April 03, 2020
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Friendly Overtures

Beneath the surface antagonism and official rhetoric, Indians and Pakistanis share a rare warmth

Friendly Overtures

REGARDLESS of the worsening inter-government relations, on a personal level, Indians and Pakistanis have always displayed exceptional warmth towards each other, both at home and abroad. Army officers too have had memorable encounters of a different kind with the "enemy".

Major (Retd) Vikram Sengupta, who served in the Indian Army during the 1965 and 1971 wars, recalls: "After the ceasefire in 1965, we often went across the border and had lassi with our counterparts, and they came over for drinks, alcohol being prohibited in their camp."

The young armymen "mostly talked about women and stuff" and got along so well that, at one point, they stopped and asked themselves: "if the fighting resumed, could we shoot at each other again?"

A shared culture and language make for easy bonding. Just as Hindi movies are popular in Pakistan, so are Pakistani teleplays in India. Pakistani actor Usman Peerzada, who played an Indian Army colonel in Nishan-e-Haider, found himself having coffee and cake with his real-life counterpart and his family when, while still in costume, he accidentally strayed into Indian territory during a shoot near the border in Kashmir two years ago. The Indian colonel offered Usman a joyride to Srinagar (which he politely declined) and even made him pose for pictures with his wife and children who were avid fans of Sahil, a play featuring him on air then.

During a recent visit to Bombay, Lahore-based actor Salman Shahid was asked by the poet Gulzar, who hails from Potowar n Pakistan, to "keep talking" as it reminded him of "home". Salima Hashmi, principal of the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, and daughter of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, has always received special treatment in India. NCA students visiting India have always been given non-reporting visas, even at the height of the tension in 1991, and got huge discounts at hotels and shops. Her only regret is that the visits have not been reciprocated by Indian students.

During her two visits to Lahore, leading Indian feminist Veena Mazumdar found not only the people very warm but also some security and Customs officers at the airport, one of whom chose to ignore the missing police stamp on her passport and even carried her bag into the aircraft.

Often, the degree of warmth is heightened during meetings on foreign soil. "On at least a dozen occasions over the past two decades, most recently in 1991, Pakistani cabbies in New York have refused to charge me. One of them, a student, even touched my feet and sought my blessings to help him finish his studies and return home," says Mazumdar. Likewise, Indian Punjabi and Sikh taxi-drivers are known to refuse money from Pakistani Punjabis in the Big Apple.

In the UK, immigrants from the subcontinent ("Asians" to the Brits) have learned to live in harmony. "The younger generation don't carry the Partition's baggage. And when you are a minority in the country, it is much easier to identify with other minorities," explains Harpal Kumar, a successful second-generation Briton.

Racism and economics are the two chief reasons for harmony among the British Asians, adds Inderjit Nijhar, Labour Councillor for the London Burrough of Ealing. From a time when it was rare to find corner shops and restaurants owned CQ by expatriate Indians employing Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, today firms like the Dilbag Channa Financial Services in Southall are breaking that stereotype.

A recent instance of Indo-Pak harmony was seen at the women's conference in Beijing. Even as the leaders of the two official delegations engaged in a spat over Kashmir, NGO delegates participated in a unity march to focus on their common problems.

Says Indu Agnihotri, an Indian NGO delegate: "Apart from the warmth and nostalgia in personal meetings, we took a united stand on the position of women under discriminatory religious personal laws in South Asia."

Clearly, there is a wide gulf between how the people view each other and how the two governments do.

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