“We are prisoners of the past”

A day-long conference in Patiala brainstorms on the Indo-Pak crises

As a subject, Indo-Pak Affairs effortlessly makes it to the front pages of Indian newspapers every second day, albeit largely for all the wrong reasons. So when a conference on “Indo-Pak Relations” was held on April 10 at the lovely Punjabi city of Patiala, it generated enough interest with houseful audiences present at the Parbhat Parvana Memorial Trust. 

The conference lost a bit of sting, though, as five Pakistanis invited by the organizers—the Amritsar-based Folklore Research Academy (FRA)—were denied visas by the Indian Government. The denial of visas wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the stop-and-go diplomacy one has witnessed between India and Pakistan since the attacks on Mumbai.

Among those who spoke at length was CPI general secretary A B Bardhan, a veteran who articulated his views in fluent Hindi and—with a great deal of clarity. Bardhan pointed out that 63 years after independence from the British, both India and Pakistan remained, sadly enough, prisoners of the past, and that it was time that the leaders of these two nations broke open the shackles in their own minds.
He dwelled on the rich commonalities between the two nations, including the language, food and music. “The Punjabi spoken west of the LoC is more chastely than the one we hear on this side,” he mused, drawing similar comparisons between the Bengali spoken in Bangladesh and in West Bengal. Political jingoism, he cautioned, swiftly needed to be replaced by talks on development and commerce. Bardhan pointed out that the world was gradually witnessing the demise of military blocs such as the ANZUS (Australia, NZ and US treaty) and the rise of economic blocs such as ASEAN and BRIC. Similarly, for the region it was important that SAARC became strong, but for that to happen both India and Pakistan needed to speak a common language, and act more meaningfully. The well-meaning comrade was willing to stick his neck out when he said that the agenda of both countries was now being set not by the leaders or diplomats but by their respective intelligence agencies—the RAW and the ISI. “That is why we have no dialogue, no visas, no peace.”

Much-decorated journalist Kuldip Nayyar engaged his audience in Punjabi, reminiscing about his days in Lahore, and his several visits to Pakistan. He said each time he stepped across the border, he met common folk who spoke the language of peace and harmony, not bloodshed and war. “The commoner there is more concerned with economics, and less with politics. The journalists there are a victim of the sinister designs of a few, and find it hard to express themselves freely. So they unwittingly perpetuate a climate of suspicion and blame, much to the detriment of the two nations.”

Secretary General of the Press Club of India Pushpendra Kulshreshtha who also works for a Pakistan TV channel in New Delhi said that it had become a monumental task for him to get rid of the tag of “ISI Agent”, a dubious one that he had earned because of his proximity to the establishment and diplomacy in Pakistan. “I am under constant scrutiny of the intelligence, of the Media, because I have so many contacts there.” He pointed out that any meaningful effort to engage people of both countries in Media dialogues, and cultural and academic exchanges were becoming quite difficult given the prevailing political climate. He too felt that common people on both sides were suffering because of the machinations of a few with vested interests, including those who had interests in large Media establishments.

Former MP Shahid Siddique spoke about the relentless efforts made by terrorist elements in Pakistan to scuttle the peace process. But he said that these elements were part of a misled minority. The larger majority wanted improved relations, and it was a challenge for both politicians and the Media to keep on moving forward knowing well that these elements would strive to disrupt any process that could normalize relations.

Rajeev Sharma of the South Asia Times who had in the past anchored several programmes on Pakistan on Doordarshan, spoke briefly about the inherently peaceful nature of the “silent majority” and how it was crucial that in coming times the voice of this majority drowned out the sounds of gunfire and rocket launchers.

FRA’s Charanjeet Singh Nabha said that it was disheartening and a setback to learn that those invited by his organization were denied visas to enter India. His views were echoed by Ramesh Yadav, the FRA President and conference coordinator.

May 2010

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