|By Uma Sudhir
As I write this, Lahore is under attack. I was there till just two days ago as part of the Indian delegation to the first regional conference of South Asian Women in Media. The first day we were there, a suicide bomber killed 49 people in Peshawar. The next day, the army headquarters in Rawalpindi was under attack. Yet another day, another suicide bomber in Shangla blasted to death 41 people.
Wherever we went in Lahore, it was only with armed police escort. A group of foreigners, from India, including three mediapersons from Jammu and Kashmir, Afghanistan and other countries, could obviously be at a huge security risk. But having gun-toting men trailing us everywhere we went, even sitting all through the night outside our hotel room, was a constant reminder that the shadow of terror was everywhere.
If we thought, India in recent times had got all too used to terror, seeing it happening almost face-to-face every successive day took it to an altogether different level. Almost as though they preferred to blank out that terror was inside the doorstep, our Pakistani hosts carried on with the itinerary of formal dinners and even an evening of music and dance. I can’t say if it was unnerving, agonising or traumatising that a country and people that were virtually under the siege of terror had to go on as though nothing was really wrong. As though the truth and reality of terror does not exist as long as you don’t acknowledge its presence. Some cynical voices in the Indian media said the country is getting a taste of its own medicine. But somehow when you see real people like you and me caught helplessly in the whirlpool of terror, I am unable to reconcile myself to a cynical view.
Just yesterday, Rahul Gandhi said, “We are giving too much importance to Pakistan. It is just a small piece of land. Pakistan’s internal issues do affect us, but we are giving too much time and importance to Pakistan in our minds. In my opinion, it deserves not half the importance we are giving it.”
My experiences in Pakistan seemed to suggest our neighbouring country is as much if not much, much more obsessed with India. Almost as though its identity and thought process to a large extent is defined by being India’s neighbour. Every Pakistani speaker at the conference, whether it was the country’s information minister, the former information minister Sherry Rahman or the SAFMA president Imtiaz Ali, everyone’s focus was on the Indo-Pak equation. Every other country and the primary issue of women in media, for which presumably we had gathered in Lahore, was almost a sidelight. Inevitable one could say given the context of the present situation and after all that’s what almost always happens when the two nations, seemingly obsessed with each other, are face-to-face. But this was glaring.
It was almost as though it was not a 8-nation meet of media women from SAARC countries, but an Indo-Pak meet. Every speaker made a detailed reference to the Mumbai terror attack and about the fallout of the investigation process. So much so that it provoked a young woman delegate from Afghanistan to claim the microphone and make a statement that if Pakistan was even half as concerned about terror in Afghanistan as it was about the Mumbai attack, they would have to name the attacks Kabul 1, Kabul 2, Kabul 3 and the count would simply go on.
The news television cameras that came in sought out only Indian delegates to the exclusion of delegates from every other countries. And all they wanted you to talk about was of course Indo-Pak relations.
Even at the musical evening treat arranged for us at Pearl Continental, the anchor of the show was chatting with a few of us Indian delegates and inquired if we could follow chaste Urdu, the language in which he compered so beautifully and also the language of the compositions that Iqbal Bano had poured her soul into. We said, yes, possibly many of us would be able to enjoy it but the delegates from the countries may not be able to. To which he said, “all this is meant for you”.
As we interacted with our hosts, at least four people asked me in separate, private conversations what the “aam Indian people” think of people in Pakistan. I was touched that they seemed so deeply concerned when they asked, “Do they think we are all terrorists?”
I was unfortunately unable to say an emphatic, unequivocal ‘No’. I had to say, unfortunately, the perception is not very positive.
Everywhere I went, on the street, in the dhabas, people would ask me “Aap India se aaye hain? Hamein India aur Indians bahut achche lagthe hain. (Have you come from India? We like India and Indians very much).” There was a warmth as people said it and somehow it seemed to come from the heart. There was an undeniable connect. After all, the young boy selling readymade salwars who offered me an additonal discount, another shopkeeper who immediately ordered tea for us, one of the policemen standing guard outside my hotel room, all of them had no reason to be uttering similar sentiments.
I asked my friend Farah Usman what made people say that. Do they perceive India as ‘overbearing’ I asked. Not more than the Americans, she joked. But she explained that many people have relatives living across the border, there are roots on the other side, the language and cultural context is mostly so well understood and then there is an undeniably strong cultural identification that comes from watching Bollywood films and having singers and performers who people in both sides of the border have accepted as their own. The most popular songs people from both sides could happily sing together, joined also by our friends from Bangladesh and even Afghanistan. We did that on several bus rides and then there were no borders.
Driver Wali Shah and a policeman who acted as guides and escorts when I and my three friends from Jammu & Kashmir went on a sight-seeing tour around Lahore had clearcut views on who was to blame. “Politicians and politics have embittered relations. Jab logon mein, apas mein aana-jaana rahega, utna-baitna rahega, tab sab dooriyan, nazdeekiyan ho jayengi.”
Wali Shah very sincerely appealed to me that I must go back and tell people that people across the border want to be friends, that they are good people and they would love to visit India and would welcome people from India as their own.
As we were returning on foot, crossing the Wagah Border, from Pakistan into India, we were on No Man’s Land when one of us asked one of the coolies, “Yeh kiskee zameen hain, Pakistan ki yah India ki?” He replied in a flash. “Yeh Punjab ki zameen hai”.