People-to-People contacts: An Indo-Pakistan crisis
Pakistani army soldiers wearing outfits depicting the history of the Muslim Army ride on horses as they take part in the parade marking Pakistan Day in Islamabad, 23 March 2007. The day also marks the execution of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, during the British colonial rule. AFP
Since last year some of us, including Justice Rajinder Sachar, have been arranging a function at Shadman Colony in Lahore, where Bhagat Singh and his two comrades, Sukhdev and Rajguru, were hanged on March 23, 1931.
Since this is also the day when people in Pakistan celebrate the birth of Pakistan - the resolution for the creation of a separate state was passed on March 23, 1940 -- we either advance the date of the function or postpone it.
The last time we held it on March 24. This time we scheduled it for March
19. The celebration is a floral tribute to those who were executed by the British.
The authorities in Lahore remained distant last year. Very few people joined locally, primarily because we had made no prior announcement.
Our apprehension was that the government would step in to stop even a small function. I had a bit of experience on this subject four years ago. When I was writing my book on Bhagat Singh, I wanted to see the documents relating to the court proceedings and other material.
The government refused me access to any of them on the ground that "it didn't want to get involved in the Sikh problem."
No amount of explanation that Bhagat Singh was hanged long before the Sikh problem arose had any effect.
More over, he had nothing to do with what the Akalis and others did subsequently.
We associated some local radicals this year in Lahore to pay homage to the martyrs. Tahira Mazar Ali, Fakhar Zaman and Abid Ali Minto were the ones.
The authorities stepped in a day before the function. They clamped Section 144 on the area, making it illegal for more than five people to assemble. We did not want to violate the government orders, however preposterous they were.
The orders surprised me because at one time even the chief minister of Punjab in Pakistan wanted to join us to pay homage to Bhagat Singh who belonged to the time when India and Pakistan were one country.
However cold the government's attitude was, we found enthusiasm and emotional response among the intelligentsia and others we approached. They, in fact, wanted to revive the memory of the heroes before partition and share sentiments of sacrifice and selflessness of those days.
There is a welcome change in people in Pakistan. They want to bury the hatchet with India and develop close relations with it. There is an overflowing desire to meet people from across the border and make them friends.
Businessmen, whose Chamber I addressed, said publicly that the core issue of Kashmir should not hinder trade between the two countries. They believe that both have no alternative to trade and business.
People-to-people contact, which has been given the name of Tract II diplomacy, has done wonders. Tension in the two countries has practically disappeared. The unending process of action and reaction is waning. Even the killings at Samjuhta Express have been taken as an unfortunate incident and has no way lessened the goodwill at the public level.
Attempts to exploit the tragedy, as some religious parties tried to do, failed to build up anti-India feeling.
Railway Minister Rashid, a hawk, did his best to arouse religious feelings but failed to do so. My assessment is that if New Delhi were to relax visa restrictions, there would be an unending queue outside the Indian High Commission at Islamabad.
This is where the Manmohan Singh government has failed, although the Prime Minister has said many a time that he is in favour of granting visas liberally. I do not know who in the government has the last word. Probably, it is the Home Ministry. Whoever they are, their belief is that a liberal visa system would bring in terrorists from the other side as if they come through check posts.
In this respect, Islamabad is worse than New Delhi.
Pakistan High Commission at Delhi has to refer practically every visa application to Islamabad which looks dispersed among several intelligence agencies, including the ISI.
A few days ago, only one third of 90 applicants got their visa to attend South Asian Human Rights convention at Lahore. Even those who got their visa received intimation a few hours before their scheduled departure. This is not only inconvenient but also humiliating. Persons like Aruna Roy who initiated the movement on the Right to Information got her visa an evening before she was to leave by train.
I thought Shiv Shankar Menon, who was high commissioner at Islamabad, before he became foreign secretary would be pushing the movement for people-to-people contact. But, if anything, the facilities have lessened during his tenure. He signed recently at Islamabad a protocol to make the travel between the two countries easy.
So far there is no difference and the authorities -- in the ministries and at the airport -- continue to harass the Pakistanis as before.
Every Indian in Pakistan and every Pakistani in India is a terrorist unless it is proved otherwise.
Above all, both sides issue visas only for three cities. An ordinary visitor has also to report to the police on arrival or his movement from one city to the other. Their story of travails is harrowing. What is sustaining the effort to be friendly is that the desire for contact on both sides is too strong to be diminished by rude behaviour of the police on either side.
However, one thing which the Pakistanis are carrying back to their home is that the Indians are not enthusiastic about people-to-people contact as the Pakistanis are. This impression is spreading. The difficulty in getting visas is proving to be an aggravating factor.
New Delhi has even violated the conditions of SAARC visa. Parliament members, judges and vice-chancellors are entitled to go across without visa. The facility is there as long as they are occupying a particular office.
India has cancelled the arrangement unilaterally to make the yearly renewal of visa obligatory.
The authorities in India continue to labour under the impression that most of terrorism is because of the "liberal" visa policy.
People-to-people contact cannot go forward so long as the mindset of the bureaucrats on both sides does not change. I do not see it happening because the prejudice is too deep and the interference of the intelligence agencies is too pervasive.