I remember one delegate who seemed more bent on tourism and visiting the sites- Punja Sahib and Nankana Sahib, etc. I was surprised to find him in Bangalore, enthusiastically conferring with delegates from West Punjab, planning a meeting in East Punjab.

Whether it was shoppers or the tourists, in their own way they were demystifying the other. For us who a year and half ago had journeyed to Peshawar, memories of Khan Abdul Gaffor Khan,(or the Frontier Gandhi as we styled him) reminded us of the possibility of the existence of an alternative non violent secular tradition in NWFP. Their fierce assertion of Pakhtunwah identity brought home the pressing internal power sharing problems, put on hold because of the Kashmir issue and its legitimisation of militarisation. Down the tourist track by way of Taxila and Harappa we connected with a common pre-Islamic subcontinental heritage.

This time too in Bangalore tourism took on a different meaning when a bus load of Pakistanis alighted at Srirangapatnam and the Darbar Hall of Tipu Sultan. There was pride in a common heritage and frustration. The mix of Sultanate and Hindu (south) architecture was a reminder of the co-existence characteristic of the Muslim dominions in the south and of Tipu a symbol of historic pride on both sides of the border.

The Forum’s Joint Conventions have been catalytic in fostering offshoots of coalitions, both connected and independent of the Forum. It was in the Lahore Joint Convention that representatives of Fishworkers Unions on both sides of the border met and worked out an informal system of cooperation to assist and rescue fishermen caught on the wrong side. A connection established in Peshawar Convention led to the release of three minor children locked up in a Pakistani jail. At the Calcutta Book Fair, the West Bengal chapter of the Forum put up a stall and spin off programmes of visiting Pakistani historians, feminists and cultural activists. After the exchange visits of students more ambitious plans are being worked out about summer residential exchange programmes. A joint project for the re-writing of history was bruited about. Also the Forum has been involved in women’s coalition building for subcontinental peace through initiatives like the "peace bus" and participation in the "Women Waging Peace" global network of Harvard University.

Indeed the sense of déjà vu dissolves in the sheer energy and magic of the mela and the process of discovering each other and the common understanding of what the costs of confrontation have meant in terms of denied welfare, militarisation and intolerance. At least 60 % of the delegates are first time members. With renewed fervour they recommended as did the delegates of earlier Conventions, relaxation of visas, downsizing military expenditure, signing CTBT and a democratic and peaceful settlement of the Kashmir problem which involves the wishes of the people in all areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Hard and daring joint formulations were constructed on Kashmir, urging cessation of all violence by all forces (directly and indirectly under the control of governments and militant groups) and to move towards the facilitation of a process by which the peoples of Kashmir choose their representatives for a dialogue. Chattisingpura massacre grimly spotlighted that violence can only beget violence, that the democratic space has to be wrested back by civil society to defeat the forces which understand only violence.

But beyond the substantive was the symbolic value of more and more Indian and Pakistani citizens jointly affirming and reaffirming the recommendations of the Forum and its basic vision of peace and democracy. It is too often forgotten in the din of denunciation about the "betrayal" of the Lahore Summit Declaration, that its promise of peaceful co-existence was legitimised by the peoples desire for peace. It was not just incidental that at Lahore, the Pakistan government deemed it necessary to have present at the receptions for the visiting Indian Prime Minister, leading members of the Forum as a recognition of the catalytic role being played by growing peace constituencies on both sides. Even at the height of the Kargil war, and the surge of jingoism, the voices for peace refused to be silenced in the media and in peace rallies in Quetta and Calcutta.

Has Kargil shrunk the peace constituency? That question is better responded to by another question. Have the problems of impoverishment unemployment, intolerance and militarisation direct and indirect of our polities, shrunk? For it is this personal experience of the cost of confrontation which has led people to the desire for peace.

At a time when Indian state policy is to disengage from Pakistan, dangerously leaving only the language of guns to speak more and more threateningly, the importance of keeping alive and widening a people to people track of engagement against all odds, is vital. The two governments facilitation of the process suggests that they too recognise its value.

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