AN UNFINISHED MARCH
The India Pakistan Peace March, scheduled between 23rd March and 11th May, 2005, from Delhi to Multan, met a roadblock on April 18th, 2005 when it reached Wagha border as none of the Indian marchers were given visas to cross over. Earlier, the Pakistani marchers also had trouble in coming over to India to participate in this march. First, for 10 days, the Indian Government delayed giving visas to the Pakistani marchers, and then the Interior Ministry of Pakistan did not allow the marchers permission to cross the Wagha border for another 13 days. It was only after one of the persons keenly following the developments, helping with the ongoing preparations and a prospective marcher, Saeeda Diep, whose commitment to the cause of India-Pakistan friendship is magnanimous, went and pressurized the Interior Minister of Pakistan that the permission was granted. It is quite funny that visas and clearances in the case of India-Pakistan travel are not given easily giving the excuse of security concerns until some kinds of pulls and pressures are applied and when it comes to actually giving the permissions no procedures are strictly followed. When the pressure builds up for taking decisions even a proper scrutiny is not done. For example, a list of 21 prospective marchers from Pakistan that was submitted by us was finally approved by the Ministry of External Affairs and communicated to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for granting visas. Inadvertently, a name was repeated in this list and passport details of two members was missing. Nine Pakistani marchers – Saeeda Diep, Aslam Khawaja, a free lance writer from Karachi, Mahar Safdar Ali and Muhammad Akbar of Anjuman Asiaye Awam, Ghulam Hussain, who works on labour issues in Hyderabad, Sind, Lalee, a freed bonded labourer, Nayyar Habib, Rafia Bano, a District Councillor from Layya, and Mitho Khan – were finally able to join the march on 14th April, 2005 when the march reached the banks of the river Beas. We went down in the waters on the bank removing our footwears and resolved that water, land and human beings are one and that we do not recognize any artificial boundaries dividing either the nature or the human beings. It was an emotional moment for all of us and tears were flowing down the cheeks of quite a few marchers from both sides. Subsequently, the Pakistani marchers marched with us for the last five days of the Peace March. The police were conspicuous by their absence. We were given strict security while walking through Delhi and Ludhiana areas. However, that the Government did not feel the need to have police accompany the band of marchers, while nine Pakistanis were walking with us, is a good sign. It points to the fact that normalcy is returning. We would like to thank the Indian Government for they did not think that Pakistanis marching freely on Indian roads, which was a dream come true for us, was not a security concern. We waited at the border for two days in the hope that we would get our visas and be able to cross the border along with our Pakistani friends.
However, after two days of waiting at Wagha-Amritsar in vain, when we saw no sign of visas coming we decided to let the Pakistani marchers go ahead. The Pakistani marchers are now waiting in Lahore for their Indian friends to join them. In the meantime they are registering a protest with their Government for not letting the Indian marchers enter Pakistan. We are determined to complete the March whenever we get permission from the two Governments. We knew right from the very beginning that crossing Wagha was not going to be a piece of walk for us. Hence we were mentally prepared to suspend our effort as an ‘Unfinished March’ until the time the two Governments allow us to proceed. We are is no hurry. The March will be completed whenever the situation favours us.
That could be within the next six months, a year, or anytime in future.
We have learnt from sources within the Pakistani Interior Ministry that Indians walking on Pakistani roads could be a security concern for them. Well, obviously, anything is possible when such an exercise is undertaken. After all, in our own country, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi have been assassinated in broad day light. But the fear of any untoward incident should not prevent us from embarking on a noble mission. The Pakistani Government must put aside all reports from security agencies and approve of the idea of Peace March in a positive
spirit. The potential gains that could result from the Peace March going inside Pakistan far outweigh the risks involved.
The promises made by the two Governments during President Pervez Musharraf’s recent visit to India about encouraging more people-to-people contact and making the borders softer seem to ring hollow – the ground reality has not changed at all. The process remains as complicated as ever; for the common person it is still a nightmare to even think of crossing the border. There is no relaxation in the bureaucratic hurdles consisting of a number of unreasonable rules, like requiring permission from the home ministry of one’s own country even if one has the appropriate visa to enter the other country, visas only for a limited number of cities, strictness about port of entry, insistence regarding modes of entry and exit, daily police reporting, etc. If the two Governments are really serious about making the borders softer they must demonstrate in reality that they are willing to dismantle the complicated travel regulation regime existing right now between the two countries. The experiences of people must validate the rhetoric of official claims.
Although the Governments are saying that they would now adopt a pro-people approach in resolving their disputes and that the peace process is irreversible, we are afraid that the Governments do not really want the initiative of peace process to go into the hands of the common people. Until that happens, we cannot really say that the peace process has become irreversible. So long as the Governments determine the extent and the pace of peace process there is a possibility that it may be reversed to suit geopolitical whims. In light of the recent deals of both the Governments to buy fighter aircrafts from the US, what is the guarantee that they will not begin issuing threats of bombing each other tomorrow? It is also, therefore, necessary to talk about abolition of nuclear weapons, complete removal of land mines and reduction of defence budgets if the Governments want the people to take their confidence building measures seriously. There has been so much mistrust between India and Pakistan during the past 57 years that CBMs without any disarmament measures do not appear credible.
On the other hand, if free people-to-people contacts and softer borders are indeed allowed, it would become difficult even for the Governments to reverse the peace process. It is only possible in an atmosphere where people are kept artificially separated from each other that hostilities can be promoted. Hence the only guarantee against the rolling-back of peace process is lifting of artificial barriers separating the people. There appears to be no credible reason why the Governments cannot take this step. The initiative for peace process must therefore be in the hands of the people and not the Governments. It is the right of the common people to live in peace and harmony with each other and if the Governments are supposed to represent the will of the people, this is one area where they must honour the popular public sentiment on both sides. The passport-visa regime between India and Pakistan must be done away with.
While awaiting our visa clearances we also look for signs of how honestly the two Governments transform into reality the public commitments they have made at the recent meetings between President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.
By Sandeep Pandey
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