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Crossing A Bridge Of Peace

By Ghazi Salahuddin

10 April, 2005
The News

There are times when a simple and natural action such as crossing a bridge or opening a door or just taking a few steps in a certain direction can become a moment in history. Usually, such a straightforward move is less painful and less complicated than taking a U-turn in the midst of a crisis. And when this happens, you begin to wonder why it had taken so long. But history, alas, is replete with such deviations, the cost of which is invariably paid with untold human suffering.

When 49 passengers of two buses crossed a bridge in Kashmir in both directions on Thursday, the world watched the spectacle with a great sense of relief. After all, what are bridges for if we do not keep crossing them? However, the 220-foot-long bridge on the Line of Control has only just been made functional. It is now called the Peace Bridge. On Thursday, 30 Kashmiris, also Pakistanis, walked across on the bridge to the Indian occupied part of a land that is likened to paradise. Similarly, 19 Kashmiris, also Indians, walked in the opposite direction to enter Azad Kashmir.

Now, the bus from Srinagar brought 10 less passengers than those who had acquired permits to make their journey of a lifetime. They had pulled out because of the scary terrorist attack in Srinagar on Wednesday on a protected building in which the intending passengers for Muzaffarabad were lodged. This attack was a desperate attempt to sabotage the inauguration of a bus service between the two capitals of a divided Kashmir. In a sense, it became a thought-provoking reminder of the long-lasting tragedy of Kashmir.

It also demonstrated that the momentous peace initiative remains somewhat threatened by militants who may be unwilling to accept the new dictates of history. It might take them some time to realise the limits of an armed struggle in the emerging global scenario. We cannot be sure about the pace and quality of change that Thursday’s highly emotional ceremony at the Peace Bridge will bring about in the context of the resolution of the Kashmir conflict and relations between Pakistan and India. But we can be certain that an important bridge has been crossed.

Most significantly, the focus is now on the Kashmiris and the injustices they have suffered in human terms. It breaks your heart to contemplate the grief and anguish of families that have lived divided for decades. We were able to witness, through live television coverage of the event, the show of emotions on both sides. If people do matter Ð and what else should? Ð then what can ever justify a policy that would rob them of their happiness?

Seen in a larger perspective, the crossing of a bridge in Kashmir is one more illustration of change that is taking place in South Asia. In fact, the entire continent is in a flux. Just as relations between India and Pakistan are on the mend, China and India, the two Asian giants who went to war in 1962, are also coming closer. This emerging relationship is manifested by the visit to India by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier. He was also in Pakistan this week to underline the importance of our traditional and tested friendship. The name of the game, now, is economy. And for Pakistan and India, it is also cricket.

It is cricket that is providing an optimistic follow-up to the crossing of the Line of Control in Kashmir, with the forthcoming visit to India by President General Pervez Musharraf to watch the New Delhi one-day international. This will, no doubt, be an important encounter between the leaders of the two countries. We can hope for a further strengthening of confidence building measures in South Asia. The thrust for this development has, of course, come from the unmistakable desire of the people of both countries to establish cordial relations. Actually, our governments still seem hesitant to translate their fervour into concrete diplomatic action.

While an opportunity for the Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC to meet their relatives is by all means a landmark event, and it needs to be quickly bolstered, the die is cast in the Punjab. A surge of brotherly affection on either side of international frontier in the Punjab has apparently changed the very dynamics of relations between India and Pakistan. At various levels, people on both sides are trying to come to terms with the insanity of the communal carnage that had attended the partition.

Lahore has become the focal point of what may be described as a spiritually therapeutic reconciliation with an upsetting past. Consequently, the cultural and social stature of the city is on the rise. It has become a magnet for the citizens of the Indian Punjab and adjoining states. We should remember that it was a formidable centre of culture and history in the pre-partitioned North India, a counterpoint to Delhi.

These thoughts have partially been provoked by an article I read in last Sunday’s The New York Times, "Going Home to Lahore, and a World Left Behind". The writer, Parag Khanna, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, records his visit to Lahore with his parents after his father said: "Before I die, I want to see where I was born".

Khanna notes that peacemaking between India and Pakistan has become "trendy". There is the obvious mention of the ongoing tour of India by the Pakistan cricket team and the warm hospitality that it has received — "reciprocating Pakistani hospitality when India’s team broke the ice by touring Pakistan last year". I have previously reviewed, in this space, the dazzling show of emotion in Lahore when the Indian team was there in March last year.

When it comes to reconnecting with one’s own or ancestral past, the traffic does not have to be one-way. When President Musharraf goes to Delhi one more time, he will be visiting the city of his birth and the Indians are said to be looking for his birth certificate. Despite these connections, it has always been very difficult to explain the logic of animosity that the two governments had nurtured throughout our troubled history since 1947. Do we now have the wisdom to learn our lessons?

This brings us back to Kashmir and an environment that bears a resonant message: the way forward is peace and democracy and not armed conflict. Instructively, this message is valid for all the major conflicts of our time. It has repeatedly been asserted that the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved through war. Nor can militants, whatever be the validity of their zealous emotions, win any battles with the weapon of violence. In this age, you have to win your battles in the minds and hearts of ordinary people.

It is in this context that the crossing of a bridge in Kashmir will have its lasting impact. In a metaphorical sense, peace itself is a bridge. What happened on Thursday may not have been possible without the peace dividend drawn from ceasefire on the LoC since November 2003, after so many years. That ceasefire allowed Kashmiris on both sides of the river to wave to each other and to try to throw their greetings above the mighty roar of the river. Now at least they have a small bridge that can be crossed, though their journey is yet far from over.












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