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Crossing subcontinental iron curtain

People-to-people contact between India and Pakistan is on the rise. Peace is in the air, and the plethora of NGOs promoting interaction across the border is capitalising fully. Environmentalists, school teachers, businessmen, musical groups, artists, you name it -all want to cross the Wagah checkpoint and have a peek at "the other side".

india Updated: Feb 04, 2004 14:26 IST

"People are crossing the border every day now. Sixty students came over this morning. Yesterday it was a group of lawyers. We've never had it as good. Let's hope it stays like this," says Syeda Hameed, a former National Commission for Women member and an avid peace activist who has just returned from Karachi.

People-to-people contact between India and Pakistan is on the rise. Peace is in the air, and the plethora of NGOs promoting interaction across the border is capitalizing fully. Environmentalists, school teachers, businessmen, musical groups, artists, you name it -all want to cross the Wagah checkpoint and have a peek at "the other side".

Freshbreath of peace

But it hasn't always been so. Crossing the sub-continental iron curtain was more difficult than a trip across the jungles of central Africa for any Indian or Pakistani until a few years ago. "The last five years have seen a dramatic rise in people-to-people contact," says Hameed, who has herself arranged several cross-border trips in this period.

"Even this period has seen several highs and lows. The worst were the post-Kargil days, when the very mention of a visa for the other country would give authorities the jitters. But the desire for contact, for interaction has been so acute among people on both sides that even just after Kargil, we were able to arrange a trip for 64 women from Pakistan," she says.

Intitiation of the dialogue

One of the earliest breakthroughs came in February 1995, when the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy - a year-old organisation formed with this very purpose in mind - managed to invite nearly 100 Pakistanis for a convention in Delhi. The convention was a success, with another 100-odd Indian delegates - from practically the entire country - joining them to press the two governments to resolve bilateral issues peacefully and allow more such interactions.

"We were the founders of this movement," says Gautam Navlakha, a founding member of the Forum. "We started it, and are pleased to see that so many groups have been formed since to take the movement forward, and with such success."

"We were amazed to find how similar Lahore and Karachi were to north Indian cities. The language people talk in, the things they talk about: you can hardly make out that you've crossed the border...some of my friends had a real change of heart about Pakistan and Pakistanis during the trip."



- Anish Vanaik, History student, Delhi University, India

The Forum has organised five more conventions since the Delhi convention, both in India and Pakistan. The latest one, held in Karachi last month, hosted more than 250 Indian delegates. Besides these conventions, the Forum has helped several individual groups - of students, teachers, women, artists etc - cross the border.



Talk about Visa Power

But it has been a long and arduous decade. "The governments have not been cooperative," says Navlakha. "Getting visas is the toughest part of the job. We never get as many visas as we want. The few that we do come in very late. At times, some of the delegates don't know if they are going or not until a day or two before the trip. Then, the visas are valid for very short durations, about 10-15 days mostly. If it wasn't for the enthusiasm that members in both countries show for hosting each other, none of this would have been possible."

Hameed agrees. "There is a tremendous desire among people on both sides to see each other, to know each other, to love each other," she says. "When we go to Pakistan, people there say 'Yeh log dilli se aaye hain, inki achchhe se khatirdari karo' (these people are from Delhi, treat them well). When we get Pakistanis here, shopkeepers in Agra and Delhi offer them free mithai (sweets) and even ask them to take some back home. The amount of goodwill these meetings generate has to be seen to be believed, particularly given the backdrop of political and media rhetoric that both sides are continuously exposed to."

"When we go to Pakistan, people there say 'Yeh log dilli se aaye hain, inki achchhe se khatirdari karo' (these people are from Delhi, treat them well). When we get Pakistanis here, shopkeepers in Agra and Delhi offer them free mithai  (sweets)"



- Syeda Hameed, Peace activist from India

"You never know what Pakistan is like until you actually go there," says Anish Vanaik, who crossed the border three years ago on a trip of history students from Delhi. "We were amazed to find how similar Lahore and Karachi were to north Indian cities. The language people talk in, the things they talk about: you can hardly make out that you've crossed the border. And once they know that you are from India, there is no end to the hospitality they shower upon you. Some of my friends had a real change of heart about Pakistan and Pakistanis during the trip."



Mirroring our reflections

"And it's not just people exchanging pleasantries with each other on these cross-border trips," says Navlakha. "During our conventions, delegates discuss controversial, divisive issues, including Kashmir, South Asia's nuclearisation, the question of minorities and so on. We have heated debates on these subjects, and we, as an organisation, take a definite stand on these issues - to which all our delegates are signatories."

Hameed thinks that cross-border interaction also has a huge political impact. "When 500 people from the two sides get together, you can be sure that leaders on both sides are watching," she says. "I attribute the recent peace moves on the political front, as well as the ones we've seen over the last few years, to the pressure exerted by such meetings."

"We definitely carry a nuisance value," says Navlakha. "Governments may not be swayed by what we want, but our presence tells them that there is a constituency for peace they cannot ignore. Our meetings may not resolve bilateral issues, but they do show a way forward. In fact, over the years, I have seen the two governments borrowing our language, our words when discussing these issues."

First Published: Jan 02, 2004 18:43 IST