Third Pakistan-India Peoples’ Convention on Peace and Democracy,
Calcutta 28-31, 1996.
More than three hundred Pakistanis and Indians met in Calcutta for the Third Convention of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, formed in September of 1994. Of the 165 Pakistani delegates present at the convention, from diverse regions and varied professional backgrounds, 142 had crossed the border by rail and road, itself a historic event in the 50th years since Independence and Partition.
At the four day convention held between Dec. 28-31, 1996, delegates had intensive discussions to develop action-plans on four major themes that had been adopted by the Forum through the Lahore Declaration of September 1994: 1) Demilitarisation, Denuclearisation and Peace Dividends 2) Religious Intolerance 3) Kashmir and 4) Governance. They also reviewed their journey through the first fifty years of Independence. Postures and policies adopted by the two states have deprived the people of the promise of freedom . Diversion of precious resources to wars and preparation for war, has condemned millions of people in the two countries to poverty and squalor. This has resulted in the denial of people’s fundamental rights and basic needs like health, education, housing etc.
On the fourth and final day, the convention endorsed and reiterated the Forum’s standpoint contained in Delhi and Lahore resolutions and unanimously adopted the following in the Calcutta Declaration.
The most fundamental interest of the people of Pakistan and India, as also of the South Asian Region as a whole, demands that both countries celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence by taking a solemn pledge to devote the second half century of freedom, to realizing the shared aspirations of the people for peace, democracy, justice, tolerance and equal opportunities for all citizens regardless of belief, ethnicity, gender, and social status.
That in order to realise this objective, the two states must sign, by 14-15th August 1997, a comprehensive treaty providing for the employment of internationally recognised mechanisms of mutual negotiation, mediation and arbitration for conflict resolution that could guarantee durable peace.
That the two states must enter into bilateral agreements to ensure the following:
? Free travel across the border
? Free exchange of information and publications and reduction of communication and travel costs.
? Removal of trade barriers and grant of MFN status to each other.
? That while celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence, the people rejoice in one another’s freedom and integrity.
? That the members of the Forum have a historic responsibility to carry out the action plan
The third Joint Convention of the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy was held at Calcutta from December 28 to 31, 1996, bringing together more than 300 citizens of Pakistan and India to discuss a people’s agenda which would strengthen the forces for peace and democracy in the two countries. The Calcutta Convention marked the transition of the Forum from the closed four walls of seminar halls to the streets. The vision of building a movement of cross border democracy which inspired a dozen Indians and Pakistanis who met in Lahore in 1994 to form the Forum, was in Calcutta two years later, realised.
Down the streets of Calcutta on December 31st, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence, after 50 years of the politics of hate and confrontation, Pakistanis and Indians walked down the streets of Calcutta asserting with one voice- “Ek Mata:Do Santan, Bharat aur Pakistan”.
Calcutta is a city inured to street demonstrations. But what were these 500 Indians and Pakistanis doing walking arm in arm, asserting “No to war, we want peace”? Cars stopped, passersby idled, and residents came out in curiosity and lingered to watch in amazement this exultant group. Sheen Farukh, a delegate from Pakistan, forgot that she had almost been too tired to join in, as she lustily joined in the chorus, “We shall overcome”, and was overwhelmed when a nearby florist rushed out with an armful of roses for the Pakistani women delegates.
It was fitting that Calcutta with its anti fascist tradition should be the city for the first ever public rally by Pakistanis and Indians in the subcontinent. As Tapan Bose, one of organisers of the Forum observed, “the people of Calcutta had been among the first in the 30s to come out with a declaration against fascism. In the 40s they protested against the French occupation of Vietnam, port workers and tram workers unions took a stand against communalism during the partition. And in the 60s the Left in Calcutta campaigned against xenophobia.”
As the Chairman of the Pakistan Chapter, Mr. I A Rehman added, “Calcutta has always been a prominent centre for spawning ideas of peace and democracy. It was from this city that C R Das and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose made their memorable contributions to the struggle against colonial rule”.
In 1996, the city of Calcutta and its people responded with open hearts to the nearly 200 visiting Pakistanis. The Convention moved them to look hard at the mindset which has locked the two peoples behind walls of prejudice and hate ideologies. The West Bengal Chief Minister had set the tone, saying, “if 200 Pakistanis have the courage to come to India, then the least West Bengal can do is to make them welcome”. Jyoti Basu himself graced a reception given by the Speaker of the West Bengal legislative assembly and with infinite interest and patience, the Chief Minister met every Pakistani delegate.
The Speaker of the West Bengal Assembly, Abdul Halim at the inaugural session enthusiastically endorsed the need for the peoples of India and Pakistan to be allowed to come closer. “The Time has come”, he said, “to remove the barriers to trade,movement ofpeople, cultural exchange and even tourism. There are differences. But no military solution is possible. The first thing is to allow people to talk to each other, and the Forum is playing an important role in doing this.”
Running through the inaugural session was the theme of people contacts pulling down the walls of prejudice and hate. As Nirmal Mukarji, the Chairperson of the Indian Chapter of Forum emphasised, for fifty years India and Pakistan have been casting each other as demons. “The more people come across and see for themselves, the more they are exposed to each other’s writing, the process of demonising the other will come apart.” Taking heart from the tentative moves by the then Indian Foreign Minister Gujral to ease tension between the two countries, Mr Mukarji urged “Big Brother India, must not hesitate to make unilateral moves on easing visa restrictions”. And whereas in Lahore the Forum had called for 25% cut in defence spending and deployments, he appealed at Calcutta for a 40% cut.
Dr Ashok Mitra also took up the theme of demonisation built on the politics of keeping two generations of Indians and Pakistanis apart.”Our challenge is to fight against state supported prejudice”, he said. “How deep that poison has entered is evident when in Parliament a demand is made for raising defence spending. Always. It is enthusiastically endorsed because it is seen as an opportunity to give Pakistan a bloody nose. What is forgotten is the cost of defence spending in terms of human welfare”, he said.
For the Pakistani delegation, with general elections just days away, the mood as reflected by Mr. I.A. Rehman was somber, and reflective on why the Forum had been unable to realise the committments made at the two earlier Conventions in Delhi and Lahore. “Last year had seen the arch conservative forces opposed to India and Pakistan working together, become most active and constrain the ability of people to work for peace. In particular the bomb lobby was most active. But the virulence of the attack by the arch conservative forces shows too the success that the forces for peace have achieved. Therefore while the difficulties need to be appreciated”, Mr Rahman said, “it should not inhibit us from renewing our resolve”.
Mr Rahman made a strong plea of removing the restrictions which prevent ordinary Indians and Pakistanis from communicating. The elites can telephone each other, but the poor cannot send to each other even a postcard. The elites can visit by aeroplane, but the road and rail links are blocked.
The need to persuade the two governments to review the closed road border policy, inspired the Pakistani delegates to come by road. 145 of them crossed that no man’s land between the Attari and Wagha border posts. A distance which should have not taken more than quarter of an hour to walk, took five hours to traverse. No information of an exceptional border crossing had been intimated to the police and it seemed a touch and go affair. Eventually, they were on board buses bound for Amritsar. Tired but conscious that they were making history. Road links have been blocked since 1983. Sheen Farukh, a Pakistani journalist in her personal account of the journey, tossed off the “hassles by the Punjab police and the railway authorities” and said “all the fuss was not for the enemies of the past but for the friends of tommorow. It made us all feel very important”.
That week the trains were running 10 to 12 hours late.” It’s just like in Pakistan”, a trade unionist from Karachi remarked. The journey from Amritsar to Lahore, past stations whosenames for some one like Brig. Abid Hamid, evoked memories of a not too distant lived past, while for his young daughter it was a fresh exposure. Sheen Farukh described her experience of the journey as “I had to get down at Jullandhar railway station to touch the homeland of my grandparents who were still there, deep down in the womb of the earth.” As for their descendants (Sheen and the others), they were enjoying themselves back again, eating chana bhatura, sipping tea on the railway platforms, chatting freely to all”. The mutual suspicions forgotten.
Indeed, the Forum’s real strength is often its unstructured or rather unplanned agenda, that is the informal conversations, the unplanned networks which are forged. For Anir Ban, a journalist from West Bengal, the tea and lunch breaks stood out. “One had to be there to see how much the people from the two sides of the border wanted to speak to each other. Squeezing themselves in the corner of a crowded lobby, balancing the cups of not very hot tea, a teacher from Kerala was eagerly discussing the state of education in Pakistan with a journalist from Peshawar. A perceptive observer compared this to a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gayne Bagha Bayne. Two brothers, Kings of two states were on the verge of war, met each other and were promptly locked in a brotherly embrace.”
It was during these informal exchanges in Lahore in 1995, that representatives of organisations of fisherfolk of the two countries met and agreed to work for the welfare of fishermen and their children languishing in each other’s jails because they had strayed across the international waters. Efforts of the two associations to lobby their governments had yielded results. At Calcutta,with some satisfaction it could be said, that the two governments had agreed to adopt the principle of “clean slate” and release the fishermen, children and the boats.
That the third joint Convention was held in Calcutta, showed that the Forum’s roots were spreading beyond Delhi and Lahore. “Our meeting here is wholly in accord with our plans to take the message of peace and people’s rights to all parts of the subcontinent”, Rehman Sahib said.
Whereas the first two joint conventions in Delhi and Lahore had been against an atmosphere of extremely jingoistic hate rhetoric, by the time of the Calcutta convention, there was a decisive shift in the official stance away from the politics of hate to reducing tension. In February 1995, at the first joint Convention of the Forum, the very process of 200 Indians and Pakistanis meeting and freely discussing even contentious political issues like Kashmir, was itself a path breaking event. The second joint convention in Lahore in November, demonstrated that it was no flash in the pan. In Delhi and Lahore 200 Indians and Pakistanis had met to discover that they agreed more than they disagreed even on contentious issues as Kashmir, arms build-up, nuclear weapons, minority rights and issues of democratic governance.
In Delhi it had taken courage for citizens to cut through the state orthodoxy on – Kashmir as an integral part of India – or – Kashmir as Pakistan’s jugular vein – to assert that, “Kashmir is not merely a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan… (and) requires a democratic solution which involves the people of Jammu and Kashmir”. In Lahore it took courage to call for a reduction in force levels by 25% and to urge governments to prevent cross border support for insurgencies and proxy wars, to call for India and Pakistan to conclude their own CTBT.
Calcutta was to deepen the formulation of a people’s agenda on Governance, Religious Intolerance, Demilitarization and Kashmir. With the third convention at Calcutta, the Forum set out to reach out to the masses. It also marked a recognition that while conventions were important, there had to be a pause to redirect the resources of the Forum to building up the activities of the joint committees. A special open session on Fifty Years of India and Pakistan provided a hard look at fifty years of independence of India and Pakistan. Conscious of the approaching fiftieth anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan, the Calcutta declaration called for a comprehensive peace treaty to usher in a new century of peace. A fervent plea was made to push for freer movement and exchange of goods and information.
Reflecting the concerns raised at the Forum special open session on Gender–social, political and cultural resistance of women in India and Pakistan, the Calcutta declaration calls for gender justice and the formulation of a joint charter of egalitarian principles.
The spirit of the Calcutta convention was best epitomised in the giant charcoal sketch drawn by the Pakistani cartoonist “FICA” raised aloft by a dozen Indians and Pakistani delegates as they marched down the streets of Calcutta. These citizens of the two countries, had come together to work for a common goal–peace and democracy. It was a bonding which resounded across the huge auditorium of Kalamandir, as Indians and Pakistanis took up the chorus of Bhupen Hazarika’s song with one voice. It was a bonding that found an enthusiastic echo as Indian and Pakistani artists emotionally sang, “Though we belong to two geographic entities we are one, our soul is one and our cultural root is one”.
It was a fulsome celebration of two peoples coming together after fifty years of being kept apart. But amidst the romanticism of those who basked in the glow of a symbolic lighting of candles on either side of the border, there was the hard reality of how long and difficult the struggle would be to move towards not only easing tension but working together to strengthen peace and democracy in the subcontinent. The press conference at the end of the convention brought home the grim reality of how high the walls of prejudice still are. Press reporters made an issue of the fact that India was relaxing its visa regulations and Pakistani artists were performing here but Indian artists could not go to Pakistan. Mr. Rehman explained that for about 15 years no singer was allowed to peform in public in Pakistan. He said, it will take time for the restrictions to be relaxed.