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Between the line

A historic bus journey
February 22, 2012


Thirteen is considered an unlucky number. But 13 years ago in February, 1999 something fortunate took place. This was the month when the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee undertook a bus journey to Pakistan. His was a simple and straight message: Neighbours should never be distant. Yet it had taken some 52 years to span nearly 52 kilometers between Amritsar and Lahore.

It is the same border on which we have lighted candles since the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. It is the same border, which I crossed after partition in September 1947. And I recall how we, a small group, stopped at the no-man’s land to make way for people coming from the other side. They were Muslims, we the Hindus and the Sikhs. None spoke—neither they, nor we. 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. We were refugees.

As the bus carrying Vajpayee and some of us rolled over to the Pakistan side, I felt a new beginning had been made. Whether we were making history or not, but we were conscious that it was in the making. Could we be path-breakers? The border bristling with fear and distrust had suddenly become normal. The police that always adopted a martial posture looked like sentinels standing at attention. Something had changed. It seemed as if the peoples of the subcontinent, without giving up their separate identity, would work together for the common good. Would the bus be ushering in an era beyond their dreams—the faith in friendship to which I have clung in the sea of hostility and hatred that has for long engulfed the subcontinent.

Vajpayee’s speech in Hindustani at the civic reception in Lahore evoked hope. It was the highest point of his 24-hour stay. He spoke from the heart as Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz put it. Vjapayee did not hide the feeling that he had been against partition. Many in his entourage did not want him to visit the Minar-e-Pakistan, built to commemorate the memory of March 23, 1940, when a resolution for the formation of Pakistan was endorsed at Lahore.

He not only resisted the pressure not to visit the place but also declared that he wanted to allay the fears of those who believed that India had not accepted Pakistan. He wrote in the visitors’ book: integrity of Pakistan was sine qua non for India’s unity. Vajpayee was at his best, poetic in expression and lofty in thoughts. He assured the Pakistanis that the “outstanding problem of Kashmir” would be resolved peacefully. What he said implied that it was a dispute, which must be settled—something which even liberal Pakistanis have wanted New Delhi to commit.

Surely, the Pakistanis were not serious when they linked Vajpayee’s visit to a solution on Kashmir. They deluded themselves if they believed that the 51-year-old problem could be sorted out in 24 hours. That Vjapyee described more than once Jammu and Kashmir as a problem showed how far he has travelled from his earlier stand that JK was an integral part of India. It meant he was talking in terms of give and take. I was glad that Nawaz Sharif said more or less the same thing while declaring that the “traditional stand” on outstanding problems would have to be changed. Recently, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani has said that Kashmir will be sorted out through a dialogue.

I was surprised over a proposal by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Nawaz, brother of then Pakistan Prime Minister, to Prakash Singh Badal, Chief Minister of India’s Punjab at the breakfast. Shahbaz suggested that India could take Jammu and give Kashmir to Pakistan. The reason why it was not acceptable to New Delhi was the division on the basis of religion.  India is a pluralistic society. It cannot accept the thesis that the Muslim-majority Kashmir should go to the Islamic state of Pakistan and the Hindu-majority Jammu to India. This would give a fatal blow to the policy of secularism that India upheld. Some other formula has to be worked out, which includes the say of Kashmiris. Both countries have suffered enough from partition on the basis of religion. For them to go back to the days of religious divide is to invite disaster.

Islamabad has disappointed me by not reciprocating New Delhi’s offer of no-first use of nuclear weapons. The argument that they give equality to Pakistan, which is weaker in conventional weapon war, is fallacious. The bomb has, in fact, ruled out wars between India and Pakistan. Can Islamabad use it on India without exposing itself to the consequences of the fallout? Even if Pakistan could not afford to have a non-first-use pact because of domestic compulsions, it could have had a no-war pact. This would not have jeopardized its defence in any way. Had Vajpayee and Sharif signed such a pact a sense of relief would have swept across the subcontinent. The two countries could have then been cut their military expenditure and divert funds to education, health and hunger, the vision to which Vajpayee referred during his speech.

Maybe, the two countries will work towards that in the days to come. The core problem is trust and confidence, not Kashmir. That has to be built first. With all its deficiencies, the Lahore declaration opened up many avenues for cooperation and amity. There was an opportunity for the two countries to generate goodwill, which would help them solve all outstanding problems. But it was unfortunate that the atmosphere built by Vajpayee’s visit and Nawaz Sharif’s generous approach was allowed to be dissipated and events meandered to the same old situation.

Why Kargil? Was it a diabolical conspiracy of an ambitious General? All that I have heard by the way of explanation is that Nawaz Sharif was also on board. This is not true. I have talked to him at length and found that he had no prior knowledge of infiltration.

Why was the Lahore process disturbed? Some intellectuals had the answer. Pakistan was not ready for it. No groundwork had been done. The nation was suddenly asked to switch off the anti-India feeling which it had nourished for years. This was not possible overnight. Many made the same point as former Prime Minister Inder Gujral does: the breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations will not be an event; it has to be evolved.

During the Kargil misadventure, Nawaz Sharif wanted to come to India to meet Vajpayee. It was not possible because India did not consider Sharif’s presence politic when a fierce battle was raging at the Kargil heights. He went to Washington. The rest is history. EOM

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