March 1999 News

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Don't Miss the Bus

2nd March 1999
The Indian Express
By: Kuldeep Nayar

The bus was deluxe. but the message was simple: neighbours should never be distant. It has taken India and Pakistan as many years to span a distance of 51 kilometre between Amritsar and Lahore. Still it is one-time ride. The road is yet ot be smoothened and the passengers are as yet too edgy.

It is the same border on which we have lighted candles since the 50th anniversary of India's independence, although people from the other side have not reciprocated the gesture so far. It is the same border which I crossed after Partition in 1947. I remember how we stopped at no-man's land to make way for people comming from the other side. They were Muslims, were Hindus and Sikhs. No one spoke - neither they nor us. But we understood each other - it was a spontaneous kinship. Both had seem murder an worse; both had been broken on the rack of history. We were refugees.

As the bus carrying Prime Minister Atal Behari 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, we were conscious that it was in the making. Could we be path-breakers? The border, bristling with fear and distrust, has become chastened. 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 identities, would work together for the common good. Would the bus be ushering in an era beyond their dreams - the faith to which 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 held hope. It was the highest point of his 24-hour stay. He spoke from the heart, as Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz put it. Vajpayee did not hide the feeling that he had been against Partition. Many in his encourage did not want him to visit the Minar-e-Pakistan, built ot commemorate the memory of March 23, 1940, when the resolution for the formation of Pakistan was endorsed at Lahore.

He not only admitted the pressure exerted on him not to visit the place but also declared that he wanted to allay the fears of those who believed that Indian had not accepted Pakistan. He announced that the integrity of Pakistan was the 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 "out-standing problem of Kashmir" would be resolved peacefully. What he said implied that it was dispute, which must be settled - something which even liberal. Pakistanis have been wanting New Delhi to say.

Surely, the Pakistanis were not serious when the 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. It will take time. That Vajpayee has described more than once J&K as a problem shows how far he has travelled from his earlier stand that J&K is an integral part of India. It means he is talking in terms of give and take. I am 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.

I was surprised over a proposal by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Nawaz, brother of the Pakistan prime minister, to Parkash Singh Badal, chief minister of India's Punjab. Shahbaz suggested that India could take Jammu and give Kashmir to Pakistan. The hard core Pakistanis had made this suggestion. The reason why it is not acceptable to New Delhi, is the thinking it delineates on communal lines. India is a pluralistic society. It cannot accept the thesis that the Muslim-majority Kashmir should go to the Islamic state of Pakistan and Hindu-majority Jammu to the Hindu-majority India. This will give a fatal blow to the policy of secularism that India upholds. 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 the 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 this would disadvantage Pakistan, which is weaker in conventional warfare, 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 no-first-use pact because of domestic compulsions, it could have had a no-war pact. This would not have jeopardised 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 cut their military expenditure and diverted funds for education, health and hunger, the vision to which they referred during their speeches.

May be, they will work towards that now in the days to come. The core problem is trust and confidence, not Kashmir. That has to built first. One way to begin it is to look at the history books. Nothing can be done until they are rewritten and a biased approach to problems is changed. The two prime ministers can do that because one represent the party of Hindus and the that of Muslims. Strange, the two should forget to lift restrictions on the newspapers and books of one country entering the other. More contacts between the people will help. But without the free flow of information, contacts begin to languish. May be the foreign ministers will rectify the lapses that the two prime ministers had failed to identify.

With all its deficiencies, the Lahore Declaration has opened up may avenues for cooperation and amity. Once again there is an opportunity for the two countries to generate goodwill, which will help them solve all outstanding problems. But if the atmosphere built by Vajpayee's visit and Nawaz Sharif's generous approach is allowed to be dissipated, events will meander back to the same old situation. Even if there is no conflict, there will be no settlement; even if no hostility, no harmony and even if there is no war, there will be no peace. Both countries would then have missed the bus.

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