As an ardent supporter of Indo-Pak peace and having many friends in Pakistan, visiting Pakistan was a long-awaited desire for me. Having worked actively as a member of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a cross-border Indo-Pak friendship initiative, I didn’t have many pre-conceived notions about the country. I was far too excited that I would finally visit Pakistan.
The literally golden opportunity was an academic conference on inclusive education that was organized by University of Management and Technology (Lahore). When my co-authored paper was selected, I and my friend Madhavi Bansal knew that this was only the first step forward. The second and most difficult step was getting a visa. Our apprehensions were right. The struggle for visa comprised of standing in a long queue outside the embassy waiting endlessly, being on the verge of rejection with a host of terrible sounding suggestions that are not listed on the embassy website, troubling our hosts with emails to intervene more and offering daily prayers. To our great surprise celebrated with tears of joy, we were finally granted the visa to visit Lahore.
The moment of crossing the border filled me with emotions. The white line on the border reminded me of Manto’s stories, especially of Toba Tek Singh. I imagined seeing the spot where the story had concluded. I was to cross the border and enter the land which is prejudiced, which we have been taught is different and opposing.
In a span of six days, we were to discover if this was actually true. While we had been talking to people from Pakistan through our peace activities, the people would mainly be those who were already convinced somewhere about peace so this was the first experience of interacting with people who may have had no experience of interacting with Indians. However, as expected, it largely turned out to be a myth.
Because of our language which was apparently “Urdu”, people could tell that we are non-Lahoris, but we being Indians was not what they would imagine. We were travelling in a rickshaw. While directly, the driver smiled at some words that I used and I thought that he had found out. He asked me where we were from and on discovering that we were Indians, his eyes widened and he exclaimed, “Masha Allah!” He said that he knew that we were not from Lahore but had thought that were probably from Karachi. He shared that his grandparents had migrated from India. He told that both Hindus and Muslims prayed to God but only used different words and that there wasn’t really a difference. “There is no hatred but politics”.
The expression of disbelief, the wide eyes and giving us a second look when we would inform people that we were Indians were unforgettable and something that I enjoyed. After they found out, they would change. They would become more welcoming towards us. We were invited for lunch at home by complete strangers.
Even in the university, the environment was way beyond friendly, it was quite special. There were people who came for our presentation only because we were Indians. A more special thing was that before our presentation, the moderator of the session welcomed us with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi. We were cared for far beyond what we could ever expect.
Besides the university conference, our other main focus was to meet our friends and interact with people. We got the opportunity to interact with school and college students. The interactions helped me to know how people of Pakistan, especially the youth thought. People of both countries hold stereotypes and misconceptions about each other and the reason is that there are very few platforms to know each other. The sessions, thus, helped to answer the curiosities. We were asked about different religions in India and I informed that India was a land of religious diversities just like Pakistan. The constitution of India even legally recognized and respected agnostics and atheists. Similarly, a student in Punjab University asked about Pathans in India. They inquired about how they were perceived. There were questions on how Pakistanis are perceived in India, how Pakistanis serials and movies were seen there. And I spoke about the success of Zindagi channel that has provided a great alternative to the never-ending and boring saas-bahu sagas that dominate the Indian TV industry. For movies, there is still a big void and people hardly know the great movies that Pakistan has produced.
What also came out of the interactions was that youth of Pakistan, like youth of India, are not much aware of the issues, the complexities yet embroiled in the conflict, in the culture of stereotypes sustained by the biased media and lack of people-to-people contacts. In Punjab University, over the discussion on the restrictions of visa, a student justified the city-specific visa by saying that Indians would come and spy on our weapons. Another important part of the discussion was on the role that people can play in improving the relations. Interestingly, I was asked the same question during a discussion in a university in Gujarat (India), some months back.
The questions that we were asked in Pakistan were exactly the same as asked during discussions in India on this issue. This shows that people on both sides are curious, have the same apprehensions, perceptions about each other. Having these interactions also helped as they highlighted the fact that on both sides, people preferred peace over conflict. The students were excited to hear us and wanted to interact and connect personally.
While the six days in Pakistan gave way to new bonds, it also strengthened the existing ones. While Lahore didn’t seem much different and definitely not part of a different country, my friends, three of whom came all the way from Islamabad and one from Peshawar made sure that it didn’t even seem like a different city. Six days in Pakistan and few hours before my scheduled departure, I was wondering if I could stay back even for one more day – this says enough of how Pakistan treated me. I came back with new thoughts, knowledge to break some more stereotypes and more importantly, a new strength to work for peace between the two countries. Let people of India and Pakistan meet and I am confident that each one will pen down a similar story.