More than a bus, it’s a bridge of faith

Pran Nevile

THE Delhi-Lahore bus, put back on track on July 11, was once again hailed as a historic step on the long road to Indo-Pak peace. The Wagah border came to life with jubilant crowds on both sides, bringing back memories of the momentous bus ride by Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee on February 20, 1999 when he was received at the same border with a warm hug by Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan. There was a 19-gun salute to welcome the Indian guest at the border before proceeding to the glorious and historic city of Lahore. Millions of people in the two countries watched the ceremonies of that historic summit meeting. It was a moving sight, full of nostalgia. The Lahore declaration received unprecedented media coverage and was pronounced as a defining moment in history, heralding the dawn of a new era in Indo-Pak relations as the new millennium knocked at our doors. It was one of the greatest media events in the sub-continent when over 500 journalists gathered in Lahore to cover this great historic occasion. It is a pity that all that euphoria and enthusiasm soon vanished into the pages of history.

Now, after a gap of four years, people of the two countries are full of excitement and joy over the revival of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. The extensive media coverage brings to my mind the memories of those pre-Partition days when the two countries with a common history, heritage and culture were one big happy family. The jubilation at people’s level, however, is not always shared by the political leadership of the two sides. Happily, this time the media highlight was stolen by a Pakistani child, Noor Fatima, who had a successful heart operation at a Bangalore hospital. Her parents are now creating a new platform for promoting peace and friendship between the two countries.

It is heartening to find that the bus has broken borders for divided families in the two countries. A fact worth noting, however, is that the Delhi-Lahore bus passing through Punjab hardly carried any Punjabi passenger from either side of the border. While people-to-people contacts are welcome, the Punjabis have little chance to meet each other. This reminds one of that memorable historic Indo-Pak cricket match at Chandigarh in March 1999, which, for the first time after over 50 years, brought nearly a thousand Pakistanis to the Indian side of Punjab. They were accorded a rousing reception.

Recalling the Raj days of the Punjab, there was never any bus service from Lahore to Delhi but there were several trains linking the two cities — the most popular being the overnight Frontier Mail.

There were regular buses connecting Lahore to every major town and city in the undivided Punjab. A principal base for the recruitment to the Army, Punjab became the darling of British India and Lahore it’s main attraction. Delhi was part of Punjab until 1911, when the Government of India transferred its capital from Calcutta to Delhi. A leading centre of education with its chain of colleges and professional institutions, Lahore attracted many students from Delhi for higher education.

Punjabis on both sides of the border suffered the most and paid a heavy price for the nation’s Independence, which brought in its wake the tragedy of Partition. Millions of families were uprooted from their homes where they had lived for generations and countless others annihilated. Wagah border is the same site where many of my generation crossed after Partition in 1947. It was a two-way traffic — Muslims heading towards Lahore and Hindus and Sikhs towards Amritsar — both moving without exchanging a word but with pain and suffering writ large on their faces — a strange kinship of ordeal and agony. Shattered by the torrents of history, they were now refugees.

Time is a great healer. The common agony and anguish of Punjabis on both sides have been the subject of many a poignant work of prose and poetry in our literature. I recall having read about a Lahoria carrying a poster at the Wagah border in March 1999 which said, Akhiyan di lali dasdi hei, roye tusi vee ho, roye asi vee han (our red eyes reveal that you have cried so have we). There is indeed a great yearning on both sides to meet their fellow beings. On a personal note, I would like to mention that I have always been emotionally moved and excited on meeting a fellow Punjabi from Pakistan be it in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York. I fondly remember my visit to Lahore, after 50 years in 1997, when I met a number of pen friends who came to know of me after reading my book Lahore — A sentimental journey. I was simply overwhelmed by the warmth of affection and gracious hospitality of the people of Lahore, both young and old. Every bird loves to fly back to its nest and so do we, the human beings. We are passionately attached to our roots, the pull of these roots beckons us to our ancestors. The obituary notices in newspapers, until recently, invariably carried announcements describing the deceased as so and so formerly of Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi etc. With the passage of time and the fast-fading generation of those days, such announcements are rarely seen now.

The Punjabis are a great racial group with an undying zest for enjoying life. Among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, we find Chawlas, Gills, Grewals, Saigals, Sobtis, Tiwanas etc. on both sides of the border, sharing a common Punjabi heritage and roots. No other ethnic group in the sub-continent, irrespective of their faith and beliefs, is bound together so strongly as the Punjabis by their historic ties of common language and culture, customs and manners, food and drink and even a common name for the Almighty God. A Punjabi when invoking, God would invariably call out “Hai Rabba”. All Punjabis have common first names like Iqbal, Amir, Fakir, Barkat, Haqumat, Roshan, Aftab, Mehtab, Khushi, Mushtaq etc. and only add a different suffix like Lal, Singh and Ahmad.

Unlike Delhi and Uttar Pradesh and some other pockets in India, there are no divided families in the two Punjabs. But there is a burning desire among the ageing and withering generations of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to visit places of their birth and upbringing across the borders. For decades, even the post-Partition generations on both sides have been fed on tales and anecdotes by their elders about their towns and villages across the border from where they were forced to flee for no fault of theirs. So, even the young Punjabis are keen to visit these places not only to satisfy their curiosity but also interact with fellow Punjabis. For many Indian Punjabis, the city of Lahore continues to hold its charm more than any other metropolis in the world. On the other hand, the Punjabis in Pakistan are more interested in visiting Ludhiana, Hoshiarpur, Amritsar and their hometowns and villages in the Indian Punjab, rather than Delhi. For Punjabis, there should be another bus service i.e. Lahore-Chandigarh similar to Calcutta-Dacca; otherwise the Delhi-Lahore bus should have an intermediate destination i.e. Jalandhar which was once made a counterpart of Lahore in East Punjab in 1947 when the two governments set up their respective diplomatic missions in these two cities.

I wish both the Governments of India and Pakistan give due consideration to this issue especially from a human angle and initiate suitable steps to facilitate exchange of visits by Punjabis on either side. The present bus traffic on either side mostly represents the meeting of separated family members and relations and does not promote people-to-people contracts or even tourism which has tremendous potential. Let them make a beginning by allowing all those above the age of 60 to travel across the Wagah border without visas or by granting visas at the border. I think Punjabis of both sides can play a very significant role and add a new dimension to the existing people’s drive to intensify mutual contacts to promote peace and friendship between the two countries. Within the frame-work of Indo-Pakistan cultural exchanges, let us encourage and sponsor the visits of Punjabi artists, writers, poets, musicians and theatre groups from the two sides. Lahore and Chandigarh should be made focal points for these activities.

Let not Punjabis only stand and wave to the passengers in the Delhi-Lahore bus passing through their land but let them also have a ride in it.