People power can bring India-Pakistan unity
Across the Palk Straits By Kuldip Nayar

A seminar took me to Lahore. The topic was: Rapprochement between India and Pakistan. Among the participants were scholars and retired diplomats from Germany and France. Their experience of striking friendship after hundreds of years of war was their input. They argued that certain members of the government elite had to undergo a personal 'conversion.' Public opinion followed later.

With India and Pakistan, it is different. Bureaucrats who formulate and execute policy for a détente between the two countries are 'mindset' and they are far from converted. The initiative has been by the people. Whatever progress has been made to lessen tension, it is because of them. They, too, have their eyes fixed on how France and Germany reached the equation.

This example was cited by Quaide-a-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah two years before the creation of Pakistan. He came to the Law College at Lahore where I was studying. In reply to a question expressing fear over the hostility between Hindus and Muslims, he said: "Some nations have killed millions of each other's and yet an enemy of today is a friend of tomorrow. That is history."

Hindus fleeing Pakistan soon after the 1947 partition

I find his prophecy coming true when I see people-to-people contact not only spreading but also strengthening. Yet the attitude of the bureaucracy and politicians on both sides leaves me cold. That a visa is hard to get is no more a news. The news is that the intelligence agencies are the ultimate arbiter.
One glimmer of hope is that India has proposed to Pakistan to abolish visa for people above 65.

Islamabad, which had once rejected the proposal, is reconsidering it after the advent of the new government. Still, the grievance of New Delhi is that it is doing its best but Islamabad is not cooperating. Indian High Commission at Islamabad claims that it issued more than 100,000 visas last year as against Islamabad's 35,000.

However adamant the governments on both sides are, the people will make a difference to the sterile exercise that both sides go over periodically. The world is replete with examples where people have forced events.

Poland is thousands of miles away from the subcontinent. Yet, this European country has a lesson for people living in the two countries. Europe asserted itself against the dictation of who will meet whom and under what circumstances, the practice in India and Pakistan. The common man was only a tool in the hands of some faceless Communist party bureaucrats wanting to control him.

Suddenly, from among the people rose an ordinary worker-with the same failings as others-to ignite the desire to overcome individual differences and stand together to defeat those who furrowed separateness. This man was Lech Walesa, head of the ship workers' union at Gdansk and later the first President of a free Poland.

To the world he gave an idea, the idea that people who join hands for a common cause are a power to be reckoned with. They can remove any impediment, any wall and any border.

Before I crossed into India, after traveling some 250 kilometres in a jeep from my hometown, Sialkot, on September 13, 1947, I saw a column of Muslims coming from India stopping near us, outside Lahore. None spoke-neither them nor us. But we understood each other; it was a spontaneous kinship. Both had seen murder and worse; both had been broken on the rack of history; both were refugees. The emotional bonds between peoples of the two countries had not died even after the holocaust when at least one million people were killed and 20 million uprooted.

After staying for some time on the outskirts of Lahore, they went their way and we ours. I told myself that someday we must create conditions where we could meet, the friends I had left behind or their children. I do not like gates at the border, nor barbed wires. Jinnah did not want it that way. He said that Pakistan and India would settle down as America and Canada had.

A candlelight vigil at the Wagah border or a busload of women from Lahore to Delhi, or a lorry of passengers traveling between Muzaffarabad and Srinagar are by themselves not great events. But they signify the breaking of a crust of hostility between the two countries.

A composite dialogue or confidence building measures may be overused phrases. But what they mean is that the era of hostilities is over and the era of sitting across the same table has come. The basic problem between the two countries is how to have faith and confidence in each other.

I suggest that the Punjab assemblies on both sides pass a resolution offering apologies for the killings, looting and the like during partition. This may have a psychological effect. There are a few relentless optimists who have prepared the ground. They had to confront nearly implacable opposition, vested interests and extremism of the worst type.

The task in Pakistan was still more Herculean because the openness of India's democracy did help it to an extent. Pakistan believed that India was out to undo it. Yet India, however democratic, did not adjust how to live with an intransigent neighbour. There was so much tension that one could taste it. Even the best of friendships were under strain.

Things have changed now to a large extent. Cricket teams and film stars have done a tremendous job. They are heroes on both sides. People applaud good cricket whichever team plays. On the other hand, cassettes of Indian music and films are popular all over Pakistan. This has helped lessen bitterness. Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman told me that Pakistan had unilaterally lifted the ban on screening Indian films.

I personally think that such praiseworthy efforts get embroiled in the preconceived notions of 'mindset' bureaucrats and politicians of limited vision. Some activists, already engaged in the process of people-to-people contact, know this from their experience at the grassroots.

Governments at New Delhi and Islamabad have to realize that it is really the people who have the power to change and if they are kept at a distance the process itself will get defeated.

Politicians have certain pulls and compulsions, but the people are their masters and, if allowed, they can change the course of history. Witness the popular revolutions in France, China and, most recently, Iran, where the tide of public opinion swept away the established order.

The people in those countries realised the folly of tolerating dictation by those who did not represent the popular mood. Have Pakistan and India reached that stage? Ultimately, their understanding will count. Kashmir is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the bias and mistrust in each other. If you do not remove that, you will have another Kashmir after solving this one.

(The writer is a veteran Indian journalist. He is also a former diplomat and a one-time Rajya Sabha member)

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