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Hit The Road, Guys

By Dilip D'Souza
November 30, 2004 21:05 IST
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Friend from Karachi is here in Bombay with family. Yeah yeah, I know some out there are already thinking 'terrorist,' but never mind. Her teenaged niece and nephew suffer from a rare disease, and she is here to get them treated.

It's like this. If this family had come this way, oh, let's say 58 or more years ago, it would hardly have occurred to me to write an article about them, for they would have been journeying from one city to another in the same country. Nothing unusual about that. In fact, people come to Bombay all the time today from Bihar and Karnataka and everywhere else in India, all in search of medical treatment. Nothing unusual about that. What makes this family special, their journey special, is that they crossed a line on a map. Even more so, a line in our minds. India and Pakistan, need I say more.

So while I wish this family all the best, I have been wondering about those lines. And in doing so, I have also have been thinking of Europe.

Because if lines on a map intrigue you, you should travel in Europe -- which is a place where the lines translate into minds less and less every day. Yes, internal borders in that continent are essentially gone, currency exchange a memory. For better or worse, English is widely enough spoken that you can manage without another language. (Though many Europeans speak their own tongue, English, and at least one more). With easy familiarity, people discuss phenomena -- food, sports teams, theatre, prices -- in other European countries, things that in a previous generation would have been relatively unknown precisely because they belonged to another country. (What do you know about theatre in Pakistan? Prices in Burma?)

It's not quite there yet, but in Europe, it's getting to the point that each country is just another region in a unified whole. Think of how a Jammu-ite might consider Madurai familiar, in that it is part of his country, and yet different, in that it is quite another part of his country. Europe is now like that.

Which is astonishing. After all, in the still living memory of many Europeans, millions of compatriots died in two horrible wars. The continent is littered with graveyards where its youth lie buried; these and other places are drenched with memories of slaughter. Hatred between some nations that went to war -- Germany and France are two -- actually goes back hundreds of years.

Hundreds of years longer than between India and Pakistan, actually.

Indo-Pak Peace Talks: Full Coverage

Yet just sixty years after the guns of the second of those wars fired their last shots, the great majority of Europeans are part of an experiment in unity and a shared future that is unique in our world, perhaps in human history. Of course there are problems, tensions, unresolved issues, even troublesome embers of all the hatred. But the experiment continues. For the time being, few in Europe or outside would seriously suggest that it end.

But what does it all mean?

In essence, the EU is a reaction to the blood-encrusted 20th Century history of the continent. Now you can look at this in different ways. To me, and above all, European unity is a rejection of the politics of nations and nationalism; a sort of collective recognition of the horrors nationalism wrought on the continent; a collective resolve to do better. In a Europe weary of hatred and killing in the great wars, the EU is a shared understanding of that better way -- that if you cooperate, you bring peace and prosperity for all.

I'm not saying that every European feels this way, nor that every European is convinced that the EU is the best way to live. But consider how the French writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy explained
it in Time magazine last year:

'Europe [today] is not the finally discovered form of the right community, of which the nation, the region ... were mere sketches or rough drafts. Europe is the principle that reminds every community, particularly a national one, that the right community does not exist, and that it is ultimately only an arrogant and bloody dream.'

Sure, there's a long road ahead. But that's just it. The road, you see, is the point.

So if we want to take them, there are lessons in that 'arrogant and bloody dream' for our part of the world. We too are writing a lengthening history of hatred and bloodshed, just as Europe did for centuries. War arcs across the lines on our own maps as it did there, echoing deep within our nations as well. I don't need to spell out here the details of our many subcontinental tragedies.

Yet what might we build here if we learned to live together -- as France and Germany have done, despite hating each other as much and for far longer than India and Pakistan have done? What might we build if, instead of pointing fingers and slaughtering people, we searched for peace? What if we made that search priority number one, the foundation of our sense of country, our sense of ourselves?

Go ahead, say the word: 'Peacenik.' Fine. Still, what if?

Think of it. One-fifth of the world lives on this sub-continent. With the creative and entrepreneurial energies we are already known for, that will take exuberant flight with peace, the real question might be this: what won't we achieve?

Just the free flow of trade across the lines on our maps will give our economies a boost. Then it's not beyond imagination that a loose federation in South Asia will surpass the economic power of today's Europe, certainly reach higher than each country here could achieve on its own. More important, we might actually turn our focus away from enmity, to the task of ensuring every human being in these parts dignity, justice and life.

High stakes? Maybe. To get there, we will have to understand what Europe did, starting in 1945: suspicion and hatred are easy, but they lead inexorably, inevitably, to death and destruction. Trust is hard work, sure. But it brings that peace and prosperity.

Levy writes again:

'A very large number of [Europeans] are getting used to seeing intra-European frontiers not as fences, but openings ... not as prisons, but as calls to freedom.'

Certainly we've learned to see our own frontiers as fences. But that hardly means we can't learn again: to see the openings here, the calls to new freedom there. To take the road beyond that, Levy would agree, is the point.

And that, even more than my hope that the kids get over their condition, is why I am glad to welcome my friend Sanam here.

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Dilip D'Souza