Talking at the Border

Talking at the Border

HIMAL MAGAZINE 02/03
By Michael Shank

Michael Shank is a theatre artist who served as a conference facilitator at Focus on South Asia, a ‘youth peace conference’ organised by the Youth Initiative for Peace in Lahore in mid-December 2002. The conference was attended by 35 girls and boys from all the member countries of SAARC except India, because of visa complications. Here, Shank describes a visit to the Wagah-Attari border from the Pakistani side:

We visited the border between Pakistan and India on the last day of the conference; a border heavily guarded by each country. In fact, every day at 1600 hours the Pakistan and Indian military ‘face-off’ in a show of bravado, might and resistance. Thousands of people apparently flock to the border each day to chant, cheer, yell, hold candles, weep and wave as the military stomps, frowns and celebrates the divisiveness the border has created.

We were advised to keep a low profile at the border. Our conference hosts (the human rights commission of Pakistan and two powerful women’s rights organisations in Lahore) had asked us to refrain from singing, performing street theatre or chanting freedom poetry because they were already banned from the border due to similar expression and were fearful that if we became loud and unruly, our association with them might provoke more restrictive action from the government against them.

We agreed to this request. Oddly though, after we arrived at the border and witnessed the angry nationalistic chants and slogans we were overwhelmed with silence and tears. Our willingness to keep a low profile aptly suited our quieter, visceral reaction to the militaristic fervour so pervasive at the border. The contrast was almost too much to bear. The entire week leading up to the border visit had been spent with passionate and dedicated peace workers (including organisers and participants) and now we were surrounded by the hatred of government propaganda that was dividing people with a shared history; people that enjoyed similar music, savour-ed similar food, delighted in similar dance and paraded on similar landscape.

Approaching the white line that divided the two countries I stopped to wave at the Indians standing far on the other side. Pakistan officials quickly ushered me down the path, not wanting me to offer such friendliness during their show of guarded nationalism.

A reporter from Geo, a new private TV channel, showed up at the border to broadcast our visit. They asked if I would be willing to speak. What was I to say? There I stood, donning the local Punjabi clothing of a salwar kameez, at the border between Pakistan and India where nationalism and machismo run high. “What do you suggest we do about this border conflict?”

I thought awhile. I thought about the food I had eaten that week – remarkably similar to my experiences with Indian food. I remembered the music of the tabla player and the singer and the dancing that reminded me of Indian friends. Such seemingly common interests were divided by a barbed-wire fence, a fence that had thoughtlessly cut through houses and property 55 years ago dividing relatives and families. 55 years later relatives are still not permitted to speak with each other at the border. And, as I found out, even waving is discouraged.

I answered the reporter with the only suggestion I could muster – that amidst this militaristic zeal we should take the risk of conversing with each other Here At The Border. Why not provide Indians and Pakistanis the opportunity to communicate at the border? I was not suggesting that the governments lift the travel ban between the countries, nor was I suggesting that Pakistanis be able to cross over to Indian land or that the government allow Indians to traverse the big white line to enter Pakistan’s territory. (Though I think all of us believe these desperately need to happen.) I was merely suggesting that we take a small risk and transcend boundaries by talking across borders and hopefully, in the communicating of a common and shared love for music, dance and food, a better place and a better way could exist.

I realised that a handshake, a smile or ‘Assalaamu aleikum, tum kaise ho?’ was not dealing with the issue of nuclear weapons, terrorism or, in this case, the controversial issue of Kashmir. But good communication does imply that both sides are speaking truthfully and respectfully while (hopefully) attempting to understand the other side’s perspective. No longer is the simple recommendation that we Talk With Each Other an easy task but it is still a necessary and a very accomplishable one. Allowing Indians and Pakistanis to talk across the border at Attari/Wagah would definitely be something that could be done for peace.