February 1999 News

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The Bus Stops at Attari

26th February 1999
The Indian Express
By: Saeed Naqvi

Come to think of it, the bus journey to Lahore was actually quite a complicated affair. I was first alerted to tis possible significance by US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in the course of an interview conducted on January 31. We were talking about ways to "break the ice" with Pakistan and he, in passing, referred to the bus journey. There was no mention of the Prime Minister as passenger. The idea had probably not surfaced at the hint dropped inadvertently by Talbott.

It was an exciting idea. Atal Behari Vajpayee as the first passenger inaugural bus journey to Lahore. He would have to be a very spare Prime Minister to travel by bus all the way from Delhi to Lahore and, like Mahatma Gandhi in another context, have the state spend billions on security en route. The Attari-Wagah border is exactly and mid-way between Amritsar and Lahore. It made practical sense that Vajpayee's bus journey should begin at Amritsar.

The rest of the choreography at this end was imaginative. The Prime Minister would be accompanied by writers, poets, painters, sportsmen, actors, musicians - cultural representatives all. Never did Ali Sardar Jafri's memorable lines sound more promising: Tum aao Gulshan e Lahore se chaman bar dosh/Ham aaen sub-he Banaras ke roshni le kar(You come, laden with flowers from Lahore's beautiful gardens. I approach you carrying the exquisite light that marks every dawn in Banars.)

But for the choreography to be complete, all of this would have to be reciprocated at the Pakistani end. It would have been a bit of a dream scenario, if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had received Vajpayee at Wagah and joined him in the bus to Lahore. Vajpayee's cultural delegation could, likewise, have mingled with their Pakistani counterparts.

Just as the bus journey from Amritsar to Wagah was vivid in its symbolism, so was the absence of the bus ride from Wagah to Lahore by the two Prime Ministers.

We in India must understand this. An Indian Prime Minister could have driven from Delhi or even further South and the journey would have electrified the Indian nation, across the board. But a Pakistani Prime Minister courts danger if he demonstrates enthusiasm for India. Sometimes, by playing up the danger he gains political advantage.

It is part of the inexplicable complexities in Indo-Pak contact that Pakistan actually fears Indian friendship. Kashmir is the excuse on account of which hesitations towards India are explained.

The visit to Minar-e-Pakistan by a Prime Minister who represents a political culture which once talked of Akhand Bharat was also, like so much else on this visit, rich in political symbolism. At the Lahore Fort banquet he was the perfect spokesman of India's composite culture. References to Akbar and Shahjehan, associated with the fort, were affectionate; his choice of a Persian couplet in praise of Lahore had a stunning surprise element.

Years ago, there were notions such as Akhand Bharat, a contrived fear that a section of the Indian state had not accepted the Pakistani reality, that exercised Pakistanis. All of that has been replaced by something psychological, much less amenable to simple cure: a fear of friendship. When Vajpayee was uttering that Persian couplet I could not help wonder what might be going on inside the heads of the authors of Pakistani statecraft who have to contend with a civilisation which embraces everything from its Sanskritic core to Persian and so-res of languages in between with classical literature predating Christ.

Even though he played out the script rich in symbols, Vajpayee is aware of the pitfalls. When the bus rolled out of Amritsar, I asked the Prime Minister: "What emotions are you experiencing at the beginning of this historic journey?"

He said: "I am traveling to Pakistan with mixed emotions; we cannot afford to ignore such ghostly incidents as happened in Rajouri last night." Over 20 Hindus had been massacred by infiltrators.

The opposition to the Vajpayee visit was sustained by Jamat-e-Islami in other ways: organising a hartal in Lahore and creating a serious law and order problem in the vicinity of the Fort where Nawaz Sharif was hosting the banquet. Several ambassadors had their cars smashed.

One must, of course, resist the temptation of regarding the violence as part of the orchestration, but one fails to understand why the joint Press conference, which could have been a splendid occasion to clear the air, was allowed by a Pakistani official to be virtually hijacked by some of the most hawkish questioners on the issue of Kashmir.

During this very brief visit, the Jang group of newspapers invited some of us for a hurriedly organised seminar on "the role of the media" in building on the Vajpayee visit. In the evening some Pakistani journalists invited me out for a meal. This limited interaction has caused me to incorporate into my appraisal of the Indo-Pak equations some adjustments.

For instance, I have always maintained, that the people of Pakistan desire friendship but the state is adversarial to consolidate the nation. I still abide by this basic assessment. The new element concerns Kashmir, continuous propaganda over 50 years has caused even the most reasonable folk to somehow introduce Kashmir into any conversation with an Indian. And on most occasions when Kashmir is incorporated into a discussion the issue has almost never been thought through. It is introduced almost by instinct, knee jerk, a habit.

Serious Indo-Pak rapprochement, I believe, will have to be preceded by the Pakistani media creating space for the Indian case on Kashmir to get across to the Pakistani people. We know that no headway can be made with Pakistan without addressing the Kashmir issue. That is why it is a part of the composite dialogue, an important element of which has now been raised to the level of foreign ministers. But Pakistanis are ignorant of what ought to be an Indian incantation: Indian secularism protects, among a billion others, the world's second largest Muslim population and Kashmir will have to be addressed in such a way that this structure is not impaired.

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