The diplomacy bus was sparkling new as I rode from Delhi to Lahore in June 1999, our high profile vehicle had a military escort all the way from Delhi to the Pakistani border –a shiny new beige Indian Tata Jeep with four soldiers in the back, two of whom were Sikhs, a soldier in the passenger seat and a jawan driver, six military men in all. They had rifles, revolvers, and a red police light flashing on the top of the jeep. Whenever there was a traffic jam or trucks blocking the road, they would turn on the lights and sirens, lean out of their seats, several waving lathis (bamboo poles) high in the air, not threatening, just waving them and yelling for the drivers to move over. Amazingly, on crowded Indian roads, heavy traffic immediately made way for us. We stopped for breakfast and lunch at tourist restaurants, where my young seat-mate, Shehzad, whom I had gladly befriended, and I shared a table. Additional military police met the bus and stood guard while we ate. The Indian government was not taking any chances.
This was definitely a bus that ran on schedule. A clean new Ashok-Leyland bus with the flags of both nations brightly painted on both sides and front and back, Pakistan’s green crescent and India’s tri-colors, with poles crossing, proclaiming our diplomatic mission. In India, as people we passed recognized the ‘diplomacy bus’ moving along the highway, they would smile and wave and point to us, motioning to their friends who would also smile and wave. Invariably, if boys in a cricket field or someone at a tea stall, bicycle shop, or buying mangoes from a wooden cart on the roadside noticed the passing Delhi-Lahore ‘Diplomacy Bus’, they would smile broadly and wave or put their palms together over their heads in a sign of enthusiastic Namaskar. It was almost as if we were driving down the road with the Prime Minister himself on board. The friendly greetings were everywhere. Many of the passengers waved back.
When the bus arrived at the Wagah border, we all disembarked with our luggage. On the Indian side of the customs check post I placed my bags on a long counter where all the passengers’ bags were opened and checked. The handsome thirty-something gentleman who was the customs officer asked me if I had any “politically sensitive materials.” Since I had a duffel bag full of Urdu textbooks he was curious about what was in such a heavy bag. I explained that they were only samajik vigyan pathepushtika (social studies textbooks) and they were published in Pakistan, so they were obviously not politically sensitive. I asked what sorts of published materials were considered “politically sensitive.” The customs officer mumbled something about politically sensitive books and then, while rummaging through my bags, found a copy of Ayisha Jalal’s Sole Spokesman. He lifted it and said, “This looks politically sensitive.” I flipped open the to the title page and pointed out that it was published by OUP, Karachi, “Not to worry, this is also available in Pakistan.”
By then I was most curious. Just what sorts of materials are considered politically sensitive? He was a bit at a loss and repeated that Indian customs officers had been instructed to confiscate any politically sensitive books and newspapers so as not to offend “our Pakistani neighbors.” I asked him if The Times of India was considered politically sensitive. He got a bit excited and said “Yes, yes, The Times of India is not allowed, it is politically sensitive.” He eagerly looked in my duffel bag again asking if I had a copy of The Times of India. I told him I did not, but then I asked him if the New York Times was considered politically sensitive. When he responded in the negative, I said I didn’t think The Times of India was actually politically sensitive either. He laughed and agreed that it wasn’t, in India, but they were instructed, as per the wishes of the Pakistani government, to confiscate Indian newspapers and magazines because they were considered politically sensitive.
I asked him if travelers coming from Pakistan to India had to surrender copies of Pakistani newspapers such as The News or Dawn before proceeding. He said that it didn’t matter to the Indian government; I could bring whatever newspapers I wanted back with me. However, later his assertion turned out to be overly magnanimous. During the next few weeks, as the fighting in Kargil escalated, the Indian government took rather drastic censorship measures and blocked out the Dawn newspaper’s web site so that it could not be accessed from India servers. A year later, in March of 2000, after spending almost two months in Pakistan, I again took the diplomacy bus, this time in the opposite direction from Lahore to Delhi.
A Dutch journalist who had interviewed General Musharraf was returning to India to cover the President Clinton’s visit. Early in the predawn light, at the Faletti Hotel in Lahore, before boarding the bus, the guard checking our baggage confiscated all of her newspapers and magazines saying that the Indian government would not allow them to be taken into the country. I intervened, relating to the guard what the Indian customs officer had told me the previous year. He reluctantly gave half of the magazines back to her. When we arrived at the border an hour later, it turned out that she didn’t have the proper visa to re-enter India and had to return to Lahore. She left behind a couple of magazines on the bus and the very talkative fellows working for the Delhi Transport Corporation and I shared them during our ride to Delhi. Nobody confiscated them at the border.
In June 1999, after the diplomacy bus had only been operative for a few months, with big guns booming in Kashmir, there was considerable journalistic interest in the passengers on the diplomacy bus. On the Indian side of the border, I was interviewed by a Sikh newsman with a television crew. I told him that I had taken the bus from India to Pakistan in order to support the diplomatic efforts, especially in light of the tension at the LOC. It was certainly an interesting time for doing research into how history is utilized in the manufacture of nationalism in India and Pakistan. Now I was experiencing history in the making and wondered how the current crisis would play out in India’s and Pakistan’s juxtaposed historical narratives.
Porters from India put our luggage back on the bus to drive the fifty yards across “no-man’s-land” to the Pakistani side of the border where Pakistani porters removed our luggage to pass through Pakistani customs. Shehzad had to pay a bribe to be able to take his heavy bag of clothing into Pakistan. It had been a quiet under the table affair on the Indian side that no one noticed. But, on the Pakistani side, he became irritated because the size of the bribe was too big. The bribing occurred in full public view right beside the bus, with loud negotiating until they settled on an amount. As his debate with the customs officials grew a bit heated I was worried that my new friend was getting himself into trouble. After about ten minutes that held up our departure, he came from around the back of the bus and told me that they had charged him six thousand rupees bakhshish far too much, he complained. The Indians had only charged him three thousand, a more standard fee for such a bribe.
Crossing that border was like crossing an ideological iron curtain though certainly the landscape on either side was indistinguishable. In just fifty yards the political rhetoric, not to mention historical perspectives, were a hundred and eighty degrees and a million miles apart, however everything else looked virtually, if somewhat superficially, the same. There are three main visible differences that are easily noticeable when crossing from India to Pakistan. First, the Urdu script is used in Pakistan instead of Hindi or Punjabi—English was also far more common on the Indian side, since India has multiple scripts and a fairly mobile population, English is often the lingua franca. Secondly, men’s fashion in Pakistan was distinguishable by the added length of their shirts, ankle length pants, and the frequency of beards. And thirdly, the situation regarding women, of whom there are far fewer out and about on the roadside in Pakistan. Those that are in the market will invariably have their heads covered whereas in urban India it is rare. Also, in Pakistan, one never sees a woman on a motorcycle or bicycle, a common sight on Indian roadways.
After we passed through the two checkpoints and proceeded past the Pakistani side of the border crossing, Shehzad told me “aage dekho” (look in front), our escort had changed. He laughed and made a disparaging remark. Instead of a shiny beige military vehicle escorting us, we were being led to Lahore by a dented old Toyota truck, with one soldier in the passenger seat and a man in a gray salwar-kameez driving. On the back of the faded red truck a torn tarp was flapping in the wind. Shehzad whispered, “The Pakistanis don’t care about diplomacy.”
Out my window I watched the reactions of the people on the road. The seemingly hostile responses that people gave when they saw the diplomacy bus were in complete contrast to the friendly reactions of people on the Indian side. While passing between the Indian border and Lahore, which is only 18 kilometers, groups of men sitting under trees on charpoys, or on a bench at a chai stall, or standing at a bicycle repair shop, if they noticed us passing, would frown and motion to their friends, who would turn and also scowl at the bus. To my amazement, this quite negative response was repeated numerous times in just those few miles.
Shehzad noticed too. Without my having said anything, he leaned over and whispered in a low, serious voice, “Yahan ke log, humko buri nazar dete hain.” (People here are giving us the evil eye). It was a bit unnerving and the reverse of the positive reaction our diplomacy bus had elicited on the Indian side. I was intently looking out the window, watching the people watching us. Among all the Pakistanis who noticed the bus, only a group of boys playing cricket in a field waved a friendly salute as we passed. That gave me some hope that perhaps a younger generation did not have the level of resentment towards India, which was so obvious in the eyes of the adults who glared in anger at the painting of the flags of India and Pakistan intertwined on the sides of the bus. When we arrived at the Faletti Hotel in Lahore, Shehzad and I parted ways. I took photos of him standing in front of the bus. He was still chanting “Hindustan zindabad, Pakistan murdabad” as we stood waiting for our ride. I warned him again to keep it down. I hope he made it home safely.
At the Lahore end of the journey there was no security, except for the one or two policemen standing at a distance. Taxis and cars were allowed to drive right up next to the bus. Whereas on the Delhi end, all vehicles were prohibited from entering the Ambedkar terminal parking lot while the diplomacy bus was loading or unloading, not even well-wishers were allowed to see the passengers off or welcome them when they arrived. All vehicles and non-passengers had to stay outside the gates while the diplomacy bus was parked at Ambedkar Station. In Lahore it was far more casual and lax.
There were several journalists at the Faletti Hotel interviewing the arriving passengers. A tall, clean-shaven young man wearing a long, grey salwar-kameez spoke with me as he took some notes on a small spiral bound pad. The reporter was sympathetic to what I had to say about the unfortunate nature of the hostilities in Kargil. He asked me how the Indians were reacting to the latest violence in Kashmir and I told him that they felt betrayed by the Lahore Declaration, which had been made right here at the Faletti Hotel just a few months before.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they had spruced Faletti’s up a bit for the occasion, it didn’t look like it had been fixed up recently. The Faletti was not a spit and polish five-star; in fact, it was rather dull and graying with mildewed whitewashed walls and a garden with just the barest grass and shrubs. The fence along the road at the front was broken in a few places. Nothing about the place indicated that it was a proper venue for Prime Ministers to hold a ceremony of such international importance. When I mentioned this, the reporter reminded me that representatives from the Pakistani military establishment had not attended the ceremony in February to commemorate the inaugural voyage of the ‘diplomacy bus’, in fact, they had boycotted it. He explained something I already knew all too well, that no political or diplomatic initiatives in Pakistan have any chance unless they have the stamp of approval of the military.
Bowling for Kashmir
During June 1999, besides Kargil, there was another competition going on between India and Pakistan in the world of cricket, whose fans in the Subcontinent are very passionate about the game. Cricket was long ago politicized in the Subcontinent. This year during the World Cup tournament in England, early in the competition, India beat Pakistan, which was the favored team. It was a huge upset for the Pakistanis and a surprise victory for India.
I was in Delhi when that game was going on and everywhere people were glued to their television sets. After the last ball was bowled, and India had bested Pakistan, spontaneous firecrackers could be heard across the city. Ultimately, India was disqualified from the finals and Pakistan went on to play Australia for the title. On the night of the championship, I sat on the king size bed in my friend’s Lahore home, the air conditioner keeping us cool, and watched the game. We laughed and laughed, joking about the political overtones of sports matches.
As the Pakistanis began by playing poorly, I surmised that Indians across the border were probably praying for Australia. My friend commented that, “there are undoubtedly thousands of Mullahs on this side of the border, praying to Allah that Pakistan wins”. I responded that I could imagine thousands of Hindus in India, who are right now praying to Lord Shiva to grant just the opposite boon, to defeat the Pakistanis and bring victory to the Australians. I joked that they might create a new modified Sanskrit prayer something like, “Australiaya Namaha” or “Akhand Ananda Australium”. We laughed and had to explain why it was so funny to another friend who was also watching the cricket match. I treasured such a warm light moment in a country that was otherwise focused on news from the front, and the on-going hate India propaganda campaign that is the lifeblood of the Pakistani media.
While in Lahore, I met Imran Ali, a history professor at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Science), whom I had met the year before at a seminar sponsored by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. After we had chatted for a few minutes, I told him about the “buri nazar” episode on the bus. He said something that I found rather shocking, but in reality is all too typical: “And why shouldn’t they give dirty looks to that bus. We don’t want those Hindus coming on our soil. We don’t need them and don’t want them, and hate their bus.
They should stay in India.” I was so taken aback by his negative reply I forgot to mention that most of the passengers on the bus were Pakistanis returning home from visiting family in India. As far as I could tell, there were absolutely no Hindus on board and only I, a young woman from Canada, and the elderly Sikh couple were the Non-Muslims. The bus was a mechanical object and could profess no religious affiliation, both flags were painted on the bus; where were the invading Hindus? Amazingly, the SSRC had brought Imran Ali to the seminar in New Mexico as a history professor who represented a modern, more forward thinking element of Pakistan, which made his comments all the more shocking.
Professor Imran Ali told me that Kashmir was Pakistan’s only issue. Parroting Z.A. Bhutto, he said that Pakistanis should be willing to fight “hazaron sal ki larai” (a thousand years of war) to free Kashmir. I pointed out that in a thousand years, it was very doubtful if either Pakistan or India, as we know them, would still exist, much less the USA. I asked if he thought Kashmir was more important than other immediate concerns such as education, democracy and economic infrastructure. He said these were all secondary to getting Kashmir away from India. “Kashmir is Pakistan’s only issue. Even if we have to suffer, we will fight and sacrifice until Kashmir is free.”
Imran Ali actually didn’t seem to be suffering too badly. His newly constructed home in one of Lahore’s most posh neighborhoods has large slabs of pure white marble covering the floors and fabulous carved wooden and stone furniture. European lithographs from the mid-1800’s depicting scantily clad fisher women on the Cormandal coast hung on his walls in gilded golden frames. A swimming pool outside the glass windows and a wet bar with mirrors and brass added to the opulence.
In our conversation he went into a long digression regarding India as a nation. He said India was “not a real country, not a real nation”. I pointed out that nationalism, and nation-states as political units as we now know them, are a relatively new phenomenon, a political construct emerging after the American and French Revolutions. Imran Ali was undaunted by my caveat and continued to criticize India saying that it was a hodge-podge excuse for a nation. I asked, in that case, whether Pakistan was also not a nation, pieced together with Balouchi, Sindhi, Punjabi, and other sub-national ethnic groups.
He grew defensive, and declared that, “Pakistan has an ideology and a cohesiveness among the people unlike India where the minorities are restless and don’t want to be part of the union.” I asked about the situation in the Sindh, where the Governor’s rule had been enacted the previous October and the democratically elected legislature dismissed. He seemed irritated by my questions. The war inspired anti-Indian rhetoric was pretty thick during the summer of 1999. I couldn’t help but wonder how much ideological affinity a Mullah would have felt in the home of Professor Imran Ali, with paintings of half-naked women adorning the walls next to the wet bar.
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