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India, Pak ‘unite’ for I-Day

London, Aug. 17: Pakistanis and Indians jointly celebrated the 60th anniversary of Independence at a programme last night.

Ashraf Chohan, a Pakistani orthopaedic surgeon who is general secretary of the newly established Pakistan India Friendship Forum UK, told 500 guests, among them many senior members of the two communities: “Tonight, we are celebrating history — for the first time in 60 years, the independence of India and Pakistan is being celebrated jointly.”

Conspicuous by their absence from the gala dinner at a five-star hotel were Kamalesh Sharma and Maleeha Lodhi, the high commissioners for India and Pakistan, respectively, who were presumably not given clearance by their governments to endorse the declared aims and ambitions of the Pakistan India Friendship Forum UK.

The dignitaries at the top table sat against the background of large flags of India, Pakistan and the UK. On each table, the decorations also included the three flags in miniature.

The forum’s chairman, Rami Ranger, an Indian businessman who celebrated his own 60th birthday this year, began: “Who said Pakistanis and Indians can never be friends' Everything is possible.”

The UK has an estimated 1.5 million people of Indian origin, compared with half as many of Pakistani origin. But the divide is not strictly on religious lines for there are about 100,000 Muslims of Indian origin.

Also, a proportion of the Muslims came to Britain via East Africa to which their forefathers had emigrated for a new life from an undivided India.

Save for a troubled period which followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, Indians and Pakistanis in the UK have maintained relationships that have ranged from neutral to friendly.

The Indians and Pakistanis who have set up the friendship forum are now exploring whether the links between the two groups can be improved and also whether they can encourage the gradual thaw in the relationship between the governments of India and Pakistan.

The absence of the two high commissioners last night suggests the governments may be wary of backing a movement whose direction they may not be able to control.

But the wind in the UK is certainly blowing in the direction of rapid normalisation.

Ranger’s comments last night verged on the sentimental when he said: “We are all privileged to be a part of this unique and historic event which is taking place for the first time ever, anywhere in the world. Two brothers are celebrating their birthdays together after 60 years of gaining independence. This marks a watershed in our relationship. Moreover, we are no longer living in 1947. This is 2007 and the world has changed with our aspirations.”

He paid tribute to one of the guests, Arif Chaudhury, “who founded the Pakistan India Friendship Society in Pakistan and gave us the idea to open a similar chapter in the UK. This is where we now live and this is where our next generation is going to live. We must make sure that they do not carry our baggage any more.”

The attitude of Ranger, a businessman who exports food and other products to 52 countries, is all the more creditable since his father, Nanak Singh, was 43 when he was assassinated by fanatics in Multan while trying to offer protection to 600 schoolchildren who had taken out a procession protesting against the break-up of India.

Ranger said: “We must put the interest of Britain above all. We are now part of Britain and Britain is part of us.”

Following his TV appearance last night, Ranger disclosed today that he had received between 80 and 90 supportive emails and text messages from all over the world, including Pakistan.

The Indians and the Pakistanis on the forum, who sense they may have started something, are considering whether they should send a delegation to India and Pakistan.

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