The Pakistan-India People's Convention on Peace and Democracy, in which more than two hundred Pakistani and Indian delegates participated, has been hailed as a major breakthrough. For two days, the delegates freely discussed the contentious issues of Kashmir, demilitarization, and the politics of religious intolerance, which have locked the ruling elites of the two countries in conflict. The delegates demonstrated that at the people's level the area of agreement on all these issues is much larger than the area of conflict.
Initially, the Pakistan, press was rather critical of the hundred citizens of Pakistan who came to Delhi to attend the convention. However, subsequent press reports and editorials, which appeared in a significant section of the Pakistani press, indicate a definite change in their attitude towards the convention.
The Indian press largely ignored the efforts of the Forum before the Convention. Most people were sceptical about its purpose.
The Pakistan Chapter of the Organising Committee of the Forum initially received 135 nominations from its constituents all over Pakistan. They had to request some of the nominees to voluntarily withdraw to keep within the limit of 100 delegates, decided at the joint meeting of the Organising Committee in September 1994. The India Secretariat of the Forum submitted the names of Pakistani delegates to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi with a request for grant of visas. The Ministry accepted our request and all the Pakistani delegates were given non-reporting visas for the convention.
The Indian delegates numbered 117. They came from Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal-from all over the country representing trade unions and mass organisations.
The Convention itself received countrywide coverage from the Indian Press and the electronic media. Within a fortnight after the Convention, the India Secretariat received nearly 80 letters from fellow citizens all over India seeking more information about the Convention and the Forum. They have asked for the report and recommendations. Many want to join the Forum and take up this work in their own areas.
This response from our fellow citizens and the media strengthens our resolve to bring even larger numbers of peace loving people in Pakistan and India together in an open forum to continue the dialogue for peace and democracy. We are convinced that through such efforts we shall be able to persuade the two mutually suspicious governments to listen to the growing demand for peace and enter into meaningful negotiations that would eventually pave the way to lasting peace and friendship in the subcontinent.
The idea of holding a people's convention on peace and democracy as a dialogue between representatives of people's movements, mass organisations and committed individuals was conceived more than two and a half years ago at a meeting in Vienna between human rights activists of the two countries. Actual work however, was initiated in March 1994. In the beginning there were about two- dozen persons on both sides of the border who were willing to spend their time on this "impractical idea". Apprehensions were expressed that the time was not ripe and an effort like this would not be able to withstand the pressure of the "mainstream". On both sides of the border friends warned us that at this stage any talk of "peace" would be seen as an act of capitulation to the "enemy" by a section of the media and political parties.
After informal discussions with academics, human rights activists and trade unionists in Lahore and Islamabad in May 1994, the two groups met formally in Lahore in September. By then the group had grown in size, and was designated to be the "Core Group". At Lahore, the Core Group felt that at times it was necessary to challenge the misconceived notions of "patriotism and national security" and that this was one such occasion to call for "outlawing war and war hysteria in the subcontinent".
When the Indian Core Group took the message of the Lahore mini-summit to people in Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Madras we found many ready to join us in this effort. In Delhi, at a mass meeting in November 1994, more than a hundred organisations and individuals signed the statement calling for outlawing war in the subcontinent. Similarly in Pakistan organisations of doctors, academics, journalists, lawyers, trade unions, artists, writers, theatre persons and social activists from all the provinces came forward to endorse this peoples' peace initiative.
From a modest beginning in March 1994 to the February Convention in 1995 the forum has made achieved remarkable feats. With the support of citizens of Pakistan and India, the Forum has marched on towards its objective - peace in the subcontinent and true democracy - where every individual without distinction of gender, religion, class, caste and creed shall be able to live with dignity, without fear of exploitation, hunger and violence.
The India Secretariat received contributions from many individuals, business houses and other institutions both in cash and in kind. The Indian Express sponsored the press advertisements and a dinner. The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) provided transport and an advertisement for the brochure, the Church of North India, Gandhi Peace Foundation and the Aurobindo Ashram provided free accommodation to delegates; Sriram Industrial Enterprises Ltd paid for one lunch while other NGOs and individuals contributed towards the cost of accommodation and food. SANCHAL FOUNDATION Produced a special film on nuclear devastation for the convention. The delegates from Pakistan and India paid for their own travel.
Staff of The Other Media worked day relentlessly for days and nights at a stretch. Naga People's Movement for Human Rights, National Council of the YWCA and Vidya Jyoti sent volunteers who worked tirelessly during the three days of the Convention to make it a success. We thank them all for their contribution and cooperation.
On the evening of February 23 Shyam Benegal's latest film, "Mammo", was premiered at the Mavlankar Hall for delegates and other invited guests from Delhi.
The programme began with a welcome address by Nirmal Mukarji on behalf of the Organising Committee of the Convention. Welcoming the delegates. Mr. Mukarji said that this was the largest gathering of its kind till now. The delegates from both sides were wholly non-governmental - what had brought them together was a shared concern for peace and democracy. Consequently the agenda of the convention was squarely political. Mr. Mukarji pointed out that the initiative for holding the convention was taken by a small group of twenty-four concerned citizens of the two countries who met in Lahore in early September, 1994. They agreed on four basic formulations on contentious political issues. The aim of the present convention was to reaffirm what was agreed upon then and hopefully to advance beyond that by extending the area of agreement. The number and representative character of the delegates showed that the people on both sides wanted peace. Public opinion had now to play its part to press the two governments to heed the voice of the people. The constituency for peace and democracy in both countries had to be widened and made articulate through sustained effort. The present convention was an important first step in the "peace process".
The Group recognised that on the world stage, religious chauvinism has erupted in the form of bitter ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, or in the re-emergence of the authoritarian Christian right in the United States of America. At the heart of these bitter, intolerant battles lies an acute struggle for the assertion and dominance of religious and ethnic identities. Advanced capitalism accompanied by cut - throat competition has in some of these situations, provided the justification for a harking back to positions that seem medieval. But why is the subject of religious intolerance of such vital importance to any joint dialogue between the peoples of Pakistan and India today? The peculiar religious division of the two countries has had its implications for the religious minorities within India and Pakistan. Whenever there are hostile exchanges the flames of false patriotism, xenophobia and chauvinism are sought to be fanned. Unfortunately, but inevitably, the local sufferers are the minorities, Muslims in India or Hindus in Pakistan, who are held to ransom for the acts of their chauvinistic co-religionists across the border. In recent times, there can be no more graphic description of this state of affairs than the events on the subcontinent after the pre-planned demolition of the Babri Masjid by frenzied kar sevaks in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. Temples were destroyed in Pakistan and Bangladesh in a crude bid to settle scores. There is also a close connection between the rise in religious intolerance and the denial of democratic rights to other oppressed groups, i.e. class exploitation, gender, ethnic and caste oppression. Women in societies where religious intolerance is on the increase are also subjected to heightened degrees of violence and denial of rights in family property, during marriage or after divorce or in inheritance. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the uphill struggle over the inherent injustices against women prevalent in various family or personal laws, where talk of reform or reinterpretation takes a back seat when faced with the wider assault on religious and cultural identities.