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The Rediff Special/Kanchan Gupta

A break with the past

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Till the moment the exact details of the Radcliffe Line were publicised, everyone thought Lahore would remain in India. After all, it was a Sikh-Hindu majority town and contiguous with the border that was being worked out to carve the subcontinent into two.

In fact, even after the migration to India began -- a trickle that was to turn into a torrent of human misery -- Lahoris stayed put in their havelis. Even after the Radcliffe Line was unveiled, they refused to believe they would have to up and leave.

The Sikhs put up a valiant defence, but had to yield ground when the nascent Pakistani Army trooped in to round up the people, put them into trucks, and set them on their way to India, a mere 40km away.

Overnight, residents became refugees and part of the tide of human misery that was swept into India, drowning the celebrations of freedom. Lahore became a part of Pakistan.

That was more than 51 years ago. In these five decades, India and Pakistan have fought three bitter wars, the first almost as soon as the Union Jack was lowered, the second in 1965, and the third as the liberation struggle in Bangladesh climaxed.

But it is the object of the first war, Jammu & Kashmir, that has remained a thorn in the Pakistani psyche, firing the Islamist zeal that had, in the first place, planted the seed of a separate Muslim nation -- Mohammed Ali Jinnah's two-nation theory.

Pakistan had tried to grab the erstwhile princely state by force and failed. But that failure in 1947 has never stood in the way of Pakistan trying relentlessly to get what it believes should be on this side of the line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

Pakistan's resolve was only strengthened after India unabashedly played a role in the liberation of Bangladesh, thus reducing Jinnah's "moth-eaten" Pakistan to just its western half. Indeed, in the following three decades, Pakistan has tried to do unto India what India did unto it, by first backing the Sikh militants and then the Kashmiri separatists.

Indeed, with Pakistan openly backing the decade-old terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and exporting both men and lethal arms to the Indian state, as well as upping the ante on Kashmir at international fora, any normalisation of relations between the two countries appears remote and improbable.

The hostilities of the last 50 years had, it appeared, come to stay. And when India conducted five nuclear tests at Pokhran last May, to which Pakistan replied with its own tests in the Chagai Hills of Baluchistan, the two neighbours seemed to have drifted further apart.

Ironically, they also came to share a commonality after sanctions were imposed on both. The common perception on either side of the border was that relations had taken a further nosedive.

Given this immediate backdrop of estrangement and five decades of unrestrained hostility, nobody could have imagined that history would be made at the fag end of a winter of subcontintental discontent.

Yet, the unimaginable happened on Saturday, February 20, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rode a bus across the border at Wagah to a warm welcome in Pakistan. In a flash, he not only crossed the subcontinental version of Checkpoint Charlie, but also marked the beginning of a new chapter in Indo-Pakistani relations which could well end on a happy note of co-operation and collaboration between two countries whose peoples, despite their shared past, shared ancestors, and shared culture, have revelled in establishing their post-colonial separateness.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first and, till now, last Prime Minister of India to visit Lahore when he came here in 1960 to sign the Indus Water Treaty. Rajiv Gandhi visited Islamabad in 1988 and 1989. This makes Vajpayee only the second Prime Minister of India to visit Lahore and the third to visit Pakistan.

These, however, are minor details. The larger detail is in the fact that he has demonstrated his skills as a foreign policy initiator.

Vajpayee may not have lit candles at Wagah, as his predecessor Inder Kumar Gujral, who was among those forced out of Lahore in 1947 because of the quirk in the Radcliffe Line, did. He may not have subscribed to the widely hailed 'Gujral Doctrine' which offered unilateral concessions, but failed to convince Pakistan. He may not have succumbed to American pressure, as three of his predecessors did, and refused to keep India's nuclear programme locked in the basement.

Yet, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has achieved what none of his predecessors could even dream of: driving into Pakistan as a friend.

This is not to suggest that starting today India and Pakistan will be the best of friends, but to underscore the fact that a historic step was taken in a matter of seconds, forcing into insignificance, at least for the time being, the bitterness of the past.

"As we approach a new millennium," Vajpayee said at the banquet hosted at the Governor's House, "the future beckons us. It calls upon us, indeed demands of us, to think of the welfare of our children and their children, and the generations that are yet to come."

It is this focus on the future, and not on the past or the present, that makes this visit, this hugely symbolic gesture that has caught the imagination of the people beyond the sub-continent, so important. A fresh start cannot rest on old premises; the future must be independent of the past.

It would, however, be self-defeating to overlook realities that stare you in the face, especially on this side of the border. While Vajpayee has come to Pakistan backed by a national consensus for better relations with Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief cannot claim even a semblance of such consensus.

On one side of the Pakistani fracture stands the political class, on the other is the Army. On one side is Mian Nawaz Sharief, who appears to understand the imperatives of peace. On the other is Benazir Bhutto, who would rather be pushed by the imperatives of opposition politics. On one side of the fracture is the Pakistani government of the day, on the other is the viciously fanatic Jamaat-e-Islami which tried its best to scuttle the visit and halt history in its tracks. And caught on either side of the fracture are the people of Pakistan -- the elite is gung-ho, the impoverished are cannon fodder for the Jamaat.

Sharief has a difficult task of reconciliation on his hands, as opposed to Vajpayee, who will return to New Delhi nothing short of a victor -- he has gained without losing anything, something which cannot be said for Sharief.

Yet, if this visit were to result in the signing of economic agreements, for instance the purchase of Pakistani power by India, and a movement forward on security-related confidence-building measures along with an agreement to continue bilateral dialogue on Kashmir, then it would be no mean achievement. Not only would it amount to the happy start of a new chapter in Indo-Pakistani relations, it would suggest a happier conclusion in the new millennium, reducing the bitterness of the last 50 years to no more than a footnote of subcontinental history.

The way ahead will by no means be as easy a ride as Vajpayee had from Amritsar to Wagah this afternoon. But that cannot, should not, be allowed to be a restraining factor.

Sharief has demonstrated immense courage and foresight by opening the steel gates at Wagah and receiving Vajpayee with open arms. He will now have to convince his people that the past cannot be allowed to impinge on the future, that the line that Cyril Radcliffe drew across India cannot be allowed to become a barrier, that the next 50 years cannot be wasted merely because the last 50 were spent hating each other.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee has scored his point. It is now Nawaz Sharief's turn.

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