In 1947, Aftab Omar and his wife AshfaqJehan Begum packed a suitcase, locked the front door of their house in Meerut, got on a tonga for the railway station and left for Pakistan. They took nothing but a few clothes. They did not know that this would be the last time they would look at the house where they had raised three children and left countless happy memories. (The also had a teenage daughter buried in Meerut.) As the border between India and Pakistan became increasingly unbreachable for the common man, Aftab Omar and his wife died without having ever returned to the home they loved-leaving it as if they were going away for a week or two.
Fifty seven years later, in 2004, my cousin Ammar and I, great grandchildren of Aftab Omar and Ashfaq Jehan, returned to Meerut to find our great-grandparents' house. We were accompanied by three Indian friends whom I knew from college abroad who had grown up near Meerut. As we filed out of Simran's shiny new car, we all felt a sense of adventure as we set out to find this house. Splitting up in the old market, we started asking people if they knew about the house and shared with each other any information we found. I was surprised by how helpful people were. They ran around asking others and soon the whole market was abuzz with the news of Aftab Omar's relatives looking for his house.
Not making much headway, we went to another part of the market. And as we were walking away from there, a young boy came running to ask if we were searching for Aftab Manzil. We were! He asked us to follow him. He led us to a courtyard, where an ancient woman sat surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She stood up to greet us and, hugging me, started to cry profusely.
She was the daughter of the gardener, Pirbhu, whom Aftab Omar had entrusted with the keys of the house before he left. She had been a young child then. She had played with my Dadi and Nana (paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather), who had grown up in the house. She described to me how bitterly her father wept when Aftab Omar and his wife had left, and how he had waited till his dying day for them to return. She walked us around what remained of the once vast grounds of the house. It was strange to be walking with this woman whom I had never met before but who spoke of my family as her own.
I am not the only one. Thousands of friends and families were divided at Partition and never reunited. The horrors of the division of the subcontinent are not alien to the children who have been raised on the stories of the massacre that took place during and after Partition. But if you probe deeper, you will find thousands of narratives of the friendships and loves lost and yearned for on both sides of the border. There are eyes that long for friends and family on the other side of the border and the familiar, fond places of their youths and childhoods.
And every few years, because of circumstances and geopolitics, the two countries try to undo the failings of yesteryears. We play a cricket match or two. We start a bus service. We have high-level talks. Some of our singers visit the country and sing songs together. And then, one unfortunate event stalls the entire peace process and brings us to the verge of war. While the frequent CBMs are great for making us all feel good for a while, they do little to create the needed lasting peace or friendship in the region.
Therefore, it is time for governments on both sides of the border to recognise that appealing pictures and cultural exchanges do not make for lasting peace. There is need for a longer-term commitment to peace in the region. A political agreement between the two countries needs to be worked out, which guarantees an atmosphere of cooperation and trust between the governments. Pakistan must, on its own side, work to find and convict any and all involved in the heinous attacks in Mumbai. And India must come clean on its involvement in the Baloch insurgency. It is high time both countries realised that hostility benefits neither.
In the same vein, Pakistan and India need to cement their ties in something a little more concrete than handshakes at SAARC summits. The cost of aggression and hostility should be higher than the price of cooperation. What Pakistani politicians do not realise in their myopic vision is that the economic and strategic benefits of cooperating with India far outweigh the short-lived popularity gained from hating it.
The two countries must cement their relationship in strong economic ties, either in the form of trade agreements and joint business ventures. Common economic interests will prove to be much more effective war deterrents than bombs. Economic cooperation can bind both countries in a symbiotic relationship that requires peace and mutual trust.
But seeking such measures from both sides will not be politically easy. The present generation on both sides of the border has been raised on doses of hatred for the neighbouring country, and mistrust and hate run deep not just on the political level but also the cultural. This requires a comprehensive review and purging of textbooks in both countries of biased contents and hate-filled propaganda against the other country. And it requires media cooperation and promotion. None of these tasks is easy to undertake or quick to perform.
An idea that might be easier to implement is to allow exchanges between school and college students across the border. The future, after all, lies in the hands of young people. And maybe we should put aside the textbooks filled with hate and allow our young people to communicate openly and freely with each other. Nothing is more effective in combating stereotypes than personal interactions on a sustained basis. And maybe through these interactions young Pakistanis and Indians will discover new friends. And before they become too tainted by the biased opinions of media persons like Zaid Hamid and Zakir Naik, they can maybe learn to appreciate their friends from across the border for their humanity, their friendliness and for our shared language and culture. And maybe we can once again learn to coexist in peace, as we had for centuries, and restrict our battles to cricket fields and hockey grounds.
The writer is a master's student at Princeton University and blogs at www.sehartariq.wordpress.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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For the past 2 years the Jang Group and Geo have been working on a project of great national interest; one that we hope will help usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the country and indeed, in the region. And one that hopefully all Pakistanis can be proud of. more
The Jang Group has entered into an agreement with the Times of India Group, the largest media group of India, to campaign for peace betw