Neighbours in peace: Or pieces?
The auditorium was full of women from far-flung, poor localities of Karachi. One of them plonked herself next to me in the second row along with her daughters, a toddler and a six-year-old. A gigantic banner featuring a photo of late Gandhian activist, Nirmala Deshpande, formed the backdrop to an array of speakers from India and Pakistan seated behind a long table on the platform. 'Promoting Peace in South Asia and Remembering Nirmala Didi Deshpande' - it read.
Mumtaz, the young Pahstun mother next to me, had studied till eighth grade, unlike most of the other women present. The toddler nuzzled against her to breastfeed from time to time.
The speakers included prominent Urdu writer, Zahida Hina, peace activist and educationist from Lahore, Syed Diep, parliamentarians from PPP and MQM and Indian activist, Sandeep Pandey from Lucknow, journalist Jatin Desai from Mumbai, and Kavita Srivastava of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) from Jaipur. Two other Indians weren't given 'clearance' from Islamabad in time for the visit, meant to further the aims of a joint signature campaign for peace launched earlier this year.
Mumtaz and the other women, mostly wives of daily wage labourers, had been brought there by 'bajis', women activists working in their areas. "I don't understand everything they're saying," Mumtaz told me. "But I know they are talking about the need for peace between India and Pakistan. That is what we all want."
Her immediate concern was to feed her family. "Maybe if these two countries stop fighting, our lot will improve," she said optimistically.
"Let the people meet, all other matters will sort out," a cyclist told Sandeep Pandey and other peace marchers who went from Delhi to Multan in 2005, demanding that the governments of India and Pakistan resolve all matters of dispute through dialogue.
Such basic wisdom is at odds with the justifications for continued animosity presented by 'intellectuals' on either side of the border. "India/Pakistan wants to destroy us"; "Stop appeasing India/Pakistan"; "There is no point in talking to them".
If we listen to this babble of voices whose sole aim seems to be to present their own country's case as better than the other's, we'll never get anywhere. There is an old saying in our part of the world, 'Taali dono haatho se bajti hai' - it takes two hands to clap.
Let's stop these blame games and accept that there are problems on either side - of varying degrees and natures, and try and understand the complexities of the problems.
Those with access to the Internet have increased the potential for such understanding. But because we're not used to talking to each other, the un-moderated exchanges posted on blogs are often crass and offensive. Direct interaction involving basic civility and an open mind is more meaningful.
Some time back, a Mumbaikar emailed saying, "Frankly, with Pakistan itself in such a mess (Lal Masjid, Swat Valley, Taliban, regular suicide attacks and, of course, the numerous Muslim organisations ranting about jehad), do you really feel safe in your own country? And the most amusing thing is when Pakistan tells that India is its enemy number one. Wait for a few more years, am sure the Taliban will take over Pakistan. And what pains us is what did we do to Pakistan? Kargil was Musharaf's misadventure."
I replied, yes, Pakistan is in a mess, due largely to the continual disruption of the political process, with no democratically elected government being allowed to complete its terms. "This is the biggest difference between India and us, and what I most envy about your country."
Still, women do get around here, too, carry on with their work and their lives. And at least elements within Pakistan's establishment no longer consider India as enemy number one.
Kargil was indeed Musharraf's misadventure. Many of us spoke out against it (were labelled as Indian agents). Pakistan's military must be accountable and answerable to elected civilian governments. This will only happen if the political process is allowed to continue. Rocky as politics in Pakistan currently is, with a floundering democratic process, it is only more democracy on a sustained and continuous level that will, in the long run, yield positive results.