The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Across the border on mission peace

Dadi, don’t go, they’ll kill you” is what her grandchild had told her before she left for India. And yet, Shakeela Rashid came, bringing with her a world of trust, love, hope and peace. She laments that children in the two countries should grow up with such misgivings, but knows for a fact that the people of her country crave for a friendly relationship with India.

Rashid represents Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in the National Assembly, although right now, she is representing the people of Pakistan on a goodwill mission to India. At the discussion organised on Tuesday by the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, Calcutta University, she did not mince words against the governments of the two countries for posing hurdles in the way of an entirely normal course of things.

She had a joke to share to illustrate how the political and military establishments in the two countries speak a language quite different from that of the people. A young subedar on duty at the Indo-Pak border went to his officer and asked for leave. The officer turned him down, saying: “How can you ask for leave when the Indian Army is breathing down our neck across the fence'” The subedar pleaded: “But my mother is ill, and I must go.” “Fine,” said the officer, “get me one of the Indian tanks from the other side and you can go.” The subedar got one in no time. The officer could not hide his surprise — “But how did you manage that'” “It’s quite simple, sir,” said the young man, “every time an Indian jawan needs leave, he takes one from us.”

Although she hails from Lahore, “one of the more cosmopolitan and enlightened” of Pakistan’s cities, Rashid is perhaps most committed to the cause of women at the grassroots level. And the information she shared would surely put Indian women’s rights activists to shame. There is 33 per cent reservation for women at the panchayat level, and 17 per cent at the national level.

“At the same time, feudal and fundamentalist ideas still pin women down,” she confesses. “Once, I asked some women I had met how many children they had. Answers came in ones, twos and fours, and I was very happy, as it seemed we were getting along fine with the family planning programme. Only later did I realise that these women were just telling me how many male children they had.”

For all the sceptics who do not trust peace overtures between the two countries, Rashid has a word of hope. “Although it might appear that the Cabinet is a puppet in the hands of an all-powerful President (Pervez Musharraf), this is the ideal time for peace moves, since the President has assured us all co-operation in our efforts.”

Now is also the time, feels Rashid, to make the region a world leader in trade and commerce. And unless India and Pakistan work together, this goal cannot be achieved. “For geography can’t be changed even if history changes time and again.”

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