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One Small Step At Wagah

What was inaugurated at Wagah wasn't just a new bus route but a new era in Indo-Pak relations.

One Small Step At Wagah

WHAT had changed at Wagah, I wondered, as our bus left the Attari border check post behind, rolled into Pakistan and sped eagerly towards Lahore. The sky was the same clear evening blue, the trees and the lush green fields flanking the road looked no different. Even the roadside welcome to the Delhi-Lahore Friendship Bus had the same spontaneity on both sides of no-man's-land. After seeing the apparently endless line of tricolour-waving well-wishers on the stretch from Amritsar to Attari, I had wondered what the other side of the border would be like. Certainly, there were no Pakistani flags to greet us. But they were not needed. Untutored smiles and unrehearsed waving more than made up for the missing flag, and also for the smattering of black Jamaat-e-Islami flags.

What, then, changed at Wagah? Looking back at our all-too-brief journey to Pakistan-which lasted less than 30 hours including travel time-I am convinced that what changed was history. All too often, it is history that changes men, determining what we can and cannot do. Partition, and the five strife-filled decades since had decreed that the people of Delhi could not take a bus to Lahore to see their relatives. Lahoris could not drive the mere 72 kilometres across to Amritsar to take in a late evening film show.

Every so often, though, it is men who change history. And the two men who changed it last week were Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. When our prime minister set foot on Pakistani soil, he did so both as a passenger and messenger, carrying a message powerful enough to open millions of closed minds in our two countries to the new possibilities of peace and friendship. Similarly, when Nawaz Sharif shook Vajpayee's hand and greeted him with a smile as authentic as any seen on that glorious afternoon, his message was that what had been inaugurated wasn't just a new bus route but a new era in Indo-Pak relations.

Don't judge the outcome of the visit merely by what is said in black and white in the papers signed by the two sides, although that is significant in itself. Judge it by what ordinary people are saying to their near and dear ones. Judge it by the conversation in classrooms and on cricket grounds, by what poets and columnists are saying.

Veer Arjun, the Hindi newspaper once edited by Vajpayee, reported on a poet's contribution at a mushaira in New Delhi last week: 'Dono mulkon mein dostana ho/ phir wohi pyar ka zamana ho/ Ye dua hai khuda se ye Mazik/ Ye safar khas mukhlisana ho. (May there be friendship between our two countries/ May the age of harmony return/ This is Mazik's prayer to God/ may the journey be a happy one.)

Dawn, a Karachi newspaper founded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, carried an article by Mazdak, a leading Pakistani columnist: 'For just a little while, imagine a scenario in which relations between India and Pakistan were perfectly normal; that there was no Kashmir problem; and both countries did not have to pay for the bloated defence establishments that currently hobble the two economies.... Pakistan would be a very different country. Without the threat of armed conflict with our giant neighbour, the army would not have acquired the massive influence it wields today. Indeed, we would probably not have experienced the three crippling bouts of martial law that stunted Pakistan's political development.

Mazik and Mazdak are not isolated voices. After we returned to our hotel from the state banquet at the Lahore Fort-far better maintained than our Red Fort-a young girl from an ngo came up to us with an invitation. 'About 20-25 intellectuals, businessmen and social activists are at home and they would be very pleased to meet you.It was well past midnight, but the prospect was too alluring to resist. Out we went, Javed Akhtar, Kapil Dev, Kirti Azad, the cii's Rajesh Shah and a few others. For a first-time visitor to Pakistan like me, what followed was an insight into Pakistani life that was, in its expectations and aspirations, so similar to our own. Everyone said, India is the first country we want to visit. Everyone said, Pakistan should do more business with India.

One woman admitted, 'We feel suffocated. Our eastern border with India is closed. On the west, we cannot interact much with Iran and Afghanistan. We have many ties with Britain and the usa, but it is not quite the same. We need fresh air and the fresh air can only come from India.

My greatest discovery in Pakistan was also the most commonplace one: how alike we two peoples are. Within that discovery lay a deeper appreciation of Pakistani and Islamic culture. It contains so much refinement, which often gets clouded in an atmosphere of distrust. Everyone I met and spoke to in Lahore was a proud Pakistani, but each seemed to believe that Pakistan's destiny is linked to peace and friendship with India.

In the euphoria that the prime minister's bus ride has generated, we Indians cannot turn a blind eye to the real problems-isi-inspired killings, for instance-that lie in the path of normalising our relations with Pakistan. But nor must we remain blind to the real possibilities for peace and cooperation that have opened up with the partial opening of the Wagah border. One thing is certain. With courage, patience, persistence and understanding on both sides, the good intentions that our two prime ministers have expressed and created will pave the way not for the hell of nuclear holocaust that some westerners have feared, but to the heaven of good-neighbourliness that most Indians and Pakistanis have for so long dreamed about.

(The author, an aide to prime minister Vajpayee, travelled with him on the inaugural bus journey to Pakistan.)

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