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In January an estimated 100,000 people descended on Mumbai for the fourth World Social Forum. Naeem Mohaiemen reflects on the opportunity it created for Indian and Pakistani activists to meet and share concerns and ideas.

Smoking the peace pipe

On the last evening of the World Social Forum, I was standing in the Azad Maidan, surveying the crowds and getting ready for the evening's concert. Two eager young men who suddenly came forward and began to introduce themselves interrupted that moment of reverie... “Good evening sir”, said the first, “I am Francisco DSa, from the Citizens Peace Committee of Rawalpindi”. After a few minutes of talking, he said, “Oh, we are hoping to meet with as many Indians as possible while we are here. We are trying to promote peace between our two countries”. After the usual exchange of cards, he quickly moved on to the next nearby delegate on the field.

It was the third time that day we had been approached by a Pakistani delegate. Earlier in the afternoon the camera crew from Free Speech TV had been buttonholed by Naseem Shakeel, an elected representative from Sialkot. This feisty lady from Pakistan insisted that they carry out a to-camera interview with her, and I was quickly enlisted to translate her Urdu. Launching into a speech about Indian-Pakistan bhai bhai, she was soon surrounded by Indian and Pakistani delegates who kept breaking into applause.

In fact, through the week, the most enthusiastic delegates were the Pakistanis and Palestinians. Lacking access to international forums and venues, they seemed to be on a mission to meet as many people as possible at the WSF. The Pakistanis in particular, regardless of NGO affiliation, were singularly focused on their message of peace and reconciliation.

All about the money

The WSF coincided with a major thawing of relations between the two nations. Besides the famous embrace at SAARC (The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) - dubbed “Bravehearts” by India Today, there was Musharraf's key announcement that terrorist camps targeting Kashmir would not be allowed to operate inside Pakistan. The majority of Pakistanis are moderates said the General, only extremists were wrongly interpreting Islam. Maintaining this momentum, the external affairs ministry began moving forward with technical talks to set up bus links between Srinagar and Muzarrafabad as well as rail links between Sindh and Rajasthan.

Finally, because money and trade speak louder than anything else, the most significant developments have been the moves towards SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Agreement). Pakistan upped the ante by saying they would push for MFN-plus (Most Favoured Nation) trade status with India, suggesting that even within a region-wide free trade zone, India and Pakistan would be special partners.

The Indian press also played a positive role in détente efforts. Criticising Indian prime minister Vajpayee's statement that this was his last effort to make peace, the centrist Times of India wrote, “The idea of a last effort carries an echo of the Mahabharata [Indian religious epic]. It was when Lord Krishna's last effort failed that the great war became inevitable. But the Mahbharata attaches no glory to war. Rather it teaches us that war is futile, for no one wins in the end.”

The WSF organisers, while focused on global goals, were also aware that the meeting was an opportunity to demonstrate the thaw in relations. Emboldened by Delhi-Islamabad statements, 1,700 Pakistani delegates registered for the WSF meet in Mumbai. In the end, only 502 were given visas, but even this was a major victory by past standards.

Organisers claimed this was the single largest Pakistani delegation to India in the last fifty years. Certainly the Pakistanis made their presence felt, speaking at events and enthusiastically going out to meet people. The Pakistan Social Forum arrived in Mumbai with the intention that each delegate connect with at least one Indian - each one, meet one. In the end, the response was so overwhelming, each one of us has made at least 10 friends. Connecting with fellow progressive activists, they found unity in demands - the key issues both sides agreed on were free movement of labour, de-nuclearisation of the subcontinent, and cuts in military expenditures.

Kashmir the cannon

The issue of Kashmir continued to be a sensitive subject, even at the WSF. On my first day at the media centre, a Kashmiri activist was passing out flyers about attacks against Pandits by the Muslim majority. Later in the week, the fiery leader of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, Yasin Malik, spoke at one of the smaller panels. When an audience member began protesting at the treatment of Pandits by militants, Maliks supporters were clearly embarrassed and irritated. Reformed Kashmiri militant Firdous Syed struck a more conciliatory and realistic tone.

For eight years Firdous was an underground militant, but in 1996 he became disillusioned with the gun and came overground. Today, he is part of a group seeking to build cultural links between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits. At a three-hour seminar at the WSF, Syed and other Kashmiri heavyweights Professor Geelani, Sajjad Lone and santoor player Bhajan Sopori talked about the ancient linkages between Muslims, Hindus, Dogras and Buddhists in Kashmir. In fact, there were no communal riots there during Partition, which inspired Gandhi to say that Kashmir was a ray of hope in the darkness of Partition.

Firdous was particularly mournful about the way Hindus had been rendered invisible by the Kashmir conflict. He pointed out that a Diwali firecracker had startled his own son, because it was hardly celebrated in the valley anymore. Speaking to the Times, he said, another child pointed to a woman in a sari and asked her mother what the garment was.

Firdous, who was the founder of Muslim Janbaz Force (Kashmir's second largest militant group), had harsh words for his former sponsors in Pakistan: Pakistan has been trying to impress on the ordinary Kashmiri that what they were doing was for Kashmir. In fact, they were trying to settle scores using Kashmir as the cannon.

Making friends

Leaving aside the Kashmir issue, the general objective at WSF has been to make Indian friends. Like the people who approached us at Azad Maidan, the Pakistani delegates have been singularly focused in this objective. At the common person level, they have found the Indian side to be equally welcoming-- proving once again that politicians create the subcontinent's inter-nation tensions from the top down.

Enthusiastically describing the common person's response, Nausheen Siddiqui told Mid Day newspaper, “Yesterday I was hailing a cab from Goregaon while a couple standing by noticed Pakistan written on my badge and decided to take me and my friend out for dinner.” Such stuff gives you a lump in the throat.

This article was originally published at http://www.TheSubcontinental.org/ .

Naeem Mohaiemen is a US-based Bangladeshi historian and media activist, specialising in South Asia, Islamic identity, and US/European diaspora culture.