In a room full of people at Vithalbhai Patel House in New Delhi one bracing winter day last month, I was the only person from the government. The rest were prominent members of the civil society of Delhi. They had come to listen to the 23 Pakistanis who had arrived in the city, braving war hysteria on both sides. The delegates had walked across the Wagah border to carry the message of peace and empathy from the people of Pakistan to the people of India. They had come with the full knowledge that the post-Mumbai hate rhetoric was singeing the atmosphere. They had come from Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi. They were politicians, artists, peace activists, media-persons and other professionals.
When I reached the venue a session had just been concluded. It was a roundtable at which the group had interacted with former bureaucrats and former military personnel, regarded as Pakistani experts, who often appear on television discussions. During the discussions, expressions like 'surgical strikes' and 'war clouds' were flung at the visitors by some of our venerables. Tough talking was the flavour of the day. I thought of Ali Sadar Jafri's lines, which had become the anthem of many South Asians, during Kargil:
'Jung tau khud hi ek masla hai, Jung kya maslon ka hal degi?' (War is a problem in itself, how will it resolve any problem?)
Another session began. One by one the Pakistanis spoke. The picture that their words drew before our eyes unfolded a different story. The tone for the afternoon was set by Salima Hashmi, who said, "Where words fail, poetry can be invoked." She quoted from her father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz's evocative poem:
'Ab tum hi kaho kya karna hai, Ab kaise paar utarna hai?' (You say what should be done now, how do we cross to the other side?)
Salima had posed the question, which lies at the heart of the South Asian conundrum, whether it is India-Pakistan, Sri Lanka-India, India-Nepal or India-Bangladesh: 'Ab kaise paar utarna hai?' (Salima's recitation of Faiz Saab's prophetic words echo in my mind with each turn of my morning newspaper).
A Senator from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) spoke about the tenuous existence of his people who become daily targets of Taliban edicts. "Our little girls are banned from going to school; Swat Valley, which was always called the Switzerland of Pakistan, has become no man's land. We have forgotten the pleasure of a good night's sleep. What has happened to my land? We need your friendship and support not your threats and suspicion; this Talibanisation, friends, is a common enemy," he said.
Listening to the words of this brave Pathan from the tribe of Badshan Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars, I felt my throat choking with emotion. Then came the turn of Asma Jehangir, the fearless and easily the most respected peace crusader of South Asia, to summarise and show the way ahead. "Only a few years ago when the Pakistan Rangers saw me at Wagah lighting candles or standing in silent protest they said, 'There she is, the bloody woman, again'. Today, when they see me they say, 'Bibi, if you are going across, we know peace will come. So go across and come back with good news.'" Talibanisation, Asma said, is a problem that will not confine itself to one set of borders. It will manifest itself in different avatars all over the region. To fight a common enemy, we need to evolve common strategies. We cannot do it alone and not by aligning with the United States. The solution lies within us. There can be no greater strength than a South Asia that holds together.
Many civil society organisations had joined hands in organising this two-day visit last month. It was done under the umbrella of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), which was the brainchild of I.K. Gujral, Asma Jehangir, Kamal Hosain of Bangladesh, Devendra Pandey of Nepal and the late Neelan Thiruchelvam of Sri Lanka. In 2000, SAHR had held its founding convention with 100 South Asians as participants and its first General Body meeting was in 2001 with 700 South Asians. In the visit of this band of women and men in these harsh times, I felt SAHR had at last found its right niche, as the galvanising force for the civil societies of South Asia. But the drivers of this event were two indefatigable groups - ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy); and SANGAT (South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers). They formed the hub around which the meetings swirled. The fact that they are women-led was also in the fitness of things.
Very few have the courage to venture out when the warning bells have sounded. We pull down the covers and sink into the comfort of our lairs while the storm rages outside. We tell ourselves that governments are mandated to act on behalf of the people at such times so let them do what they know best. The Pakistanis did the exact opposite. They ventured out in the storm and did not placidly accept the 'sarkari' (government) stand. They posed before us the mother of all questions - what do the people want, the people of South Asia? We had to answer that question as squarely as it was posed.
We answered their question by our words and our gestures. Fifty participating organisations said one word, 'Peace'. But many more could have said the same. Many more could have turned up at the meetings. The response could have been much wider. People could have shown more courage by coming out to shake their hands. Indians have never been found wanting in courage. But even in this land of Gandhi, it has become more fashionable to trivialise peace. Invectives are hurled at people who speak for peace; they are accused of being "soft on the enemy". If they sit down together for a meal they are scoffed for indulging in 'kebab' diplomacy. Words are cheap and many clever wordsmiths are busy hammering away to dismantle the bridges that are built across divides. This, in fact, happens all the time and across South Asia. So far as Pakistan is concerned we are more ready to listen to the Generals, the Army Commandos and the masked men from there, than to people who are like us and who speak for millions of ordinary women and men.
Two days later the delegates went back after inviting a reciprocal Indian delegation to take the message of the people to the other side. SAHR, ANHAD and SANGAT, three organisations bearing names that encapsulate the spirit of South Asia, should take up this offer. This trickle may one day become a wave, a movement for peace, which will make warmongers irrelevant. Its force will then be directed against the real enemies of our countries - hunger, disease, poverty and ignorance.
(The writer is Member, Planning Commission.)
(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)