| Pakistani parliamentarians cross into India at Wagah on Thursday. (Reuters)
Wagah (Amritsar), May 8: “Baraatiyaan da swagat karan aayen ho (Have you come to welcome the baraatis)'” asked a villager at the Wagah border, where a Pakistani parliamentary delegation was expected to arrive anytime.
Sukhdev Singh was at the border checkpost to see the “unofficial” delegates cross over after 17 months of no contact between the nuclear neighbours. His village, Neshta, was evacuated by the army following the build-up of tension since December 13, 2001.
“An era has lapsed since Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey. It is a happy day. An occasion for friends to prove their friendship. The baraat is on its way,” Sukhdev added.
At 12.40 pm, the 13-member delegation led by Ishaq Khan Ikhwani crossed the zero line carrying a banner in Urdu which read: “Aman ki raahen khol do (Open the road to peace)”. The motley crowd on the Indian side greeted them with slogans: “Hind-Pak dosti zindabad”.
At the same time, mines blasted in nearby villages where the army was conducting a demining operation. The mines had been laid in preparation of a war with Pakistan. Today, they sounded like crackers preceding a marriage procession.
Like baraatis, each member of the team was garlanded. The India-Pakistan Forum for Peace and Friendship, the Akali Dal (Mann), the district administration, the BSF, the mayor of Amritsar and Congress legislator Raj Kumar gave them a rousing reception. The “guests” were then escorted into a room to complete the “formalities” of stamping passports over cups of tea and snacks.
As residents of a Saarc-member nation, no visas were required. The passports ensured the entry of the delegates, who included politicians from different parties, doctors, educationists, journalists and businessmen who had been elected to Pakistan’s National Assembly and Senate for the first time.
“We have come to usher in peace between the two countries,” said Ikhwani, who was mobbed by the media. “We bring a message of love from the people of Pakistan. We seek friendship. Our visit is a small beginning,” he added, barely able to keep his mouth away from the microphones thrust at him.
Shakila Rashid, professor of history at Lahore University and a Pakistan People’s Party member, was struck by all the media attention. She said the 66 women legislators in Pakistan’s national assembly could help bring peace between the two countries.
“Let me be very clear. We may be on an unofficial visit, but we know what our constituents want. They want peace. We all want to live in peace,” she said.
Aneesa Zehb, another delegate, thanked Vajpayee for taking the initiative to begin a dialogue. “It is visits such as these which help in normalising relations. People-to-people level talks should continue. That is the best way to know and understand each other,” she added.
Aneesa recalled that a children’s cultural troupe from Pakistan which had toured Chandigarh and New Delhi two years ago had “done wonders” on both sides. “Pyar sab kuchh bhula deta hai (Love helps forget everything). We want to break the wall between us.”
Bombarded with questions on the Kashmir problem and cross-border terrorism, Ikhwani pleaded that the delegation had come to speak on every issue concerning India. “We will try to address all issues agitating the minds of Indians. But we should be allowed to sit and discuss them. We cannot answer everything sitting here on zero line,” he said.
The delegates garlanded a memorial dedicated to 10 lakh Punjabis who died unsung in 1947 a stone’s throw away from zero line. “This is shared history,” said MP Bhandara, reading the plaque. “It does not mention Indians. It mentions Punjabis who suffered on both sides.”
The visitors were taken to the Golden Temple for lunch. Not on an official visit, they had to make their way in a non-airconditioned Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee minibus in the searing heat. After paying obeisance at the sanctum sanctorum, the delegates were taken to Jallianwala Bagh.
The team left for New Delhi by train in the evening. It hoped to meet Lok Sabha Speaker Manohar Joshi tomorrow morning. The itinerary also includes meetings with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi. Some delegates are also scheduled to travel to Calcutta.