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Indo-Pakistan relations have almost never been all-smooth, least of all since the 1990s if not earlier, post the worsening of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. This was also the decade when collective efforts for people-to-people contact gained pace, with peace activists on both sides of the border coming together at forums like the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) that came into existence in 1994. There have also been attempts at the grassroots to create a peace constituency for the two countries, even though they have not been widespread. Even as such efforts are appreciated and encouraged, a close look needs to be taken at them with the purpose of thinking about how to further strengthen such initiatives. I begin with an account of the latest such journey I have been a part of.

Amongst these people-to-people initiatives, over the last couple of decades and more, the Wagah-Attari Indo-Pakistan border has witnessed the lighting of candles on the night of August 14-15 by those who want to see sustainable peace between the two countries on both sides. An initiative that came to be identified with veteran journalist, writer and prominent advocate of peace between the two countries, Kuldip Nayyar, it has been drawing into its fold not just eminent personalities from the socio-cultural arena but ordinary citizens who cherish the universal idea of peace and friendship, and especially between India and Pakistan. Kuldip Nayyar passed away last year but his initiative sustains – this year too, 18 organisations were a part of it, including, of course, Hind-Pak Dosti Manch, of which he was the President (Dr. Syeda Hameed, formerly a member of the Planning Commission of India and National Commission for Women is the President now).

The representatives of these organisations along with other individuals who cherish efforts for peace undertook a Bus Yatra from Delhi to the Wagah-Atari Border, starting the journey on the morning of August 13, with halts at seven places along the National Highway – Murthal, Samalkha, Panipat, Karnal, Taraori, Ambala and Phagwara. On August 14 they were a part of a seminar in a Hind-Pak Friendship Festival dedicated to the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, woven around the theme of ‘India-Pakistan Relations and Guru Nanak Dev ji’s Philosophy of Co-existence’. The seminar was followed by an evening of Sufi recitals. Both the programmes were organized by the Hind-Pak Dosti Manch, as has been done over these last 24 years. The auditorium in Amritsar was full to its capacity.

Those participating in the Bus Yatra came from across the country and from various walks of life: from Panjab, Haryana, U.P., M.P., Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Chandigarh – Jammu and Kashmir too would have found representation but for the situation prevailing there. And these more than 60 folk cut across all ages from childhood right up to at least two octogenarians, both active and inspiring, one of them a diminutive, sprightly 93-years’ young freedom-fighter who came all the way from Maharashtra with her son to be a part of this initiative. Some were ‘old hands’, having been involved in initiatives for Indo-Pak friendship earlier too, and others comparative newcomers for such an initiative – the enthusiasm for the objective, though, was all-pervasive.

Decidedly a positive sign, given the challenging times we are living in. But for an issue of such magnitude and seriousness, the solidarity of like-minded people, bonhomie and enthusiasm, though of great significance, is not enough. Sustained deliberations and efforts on the ground are required. Deliberations there have been enough – seminars and conferences and festivals that discuss not just Indo-Pakistan relations but peace in South Asia have been held every now and then by one organization or the other with activists from both the countries participating and discussing issues and passing resolutions. Forums like the PIPFPD and People’s SAARC have been continuously acting as platforms for the peace activists from both sides to come together and deliberate on various aspects of the issues involved, covering not just India and Pakistan but South Asia as a whole.

The ‘Aman Ki Asha’ initiative, on the other hand, seems to have been much more active in the social media space, what with sentiment-based audio-video resources (that have a value all their own, no doubt) and highlighting the need for visa-restrictions to be loosened to let people from both sides meet and get to know each other better – not just relatives but anyone who wishes to visit the other country, even like a tourist.

Acting as a pressure group through bringing forth alternative policy proposals on various issues impacting the two countries, emanating from conferences and seminars is one path to tread. But there are limits to this path as one hits the bureaucratic hurdles.

What is required is a widening of such initiatives on the ground, amidst the people, starting a dialogue with those who fail to discern the difference between people and governments and for whom ‘Pakistan’ is not just the ‘enemy’ government out there but the Pakistani people too, thus ascribing all the evil of the rulers to the nation as a whole. The anti-Pakistan sentiment needs to be engaged in a dialogue by the peace constituency. The real Yatra has to be one that opens up a dialogue with the citizen on the street who needs to be convinced about peace with a neighbouring country. It has to be a dialogue that aims at engaging with and opposing, at times even confronting, the strong biases and mindsets that are a hurdle for sustained peace.  Such a yatra would not be a one-day affair with seven halts but, may be, a week-long journey, conversing with people in schools and colleges and public places in towns and villages, holding ‘Nukkad’ plays, singing songs of peace and amity, screening short films of relevance, getting into a dialogue at various levels. At another level, sustained work needs to be done amongst the children and youth – the gen-next that can play a role in turning the tide – like the youth organization ‘Aaghaaz-e-Dosti’ that opens up dialogue with school children, encouraging them to make posters on Indo-Pakistan Peace and Friendship, bringing them out in printed form at the end of the year as calendars.

One also needs to take note of the laudable work already being done by organisations to get fishermen and women who stray into Pakistani (or Indian) waters freed after having spent months and sometime years in the other country’s jails.

Visa restrictions are a major issue between the two countries. These must be the only two countries in the world in which city-specific visas are given; the visas being either reporting or non-reporting, the former entailing the act of reporting your arrival and departure from a city to a local Police Station as if you are not a law-abiding citizen from your country of origin but a criminal asked to present yourself in a ‘thana’. During the 12 days that I spent in Pakistan as a part of the Delhi to Multan Peace March in 2005, we came across numerous people yearning to get a visa to visit relatives and friends in India – some having applied multiple times and failed. This is an issue that touches the very being of large numbers of people and needs to be taken up on a sustained basis. The issue has been raised by organisations working for peace on both sides but one wonders if there has ever been a demonstration of affected people in large numbers outside the concerned embassies or the Foreign Affairs ministries of the two countries – or, delegations of such people repeatedly putting up their demands in large numbers on a collective basis.

Last but not the least, one also wonders if all the organisations working for people-to-people contact between the two countries have ever gathered in full strength at ONE place to chalk out strategies and discuss the way ahead.-

Ramnik Mohan, formerly a teacher at the level of higher education, is an occasional  freelance writer and translator actively engaged with issues of socio-cultural concern.

Email : ramneek.mohan@gmail.com


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