Where have the voices of Indo-Pak peace gone?

From where do I start? And how do I start? One thing is sure that it has been a long haul. I am referring to people-to-people contact which we fostered like a gardener tending a sapling.

My tryst with friendly relations between India and Pakistan goes back to September 13, 1947. That was the day when I crossed the border at Wagha after journeying from Sialkot, my hometown. I had seen murder and worse. Like millions of refugees, I too had been broken on the rack of history. My resolve was to make the border soft so that the people I had left behind-they were similar-could come to India and we to Pakistan without the hassle of passport or visa.

But I found to my horror that anyone talking about good relations was dubbed a Pakistani agent in India and an Indian agent in Pakistan. Still my job was easier than those in Pakistan because the democratic polity on this side had given us an open society and an environment where we could criticize India whenever it was harsh on Pakistan.

In comparison, India was a better place for meeting the likeminded from Pakistan. Slowly and gradually, personal relations began to fructify into relations between the two countries. Governments remained distant and they had their "track" for getting together the pro-establishment men to say their respective government's piece. It too helped because there was a meeting of those who knew the official line and to what extent the participants could go.

What really gave me strength was the visit to Lahore some 16 years ago. I had just checked into a city hotel when Khurshid Kasuri, who later became Pakistan's Foreign Minister, rang me up to convey that Benazir Bhutto wanted me to meet her. I requested him to pick me up. He came within a few minutes and I accompanied him to his house in the cantonment where Benazir was presiding over a meeting of 23 parties wanting restoration of democracy in Pakistan.

She made me sit next to her and said softly: We, the political parties, would never be able to normalize relations between Pakistan and India. You (the people) would be able to do so one day provided you did not give up your efforts. Nawaz Sharif, who was then the Prime Minister, endorsed her thinking when I interviewed him. He said he would help me in the endeavour. He did so in his own way.

That was the year when I collected a few persons from Delhi and a few from Amritsar, in all 15, to light candles at the Wagah gate on the midnight of August 14-15, the time when India and Pakistan became independent. As the ceremony was held every year on the same night, the crowd grew bigger and bigger. In 2007, there were roughly 3 lakh people on this side of the border, raising the slogan: Long Live India-Pakistan Dosti (friendship).

We did not provide any transport, any meals and not even cold water. People sat in the open and enjoyed the Punjabi music. Top artistes would come to sing because it was considered prestigious to appear from that stage. We invited National Assembly members from Pakistan to participate in the function. Once Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was one of the guests. He talked about peace then. But today he says that Pakistan is fully prepared for war.

To our regret, none would show up on the other side when we lighted candles at the Wagah gate. Some time the Jammat-e-Islami kept the peace activists in Pakistan away from reaching the border and some time the authorities did so. The media on this side made much of the Pakistanis' absence at the other side. It came to be dubbed a one-sided effort.

This year some 50 people, men and women, from Pakistan came right up to the gate. We opened the gate but they could not. We exchanged candles and talked to each other. This was clear evidence that democracy had returned to Pakistan.

But it is a pity that the Mumbai attack has also come in the same year. The entire atmosphere has changed overnight. Hardliners have overtaken us. And when New Delhi declared to curtail the number of visas to be issued from the Indian High Commission at Islamabad, people-to-people contact had a question mark against it.

In an interview to a television network I had to admit that the terrorist attack on Mumbai demolished my work of 16 years in no time. When there is no option except peace between the two countries, why the hype and jingoism which the media, particularly the television channels, have built up?

Why do democratic forces come to talk in the same vein as the dictators do? Why does the fledging democracy in Pakistan begin to behaving like General Pervez Musharraf did during his rule-all denials? I commend Asma Jehangir who said at Delhi that the terrorists were the Pakistanis and that the Asif Ali Zardari government should begin taking action against them instead of denying that they were Pakistanis.

And how does one explain the statement by General Asfaq Parvez Kiyani, chief of the army staff that Pakistan would retaliate within minutes of India's attack on Pakistan.. There is no political party or lobby talking about war. Why is he queering the pitch? The bigger question which remains unanswered is why do peace activists become silent when they see the warlike atmosphere taking shape. This is the time when they should have been most active. In fact, some of them have turned into hawks.

Is there no commitment to peace whatever the environment? From where do I begin now? When I embarked on the journey I was in the morning of my life. Now when the destination has become more distant, I am in the evening of my life.

Where have the voices for peace gone? Where are those who sat all night talking and went straight to the bus stand to go to their country? We have failed so many times earlier and have still got engaged in people-to-people contact quickly. Why do I feel despondent this time? Have I got disillusioned or simply tired? Or is it what Faiz Ahmad Faiz described as: Lambi hai gham ki shaam, magar shaam hi to hai (the night of grief is long, but it is only a night long).

* The writer is a veteran Indian journalist and former MP. He is also a one-time diplomat.

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