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Peace bus minus passengers
- Members of the media double the number of travellers

Lahore, July 11: Barring that one essential ingredient, the subcontinent’s recipe for peace had everything. The first Delhi-Lahore bus — back on the road after a 19-month bitter break — had dollops of goodwill, lusty Bhangra steps, Urdu poetry and marigold garlands. What it didn’t have was an ample presence of passengers.

There were 19 jostling members of the media and nine cowering passengers, not counting four children, on the bus called the Sada-e-Sarhad — or the Call of the Border. The media took turns to film the same people. When they ran out of passengers, they interviewed one another.

Mohammed Butt Abdullah, a 19-year-old student from Srinagar on his way to Rawalpindi for his nephew’s wedding, was full of pep when the bus took off from New Delhi at the crack of dawn today. He had lost some of that post-breakfast after he had repeated himself ad nauseam. “Abdullah,” he croaked weakly when a journalist asked him his name for the nth time.

But attacks from the media notwithstanding, the bus has clearly brought cheer to many people in India and Pakistan.

Abdullah was contemplating flying to Pakistan from New Delhi before he heard about the impending resumption of the bus service. He would have spent Rs 32,000 to Rs 42,000 for a return ticket via Dubai. His bus ticket to Lahore cost him Rs 800.

“Once I heard that the bus service was going to be back, I hung around in Delhi, waiting for it to happen,” said Abdullah. “I was the first passenger to buy a bus ticket,” he said, not entirely displeased with his few moments of fame.

The Pakistan high commission in New Delhi doled out the visas for the bus, ensuring seats for the media.

“Forget the ordinary passengers for the time-being,” said a Pakistani official. “We’ll put them in the luggage hold if we have to,” he said, only half in jest.

But the bus, clearly, is more than a convenient and inexpensive mode of transport across the border. Going by the reaction of the people across the dividing line in Wagah — who clapped, cheered and waved as the bus went by — it’s a vehicle of hope.

It was a hope voiced by Indians and Pakistanis alike when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the first bus to Lahore in February 1999. The bus service survived the Kargil war, but was suspended in December 2001 after Parliament was attacked by a group of militants.

The bus, which travels across 527 km over 12 hours, cutting through Haryana and Punjab, makes a comeback as India and Pakistan deliberate on the need for a road map to peace. For as far as road maps go, this route has been particularly bumpy — having witnessed a series of nuclear tests, a war and a war-like situation in five years.

On February 20, 1999, when Vajpayee and the then Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, shook hands at the border, it was described as “the defining moment” in South Asian history. Today, when people on the two sides of the border ran deliriously along with the bus, it was deja vu.

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