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One big peace party

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By Beena Sarwar

"Defy the divide, unite for peace," declares the huge theme banner on the stage at the end of the lawn, venue of the opening and closing plenary sessions of the sixth joint convention of Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy, held in Karachi recently. The open sessions are attended by some 500 Indian and Pakistani delegates and hundreds of local people. Banners and flags from a joint exhibition flutter in the cool sea breeze.

The main hall buzzes with animated discussion following presentations on de-militarisation and nuclearisation (Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy), intolerance (I A Rehman), globalisation (Sushil Khanna) and Kashmir (Gautam Navlakha), followed by group discussions on all these issues. But this convention is not just about speeches and position papers. It's also about reunions, discoveries and questions, ranging from a desperate inquiry about coffee, to what the next agenda item is, to where can one go to exchange money or buy gifts. It's about meeting and getting to know each other, about people desperate for the simple personal interaction that their governments deny them. Perhaps the most commonly heard question on the first day is, "Are you Indian?" as Karachiites throng the venue to try and meet people from across the border.

Upstairs, the hall is full of schoolchildren watching a screening of the hit film 'Makri', organised by the Human Rights Education Programme – followed by an impromptu screening of 'Brothers from Chichibabba', a 12-minute animation based on the children's book by scientist D P Sengupta.

Dedicated to 'the Kargil orphans of India and Pakistan', the film is produced by Kolkata-based Indrani Roy and Debasish Sarkar. It tells the story of the right-handed Guruk and left-handed Turuk, who allow their differences to overcome their love. A wall comes up between them, and they grow up to rule their own kingdoms, amass armies and buy increasingly lethal weapons. But children from both sides start to meet each other as a hole develops in the wall. "I'm hungry," says one. "I want to go to school," says another. "We don't want to fight." "If the bombs fall, we will all be dead anyway," adds another, scared at the prospect of "melting like butter". Guruk and Turuk then see each other for the first time and remember the love they used to share, and to the cheers of the watching children, they embrace.

The children watching the film also cheer. But as they file out, one Little boy is overheard muttering, "India murdabad". Embarrassed when caught by a teacher, he quickly pretends he was saying something else.

Perhaps the student's bravado only reflects what he has been hearing all his little life, rather than any deep-rooted conviction. But personal interactions can overturn even strong convictions, as a young engineering student found, after volunteering at a seminar of Indian and Pakistani women in Lahore three years ago. "I had always thought of India as the enemy," he had said, explaining that he volunteered because he had never met an Indian before, and was curious.

"Now I know they are people, just like us."

In December 2000, when post-Kargil tensions were at their peak, a group of history students from Delhi came to Lahore by train. One student from Kargil confessed to feeling "hatred towards Pakistan" before. What brought him was curiosity,"to see what these people are like, who have inflicted such suffering on us." Like the engineering student, he too left with the realisation that people on either side are human beings, and that peace is the only option between India and Pakistan.

It is this realisation, this conviction, and this curiosity, along with the opportunity for reunions, which drives the participants of these joint conventions, these large people-to-people exchanges between India and Pakistan.

Particularly encouraging about the sixth convention in Karachi is the huge participation of first-timers and young people. "We need agricultural cooperation," says Akram Khan, a young farmer from Layyah, inspired to attend by the continuing participation of his father in previous conventions.

A young representative of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum rushes about trying to organise what must have been the largest sectoral group meeting, between fishermen from both countries, who are routinely arrested and imprisoned for violating territorial waters. "We're-arranging a grand reception for our leader, Father Thomas Kocherry," he explains, referring to the legendary organiser from Bombay. "This is the first time he has come to Pakistan." Some 1,500 fisherfolk, including women and children, waited over two hours for the Forum delegates to meet them at the Ibrahim Haidery wharf.

Other sectoral groups included trade unions, women, media, doctors, youth and students, environment and displacement, and artists.

The Karachi convention on December 12-14, 2003, was postponed from its original 2001 date – and not just because of continuing tensions exacerbated by post-Kargil hostilities, the 9-11 attacks, and the attack on the Indian Parliament. Joint conventions have previously taken place in times of tension (which in any case are more frequent than times of peaceful co-existence).

But the suspension of the road, rail and air links dealt a huge blow to these interactions. Forum participants include fishermen, trade union workers, students, farmers, journalists, filmmakers, women and human rights activists, who pay for their own transport and cannot afford the inflated cost of reaching across the border via Abu Dhabi or Dhaka.

Special permission is needed -- as it was this year -- to allow them to cross the border on foot when the train is not running. Within the country too, they take third-class trains to the joint convention venues, which have included Delhi (Feb 1995). This was followed by Lahore (Nov 1995), Kolkata (Dec 1996), Peshawar (Dec 1998), and Bangalore (2000). Karachi 2003 has been the largest joint convention so far, with almost 250 participants from India and roughly as many from Pakistan.

Right from the start, the joint declarations have been pressing for a resolution of all issues through dialogue between the two governments, a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir issue based on the aspirations of the Kashmiri people (rather than as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan), reduction of defence budgets, more people-to-people contacts and an end to religious intolerance and violence.

And yet, unlike Guruk and Turuk of Chichibabba, the leaders of India and Pakistan are unlikely to embrace with open arms when they next meet, as expected at the SAARC summit in a few weeks. There are few illusions that the people's pressure will affect government policy. But, as founding member I A Rehman says, "As the pressure of the people increases, it does limit the options of the governments."

In any case, "Peace is too important a business to be left to governments, "quips Forum Chair from Pakistan, Afrasiab Khattak. "The people are the real stakeholders and they have to keep up the pressure."

That, this huge joint convention undoubtedly did.

 
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