When Resham Sitara’s family and friends learnt she was to be part of a team going to India, they got scared. “So much so, they said, ‘we won’t return alive’,” says the 31-year-old Lahore resident, who is one of the 19 young Pakistani women and one man who are in the city to attend a peace conference.
A night after their arrival in India on Tuesday night, Sitara says she would like to tell her people in Pakistan that “India is not what you make of it”.
“People here are loving and hospitable. I have fallen in love with this country at first sight,” added Sitara, an M.Phil student.
The team of women recounted how they convinced their near and dear ones, who were frightened at their prospect of leaving for India. They had to even ignore taunts of peers ahead of their trip to the eastern neighbour.
“Back home, there is talk of war and tension, but we wanted to come here,” says Roohani Barkal, 21, who is pursuing economics graduation in Gilgit. “Our families were shocked, scared. Friends even said ‘tell us your last wish’. I told them to turn the TV off and let us go.”
The 19 women and a man arrived by bus from Wagah late on Tuesday night for the Global Youth Peace Conference being organised in Chandigarh and Shimla by Yuvsatta, a non-governmental organisation.
Tayyiba Munir, 25, says her family, too, was not willing to send her. “I said people of India and Pakistan want peace and togetherness, not war and bitterness,” adds the student of M.Phil at Lahore’s Punjab University.
She says the tension between the two countries is nothing new. “It’s a familiar thing. But it’s not between two enemies. It’s as if two brothers are annoyed over something, but they are brothers after all,” she adds.
Lahore-based social and cultural studies student Urwah Sultana, 23, says she was told that immigration officers will ask hostile questions. “I was surprised. They were cordial,” she says. “I was even told that I would be held captive or a prisoner of war in India. Instead, I am being warmly received wherever I go.”
The women say such people-to-people exchanges are the answer to the trust-deficit between the two nations. “The nearly 20 of us will go back and tell 200 people back in our country that India and Indians are lovely. We’ll spread the word on social media,” says Resham. “People will believe us because we are sharing our experience. They will not believe the politicians and media propaganda.”
The young women from Pakistan are fans of Bollywood actors and Indian cricketers. Roohani is fond of actor Aamir Khan, while Tayyaba loves actor Kangana Ranaut, as “she is a strong feminist”.
Who is their favourite cricketer, and they shout instantly: Mahendra Singh Dhoni!
“We’re looking forward to seeing his biopic,” says Roohani. “Why can’t the two nations simply play instead of fighting?”