Dec 15, 2008

India - Pakistan: first casualty, people-to-people contact

Nirupama Subramanian

Kishwar Naheed, one of Pakistan’s top women poets, should have travelled to New Delhi last week for a literary conference.

Instead, she and four other poets were left angry and disappointed at the last-minute call to them from the Ghalib Academy in Delhi, asking them not to come to the seminar, apparently on instructions from the Indian government.

The Mumbai attacks that India has blamed on the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawah effectively grounded the four-year-old peace process between the countries. But nothing has been more immediately affected in the peace process and as badly as the much-vaunted “people-to-people contacts.”

Increased interaction between the peoples of the two countries was seen as a major driver of the peace process. More so in India than in Pakistan, where suspicion was rife that breaking down the barriers between the two sides and getting Indians and Pakistanis to know each other was a clever ploy to divert attention from the “core issue” of Kashmir.

Still, enough and more Pakistanis embraced the idea, and the period from 2004 to just before the Mumbai attacks saw a record traffic of people flowing between the two countries.

The majority among them were of course those belonging to divided families, but also writers, artists, actors, performers, journalists and peace activists. Certainly, more Pakistanis went to India but there were lots of Indians too who travelled to Pakistan. Just days before the Mumbai attacks, the largest contingent at Lahore’s famous annual Rafi Peer international theatre festival, was from India.

But after the Mumbai blasts, India appears to have rolled down the shutters on the whole people-to-people experiment. The Indian cricket team’s January 2009 tour of Pakistan, which is almost certainly off, would be the most high-profile casualty.

Ms Naheed said she was “angry and disappointed” at the call from the Ghalib Academy secretary-general Siddiq Kidwai telling her the Pakistan contingent had been “disinvited.”

“He said he had tried his best, but had been told by the Indian government to tell us that we should cancel our travel plans,” the poet said.

The December 12-14 conference was to discuss the work of Urdu writer Nazeer Akbarabadi. The well-known Pakistani writers Intezaar Hussain, Asif Farooqui and Asghar Nazi Syed, were to travel with Ms Naheed for the conference. In fact, Mr. Hussain was to inaugurate it. All of them had visas and tickets, but were forced to call off their plans.

Changes in procedures have also made it more difficult for Pakistanis to obtain Indian visas. Measures to liberalise the visa regime between the two countries, discussed in detail between the two home secretaries in Islamabad just a day before the Mumbai terror began, now seem like a distant dream.

The Indian High Commission in Islamabad, which was issuing an average of between 10,000 to 12,000 visas a month, recently announced new security measures would entail a minimum of 30 days to process a visa application.

Officials at the High Commission said they were staving off several calls daily from people wanting short-notice visas. Pakistani journalists wanting to travel to India to cover the fall-out of the Mumbai attacks did not get visas.

The only exception in recent days was made for Asad Rauf, the international cricket umpire from Pakistan, to enable him to stand in the India-England test at Mohali.

On the Pakistan side too, the number of people travelling to India has dropped since the Mumbai attacks due to the tensions and the atmosphere of uncertainty between the two countries. Even those with valid papers are holding back their travel plans.

Ghulam Ali, the renowned ghazal singer, cancelled shows in Kolkata and in Bihar. At first he said he had been asked by the Pakistan government not to travel. He later denied having said this, and clarified it was his own decision not to go because the Mumbai attacks had disturbed and upset him immensely.

A prominent columnist with an English daily said he had been “so looking forward to his golfing holiday in Chandigarh” but decided against going because of the “possible hostility towards Pakistanis.”

But Mr. Rauf, who is leaving for Mohali on December 15, said he would go to India as a “Peace Ambassador.”

Ms Naheed said had she been allowed to travel, she too would have taken with her a message of peace on behalf of all those Pakistanis who genuinely want good relations with India.

“I had a resolution all written up, and I would have moved it. It is at times like this,” Ms Naheed said, “that writers and the peace-loving people of both countries should be interacting to bring down the war hysteria. There should be more people-to-people contact, not less. India will be making a mistake if it cuts off this vital thread between our two peoples.”

But post-Mumbai, Indian officials in Pakistan said, there would be “unfortunate but inevitable consequences for our friends in Pakistan” as New Delhi sought to keep out foes.

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