In the spring of 1999, when the “war-like” situation erupted in Kashmir in the Kargil district, I was doing research regarding history textbooks in Bangladesh. A few weeks before I left Bangladesh, a direct bus between Dhaka to Calcutta (now Kolkata) had been officially inaugurated by Indian and Bangladeshi officials, but it was not yet running on a regular basis. My two adolescent sons, Jai and Amar were traveling with me and we took a local bus from Dhaka and the ferry to Jessore, then two bicycle driven carts, carried the family luggage to the border.
The remnants of the Old Trunk Road still winds its way from Dhaka to Lahore, though now traversing barriers erected by three nation-states. One of the most remarkable things I noticed about the Old Trunk Road was that on the Bangladeshi side of the border, there are no gigantic old shade trees lining the roadside, whereas on the Indian side there are huge trees, hundreds of years old, one after the other in two massive parallel rows on each side of the road. With trunks over two meters in diameter, they shade the street with a canopy of ancient branches.
The sudden appearance of these massive trees on the Indian side of the border reminded me of what I had heard in Dhaka a few months earlier. The gigantic trees along the road to Calcutta had, on the Bangladeshi side, been cut down “to make furniture for ruling politicians.” I was told that General Zia-ur Rahman had them felled to widen the road, but the roadwork was never completed.
General Zia was the military ruler who usurped political power shortly after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangabandhu – the ‘father of the nation”, whose Awami League had won the elections in Pakistan, the denial of which had led to the civil war. My friends in Dhaka told me that years before, huge trees like those found on the Indian side had also lined the road in Bangladesh, but they were now destroyed.
While riding the bus from Bangladesh to Calcutta, I had decided that I wanted to take advantage of the new bus service between Delhi and Lahore, inaugurated two months earlier in February 1999 by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. I had read the newspaper accounts of his historic trip while I was in Cox’s Bazaar, with its miles of uninterrupted sandy beach on the Burmese border. I wanted to retrace the post-nuclear bus diplomacy that in February and March had seemed so hopeful.
Less than three months later, India and Pakistan were once again locked in a bloody military engagement over Kashmir. For over a month, news in Dhaka coming from Kashmir was unusually ominous, though as a rule, Bangladeshi newspapers generally carry articles critical of the Indian army’s actions in that beleaguered state. By the time I was back in India, in early June, Kargil had grabbed the headlines of the Indian dailies with a vengeance. It seemed as if the whole country was ready to take up arms and march off to the Line of Control.
Though editorials and articles in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, and other newspapers brought the BJP government under fire as well as the failure of RAW- India’s intelligence wing, to detect the intrusion, no one criticized the fighting forces. The jawans (soldiers) were hailed as heroes. A list of the names of Indians killed fighting in Kargil was read nightly after the TV news: “Shaheeds for Bharat Mata”–a uniquely Indian mixing of religious lexicons in the service of nationalism (Shaheed is Arabic for martyr and Bharat Mata is Hindi for Mother India). There was outright outrage about the reported return of the mutilated bodies of six Indian soldiers by the Pakistani army.
Everywhere Indians expressed feelings of betrayal. There was no shortage of analysis about the crisis, much less the polarized politicizing of the issue by the opposition parties. Particularly controversial was the fact that the occupation of the mountaintops above Kargil was discovered immediately after the BJP lost support in the Parliament by only one vote. Regardless of blame slinging, there was absolute unanimity regarding the bravery of Indian fighting forces, though some foolhardy Marxists and several die-hard conservative Muslim leaders, risking condemnation in the rising patriotic climate, continued to question the justness of the Kashmir cause for which their countrymen were dying.
However, among the majority of the population, the patriotic response was staggering. Prisoners were donating blood, children from across India were writing letters to the front, tens of thousands of public servants voluntarily donated a day’s wages —equaling crores of rupees. Trade unions, industrialists, corporations, foreign investors, all presented checks to the Prime Minister, donations to the war effort and offerings for the families of slain soldiers.
Every night the news was filled with images of funeral pyres burning in villages from one end of the nation to the other. From north to south the media showed families grieving slain sons accompanied by a military escort…. The patriotism was effusive in the media, indeed, a daily barrage of highly charged patriotic journalistic propaganda-like news stories and personal biographical tributes to the martyrs for Bharat Mata filled the airwaves.
The feelings of betrayal went deep. There was cynicism that dealing with Pakistan diplomatically was a waste of time. Efforts symbolized by the bus diplomacy in February, resulting in the Lahore Declaration, were “a sham”. Indians complained that the “whole farce” had been “flagrantly staged by the Pakistanis”, whose army and intelligence agency, the ISI, had “obviously been organizing the take-over of the bunkers on the heights above Kargil at the same time that Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were shaking hands in Lahore”. I was told with remorse, that Vajpayee had even “naively written a poem for the historic event.” In New Delhi this narration of February’s naiveté was everywhere repeated, “They’ll shake your right hand in Lahore while stabbing you in the back with their left hand in Kargil.”
Several Pakistanis later told me that it was “very amateurish poetry”, one lady in Islamabad added in jest, “The poems were so bad that it forced us to attack Kargil!” Interestingly, a collection of Vajpayee’s poems was translated into Urdu for the occasion of the Lahore Bus ride, but later the Pakistani who had the book of poems published in Urdu was threatened and had to flee to India for asylum! (Unfortunately, though innocent of doing anything except spreading poetry, India refused to give the Urdu poet Aftab Hussain asylum; though he had been threatened with death in his own country for helping to publish Vajpayee’s diplomacy poems. Though he was forced to escape Pakistan he was then denied sanctuary in India, but finally found asylum in Austria.)
In June 1999, in India vitriolic invectives against the “foreign mercenary mujahedeen” who were “obviously trained and supplied by Pakistan” dominated every magazine and catalyzed coffeehouse/chai shop conversations. There was no doubt in the mind of every Indian with whom I spoke that Pakistani arms and supply lines had assisted and supported the military incursion beyond the LOC into Indian territory at Kargil. Both the Indian and international media documented Pakistani army regulars fighting alongside the “Arabs” cum “Afghans” cum “bearded jihadi foreign elements” –a claim that the Pakistani government vehemently maintained.
Amid a tsunami of Pakistani bashing in Delhi, I tried repeatedly to book my ticket on the Delhi-Lahore “Diplomacy Bus” to continue my dissertation research in Pakistan. I put my name on a waiting list at Ambedkar Station near Delhi Gate and waited, calling daily for an update on an empty seat. The Delhi Transport Corporation officer informed me that since the outbreak of hostilities the outbound buses to Lahore had been booked solid. For the last two months, tourists from Pakistan, taking advantage of the novelty of the convenient and economical new bus service, had come to India to visit family, but now they found themselves in hostile territory. Abandoning travel plans, Pakistani nationals were quickly trying to get home before the outbreak of what might turn into a full-fledged war.
Two years before, during the summer of 1997, I had met numerous friendly and intellectually vibrant individuals in Pakistan and was looking forward to continuing my work there. I had to assure my worried mother via a long distance telephone call from Delhi that I wouldn’t be caught in a nuclear holocaust in the Subcontinent or kidnapped by Islamic extremists. My mother doesn’t mind when I travel in India, but has fears when I go to Pakistan.
However, I had assured her that statistically I would be more likely to die in a traffic accident in Austin than be attacked by terrorists in Karachi. She wasn’t convinced, having been duly impressed by media images of Islamic militants. Nonetheless, I was determined to go to Pakistan via the Delhi-Lahore bus. This had been my intention when I read about the inauguration of the bus in February while I was waiting out the BNP-led hartals in Cox’s Bazaar. I felt it was important to symbolically support the fledging and now seemingly foolhardy attempt at diplomacy between these two hostile nations that have so much to gain from a lessening of tensions. Since the outbreak of fighting in Kashmir, there had not been an empty seat on the bus to Lahore. My sons flew to the USA the second week of June and I waited eagerly for a cancellation or an empty seat on the diplomacy bus to Pakistan. I read the newspapers and pondered the events playing out under my nose.
George Fernandes, one of the most enigmatic Indian politicians of the late twentieth century was a whipping boy of the liberal and vocal Indian media. A former union organizer Fernandes was the Defense Minister for the BJP government during the Kargil crisis. The determination and confidence of the government masked the fact that immediately before the discovery of the takeover of the mountain-tops above Kargil the opposition parties had called for new elections. Nonetheless, the BJP, whom the BBC and the rest of the western media invariably refer to as the “Hindu nationalist” or “Hindu fundamentalist party” were at the helm, awaiting the now postponed elections, while orchestrating a response to the “war-like-situation” in Kargil.
Their handling of the crisis and the fact that they managed to remain relatively bipartisan, strengthened their political viability. But in Kargil, it was all-out war as the international community watched these two newly nuclearized nations fight it out on the world’s most scenic battlefield. Interestingly, the jihadis who entered the Jammu and Kashmir in Kargil are without question Sunni Muslims, whereas the inhabitants of Kargil are mostly Shi’a. Many Shi’a from Kargil complained that the Pakistani backed Deobandi militants didn’t mind shelling the homes of the local Kashmiris since they were Shi’a. This item was in the Indian news, but I did not hear it mentioned in Pakistani newspapers.
After over a week of waiting, I was finally able to reserve a seat on the Delhi-Lahore diplomacy bus. At 5 AM on June 18, my dear old friend, Mrs. Santosh Sharma, one of the most remarkable self-made woman success stories in modern India, and her family, dropped me off at the locked gate outside Ambedkar station where a uniformed guard asked to see the ticket I had purchased the previous day. I waved goodbye to the white Maruti van, as my friends drove away. I rolled my luggage across the deserted parking lot towards the bus at the far end where people were congregating.
The passengers milled around waiting for our luggage to be inspected. Though there was an x-ray machine, like those used in airports, it was out of order. The Delhi Transport Corporation personnel opened each bag. There was also a healthy looking German Shepherd sniffing our luggage. At 6:02, exactly two minutes late, the loaded bus pulled out of the station with a military jeep as an escort, clearing the road for our early morning exit from Delhi.
For the twelve-hour trip I sat next to a young man from old Delhi, a slim cheerful fellow in his mid twenties named Shehzad. He had rishtadar (family members) in Karachi and a big bag of salwar-kameez suits that he was bringing to sell in Pakistan. He showed me photos of his sisters and nieces and his home in old Delhi with a fridge and chipped marble floors. We chatted in Hindi almost the whole way except while we were watching the film.
The choice of films was quite interesting. Henna, made by Raj Kapoor’s company, starred Zeba Bakhtiyar a Pakistani actress and an Indian actor. The protagonist was an industrialist in Srinagar who was engaged to marry, but had an automobile accident on his way to the wedding. Washed into the Indus, unconscious, he floated downstream on a log that carried him across the border into Pakistani occupied Kashmir, where he was rescued by a rural mountain family of goat herders. Due to his injuries, he had amnesia and couldn’t remember his name or identity or how he fell into the river.
After several heroic episodes, the family adopted him, as their own and after some endearing segments, arranges his marriage to their daughter, Heena. Just as the wedding begins, suddenly, dramatically, his memory returns. In a moment of heightened drama, he tells his adopted family that he is Gopal, or some other Hindu name, and that he has a fiancée in Srinagar. They are of course shocked and some of the villagers, thinking he must be an Indian spy, alert the authorities who, of course, are corrupt government officials.
At any rate, as we rolled west across India, the drama on the small screen at the front of the bus became tragically relevant. The hero, instead of marrying the young Pakistani woman, had to flee from the Pakistani authorities back to India. After the lovely Heena freed her sorrowful ex-bridegroom from jail while they sang a soulful duet, she and her family helped him escape across the border. Tragically, at the last minute there was firing from both sides and Heena is killed.
The Indian actor, standing between two barbed-wire fences cries out, “Kis ki goli? Pakistan ki goli? India ki goli? Nahin, nasfrat ki goli ne Heena ko mar diya.” (Was it Pakistan’s bullet? Was it India’s bullet? No, a bullet of hatred has killed Heena.) I cried at the conclusion, but then I always cry at sad movies, even if they are sappy and overly dramatic. I looked around the bus, and I may have been the only one with tears in my eyes. Meanwhile Shehzad and I spent hours talking as we drove through the western Indian states of Haryana and Panjab.
Most of the people on the bus were Pakistani nationals returning home from visiting their Indian relatives in Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, or other specified places. Pakistanis visiting India can only go to the places indicated on their passports; the same applies to Indians traveling in Pakistan, they are not allowed to venture outside the areas for which they secured permission. The couple sitting in the seats across the aisle of the bus, asked me to help them fill in the disembarkation cards we were given–the very same cards distributed on airplanes flying into Pakistan. The man and his wife were both unable to read or write and could not complete their forms. They handed me their passports and I filled in the information.
The man was born in Delhi in 1937. His wife was ten years younger, born in Lahore. They said that they couldn’t sign their names, so after I filled out the passport information in English, the fellow behind us signed their names for them in Urdu. My seatmate, Shehzad did not read Urdu, he writes in the Devanagari script. Though he couldn’t speak English, he filled out his disembarkation card neatly in Roman script.
Shehzad was on his way to Karachi for the marriage of a cousin. He was very talkative with bright eyes and a thin handsome face. He was also a very patriotic Indian. He told me that he had been to Pakistan several times and this was his second trip on the diplomacy bus. He said that he “hated Pakistan”. He kept repeating, “Mera Bharat Mahan!” (My India is great!)”. At one point Shehzad began chanting, “Hindustan zindabad, Pakistan murdabad!” (Long Live India, Death to Pakistan!) I told him he had better be quiet, because he would not be welcomed in Pakistan if he said such things, someone might overhear him.
He didn’t seem to care and repeated it several more times, laughing. When we arrived in Lahore I heard him jokingly tell the driver and the other two fellows who had come along on the bus, all employees of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), that the American memsahib had warned him to “chip-chaap, mat kaho” (be quiet, don’t speak). He again repeated the zindabad-murdabad slogan and laughed.
Shehzad genuinely seemed to love India and was quite well informed about Indian politics. He may have been showing off a bit for the Pakistanis and DTC personnel on the bus, but his patriotism and preference for India did not seem superficial or hypocritical. Quite probably, the fighting in Kargil intensified his need to assert his patriotic identity, especially while in route to enemy territory.
A few other India nationals were on the bus that day. An elderly Sikh couple was traveling to the shrine of Guru Nanak. I certainly didn’t speak to everyone, but there were at least two Indian-born Muslim women on the bus who had cross-border marriages and returned to India yearly to visit their parents.
There was one remarkable exchange in the ladies restroom at the border crossing on the Pakistani side. Two other women were waiting for the facilities, one was the elderly Sikh lady, and the other had a dark shawl tucked around her ears in a traditional Islamic style. For some reason, they felt compelled to tell me that they were Indian, not Pakistani, and that India was better than Pakistan. The Sikh lady whispered, “Pakistan bigara desh hai” (spoiled country).
They didn’t, however say anything out loud. Each casually approached me as I waited and shaking their heads and raising their eyebrows to get my attention, whispered comments to me critical of Pakistan, then looking around nervously, motioned for me to remain quiet. I never had another chance to query them, though I did find out that the younger woman was an Indian from Agra who had married a man in Lahore.
Meanwhile, while we had been traveling west across Indian Punjab, Shehzad and I talked about current events in India: The buffoonery of Laloo Prasad Yadav, an infamously corrupt politician in the impoverished state of Bihar. We both agreed it was ironic that an Italian, Sonia Gandhi could be the next Prime Minister. Shehzad was well informed about Indian politics. Interestingly, he told me that when the BJP was in power in Delhi, there were less instances of anti-Muslim violence.
I was surprised that he, as a Muslim, would say such a thing and asked him more questions. He said that the Congress had an agenda and needed to keep Muslims feeling insecure to exploit their votes. But the BJP had a vested interest in keeping the peace in the Muslim community. I asked him why and he explained that the BJP is expected to be anti-Muslim and any problems would automatically be blamed on their communal ideology; so there is greater effort by BJP, as the ruling party, to prevent communal disturbances.
I told him that the prevailing view in the popular media is that the Sangh Parivar made provocative statements against Muslims and incited violence. He repeated that there was less violence in Delhi when BJP was in power. I asked him if it was because Muslims were intimidated and were less likely to make demands from a BJP regime, or perhaps because the law and order situation was better under BJP control. He said it “wasn’t from fear”. He said he hoped that BJP were less corrupt than the other governments.
I asked him which party was better and he said less violence is better and during BJP rule there had been less communal violence. I asked him if he voted for BJP and he said he didn’t vote. Shehzad was a very secular and very nationalist young man. One of his comments I found to be particularly profound. He said that the biggest problem with Muslims in India is that they are under the influence of conservative clerics who often express support for Pakistan.
A couple of weeks later, a cell phone conversation intercepted between General Parvez Musharraf, the Pakistani army chief calling from Beijing and General Aziz back in Pakistan would prove Fernandes’ theory to be seemingly on target. Though many in Pakistan doubted the authenticity of the recordings, others seemed to think that they could have been real. In their conversation, the two generals indicated that Sharif was not calling the shots and was in fact uninformed about the military build-up. This was again, seemingly substantiated by developments after Sharif returned from a whirlwind visit on the fourth of July to consult the US president.
Sharif promised to pull the mujahideen back across the Line of Control in exchange for simply a promise from Clinton that he would take a personal interest in the Kashmir problem. The army responded that Sharif did not have the power to issue such an order. The Indians pointed out the irony of the conflicting claims, that if the infiltrators were not under the control of Pakistan how either Sharif or the Pakistan Army could exert any control? The situation was full of duplicity.
Most of the citizens of Pakistan and all of the newspapers, opined that the midnight mad dash to DC was foolhardy. The Pakistani military declared they would not withdraw. Spokesmen for the “Islamic guerrillas”, as they were called by a BBC correspondent, or jihadis in the liberal Pakistani English press, were indignant that Sharif had the audacity to think he could speak for them. Initially, people were sarcastic about the trip to the US saying that Mrs. Sharif simply wanted to go on a shopping trip in America. Others were incensed and warned Sharif not to return to Pakistan or he would be hung for selling out the brave freedom fighters.
The military, the mujahideen, the Pakistani press all condemned Sharif’s US trip as an unnecessary diplomatic manipulation of a military situation that Pakistan seemed to be winning, and a blatant capitulation to Washington and India. However, within only a few days of Sharif’s return, after meeting with top military officials, the militants began a well-publicized retreat from the heights above Kargil. How much Sharif knew in February, while he was shaking hands with the Indian Prime Minster was not known and hotly disputed.
In fact, from his jail cell, several weeks after he had been deposed by General Musharraf, in October 1999, Nawaz Sharif claimed again that he had been duped by Musharraf who had orchestrated the ill-conceived Kargil plan. General Musharraf, who had become the self-appointed head of state, publicly refuted Sharif’s claim, asserting that the military maneuvers could not be undertaken without the consent of the Prime Minister. I’m reminded of Pakistan’s internal contradictions and claims regarding the responsibility for Operation Gibraltar leading to the 1965 war with India.
Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.