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Mainstream, VOL LII No 9, February 22, 2014

Bus they Missed

Saturday 22 February 2014, by Kuldip Nayar

Fifteen years ago in February 1999, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, took a bus to Lahore to normalise relations with Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif was Pakistan’s Prime Minister. They jointly issued the Lahore Declaration which adumbrated several steps to overcome the differences that had yawned the distance between the two countries.

I was one of those who rode the bus. It was an exhilarating experience, pregnant with optimism. At least, I felt that the journey of a few kilometres from Attari to the Wagah border would not be a long travel to bring New Delhi and Islamabad nearer.

Unfortunately, this did not happen not because the Prime Ministers of the two countries differed but because the military in Pakistan was against the rapprochement. It was apparent when the three Service Chiefs of Pakistan refused to salute the Indian Prime Minister.

General Pervez Musharraf, then the Army Chief, had different ideas. His subsequent coup to oust the elected Prime Minister bared his ambitions. The bus journey was a courageous step by Vajpaee because his Bharatiya Janata Party was anti-Pakistan and pursued Hindu nationalism as its sole agenda. Vajpayee went to the extent of having a timeframe within which the Kashmir problem was to be solved. He had probably in mind what a chastened Zuflikar Ali Bhutto, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, had told me in a recorded interview after the liberation of Bangladesh.

Bhutto said: “We can make the ceasefire line a line of peace and let people come and go between the two Kashmirs. After all, why should they suffer? Let there be some free movement between them. Then one thing can lead to another. After all, simultaneously we hope that there will be exchanges of visits, of officials and non-officials.” Bhutto denied having said the “line of peace” when New Delhi took it up with him officially. I wish that the Lahore Declaration to normalise trade and travel could be implemented even now. What the two Prime Ministers achieved may seem very little in concrete terms, particularly when Pakistan weighed everything on the scales of Kashmir. Even then Vajpayee said, at least three times during his visit, that the problem of Jammu and Kashmir had yet to be settled and that the two sides would continue to have talks until they resolved it. In other words, Vajpayee conceded that it was a dispute. The fact that he did not mention that Kashmir was an integral part of India during his visit was something which the Pakistanis should have noticed.

Coming back to the bus journey, I was one of the 22 “eminent” people travelling to Pakistan on a mission to retrieve soiled relations. Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal joined us at the Amritsar airport. He hugged me and said: “Your efforts are bearing fruit.” Indeed, he was referring to our effort to light candles at the Wagah border since 1996—to send a message of friendship to the other side. Badal disappeared in the crowd of tall, turbaned Sikhs awaiting Vajpayee’s arrival. But some of us moved towards the bus, standing lonely near the tarmac. Flags of India and Pakistan were painted on its body. Thank God, there was no slogan, which would have spoilt the bluish colour that stood out in the afternoon sunlight. Dancing and singing men and women in colourful costumes provided an ideal backdrop. Policemen looked out of place, even though they were not many.

As soon as Vajpayee sat in the front seat, the bus began its journey to Lahore. A ticket collector first gave me a ticket and then tore half of it, which I retain as a souvenir. Another attendant offered cold drinks. The TV and mobile telephones were there—all part of service as it would be at the time of regular trips. Right up to the border, a distance of 35 kilometres, people were lined up on both sides. Children waving yellow flags and bands playing loud tunes reflected the enthusiasm that the meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan had generated. The mood in the bus was relaxed. But very few exchanged words with one another. A feeling of expectancy hung in the air. Some nervousness was visible and it got heightened with every kilometre-stone going past. How will the visit go was the thought writ large on everyone’s face. Still they were conscious of the history they were making.

“It was a bold step,” I remarked when I sat next to the Prime Minister briefly. He only smiled. I persisted with my questions: “What made you respond to Nawaz Sharif’s off-the-cuff remark to take a ride on the bus? What about your party, the BJP?” He said: “I thought, let me do something to be remembered. After all, the Prime Ministership does not last long.” And then he mentioned the killing of Hindus at Rajori. He was disturbed. “Certain elements always do it to sabotage the talks.” I wanted to talk to him further but there was a long queue.

There was the usual guard of honour, a large contingent of policemen on the other side. The guard of honour is a beaten path, covered again and again even after 66 years since the end of British rule. The mood of abandon on the Indian side changed into sombreness. Pakistan Rangers stood rows upon rows to attention. There was silence and the air was heavy. Nawaz Sharif’s smiling face broke the monotony. Some of his colleagues, dressed in achkan, too were a relief. “Khush Aamdeen (welcome) to Pakistan,” were the first words Nawaz Sharif spoke before he embraced Vajpayee. Pakistani Ministers also lined up to shake hands with Vajpayee. People had lined up both sides of the road leading to Lahore. There were women without veil and many friendly hands waved towards us. I wish that their expectations had been met.

When the two Prime Ministers met I also thought that the impasse between the two countries would be over. But it did not happen. There were too many vested interests and unseen elements coming in the way. No doubt, they have really missed the bus.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com