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|February 19, 1999||
Lahore gets ready for Vajpayee's peace offensive
George Iype in Lahore
When cross-border bus diplomacy takes the India-Pakistan peace mission to a new high on Saturday, it will be a shared language -- Urdu -- in which Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Pakistani Nawaz Sharief will conduct their summit in Lahore.
Both Vajpayee and Sharief have a fascination for the subcontinent's language. And language, like music, food and cricket unite Indians and Pakistanis despite their five decades of conflict over Kashmir.
The zeal with which Pakistanis talk about cricket matches are proof that ordinary people on both sides of the border are as eager for better ties between the nations as Vajpayee and Sharief.
"All of us have joined our prime minister's efforts to spruce up Lahore city to welcome the Indian prime minister. We anticipate that this summit will pay the way for love between the countries," says Aslam Qureshi, a hotelier who has taken initiative in painting and decorating his hotel.
"I want my hotel to look the best when Vajpayee passes through this road," Qureshi proudly points out.
In fact, the people of Lahore, along with the administration, are giving final touches to what many expect to be a watershed in the relations between the two countries.
Sharief has prepared the most splendid programmes for his Indian counterpart in Lahore. Thus, on Saturday evening, Vajpayee will ride side by side in an open buggy for ten minutes in the historic Lahore Fort.
The unprecedented joy ride though this 16th century fort built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, will honour a foreign dignitary for the first time, and Pakistan intends to send across the feeling that Sharief wants Vajpayee to see and share history.
"It will not be history alone that they will share. Sharif and Vajpayee will talk about culture, religion and economy because these are all important for the two sides to reconcile," says a Pakistani official associated with the elaborate programmes for Vajpayee in Lahore.
He said Vajpayee will visit the Dera Sahib Gurdwara, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's samadhi and the tomb of the legendary poet, Mohammad Iqbal.
Soon after he crosses the Wagah border and arrives in Lahore, Vajpayee will be presented the keys to the city by Lahore's mayor at a civic reception held in his honour.
Sharief, in fact, visited Lahore twice in the past fortnight to ensure that Vajpayee's historic visit is made a memorable and momentous one. The city has been spruced up for the occasion, with roads being repaired and residential and commercial areas cleaned up.
"It is a great feeling. Our city looks beautiful now. I hope Vajpayee comes here every year," said Mohammad Khan, a resident near Hotel Avari where some 250 print and television journalists have already assembled to cover the event.
Along with the diplomatic initiative, Vajpayee will carry with him a unique gift -- an album of Urdu poems -- to his Pakistani counterpart. The album, titled Sarhad, contains poems written by Jnanpith award-winning Urdu poet, Ali Sardar Jaffri.
Sarhad is an emotional rendition reflecting the honest desire of the Indian people for a peaceful solution to the disputes that have marred the relations between the countries for the last 51 years.
The audio album's musical score has been composed by Seema Anil Sehgal, the singing sensation from Jammu and Kashmir.
But even as the high-pitched summit is all set to begin, the Pakistani government has two worries about the Vajpayee visit.
First, it coincides with the visit of Chinese Defence Minister Chi Haotian to Islamabad which began today. Eager not to give any wrong signals to the Chinese delegation, Sharief will leave for Lahore only after meeting the Chinese delegation.
Pakistan is expected to sign an agreement to buy more conventional arms from China. These would include fighter planes.
Moreover, Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz will not be present when Vajpayee and Sharief sit down for a "dialogue of substance" on Saturday evening. However, Aziz will join the Indian delegation for the bilateral talks on Sunday.
The second worry is the security for Vajpayee following the threats by the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami to disrupt the Indian prime minister's visit.
Throughout Saturday, militant Muslims plan to hold a series of protest rallies and demonstrations in Lahore and its outskirts, including the Wagah border. On Friday, they gathered outside the white marble Shuada mosque in the heart of Lahore, warning Sharief once again to halt the cross border bus service.
Jamaat leaders have accused Sharief of selling out Muslims waging a bloody secessionist uprising in Kashmir.
"We will never allow Sharief and Vajpayee to continue with this diplomatic bus service," said Jamaat-e-Islami leader Liaqat Baluch. "This is part of an American agenda. It will send a message to Kashmiri freedom-fighters that Islamabad will not support them," he said.
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