In January 2004, then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed to embark on a process of normalizing relations and resolving all outstanding problems, including Kashmir. Along with the peace process, people-to-people contacts between India and Pakistan have also reached unprecedented levels. This report looks at the changing atmosphere in both countries.
Last year hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis, including politicians, academics, film stars and media personalities, visited each other?s country as part of parallel efforts in the peace process. Pakistan issued thousands of visas to Indian citizens to watch their team play cricket in Pakistani cities. Indian players not only won the cricket series but also the hearts of millions of Pakistanis. Students and youth delegations from both countries have made friendly visits.
I. K. Gujral is India?s former prime minister who also served twice as its foreign minister. In 1997, he laid the groundwork for reducing tensions with Pakistan by unilaterally easing travel and visa restrictions for Pakistanis.
Mr. Gujral recently visited Pakistan. He says the main difference between his first visit to Pakistan and his recent visit was that the people?s attitudes had changed: ?I had gone there after a long time. I was invited by the Lahore High Court Bar Association to speak to them. Hall was full to the capacity. The response was very positive. There was a demand from all sides that all types of hurdles should be removed between people of India and Pakistan so that they can travel easily, they can meet each other more easily, and trade particularly flourishes.?
Mr. Gujral says India and Pakistan have no other choice except to move towards friendship with each other. For several reasons, including the media revolution, he says the masses on both sides of the border are now aware of the dialogue between the two countries. ?One, of course is the world situation,? says Mr. Gujral. ?Globalization has helped. And secondly, in the countries of South Asia, there was always a feeling of fellowship amongst the people. But unfortunately, some governments did not tolerate it. Now things seem to be changing. I am hopeful and quite positive about it.?
Syed Atiq ul Hassan, a Sydney-based journalist and political analyst, says peace between India and Pakistan should not be held hostage to controversy over Kashmir, and people-to-people contact should be encouraged.
?What will happen is that with the course of time, those who are in the majority and want friendship, their voice and influence will grow,? says Mr. Hassan, ?and there will be ongoing contacts with the people, art and media, sports and all that, I think. The negative elements, slowly, I believe, will not have that much voice.?
This opening has already generated sufficient momentum to influence government officials. For example, the chief ministers of the divided province of Punjab exchanged complimentary visits. And, in an unprecedented move, the Indian government allowed a group of Pakistani journalists to visit Srinagar, capital of Indian Kashmir. The Pakistani government reciprocated by letting Indian journalists into Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani part of Kashmir.
India?s former Prime Minister I.K.Gujral says he hopes that these people-to-people contacts will eventually contribute to a solution to all the problems between India and Pakistan. ?It seems that with the passage of time, the people to people contacts have become an elemental force by itself. That is why both sides are responding,?says Mr. Gujral.
Many Pakistani children have been treated for serious illnesses in Indian hospitals. The Pakistani cricket team will arrive in India at the end of February. A Pakistan-India Pen Pals Club has been formed to promote people-to-people contacts.
Syed Atiq ul Hassan says both governments are under pressure from their people to seek solutions to their problems: ?I think they feel now that this is the need of the time when all the countries in other parts of the world are looking for mutual benefits, then why not these two countries which possess a lot of talent, rich resources, not only the natural resources but human resources.?
For the first time, people are seeing Indian actors in Pakistani movies and Pakistani actors in Indian movies. Indian and Pakistani film stars and other artists performed together at a recent concert called ?Help? in Bombay, also known as Mumbai, to raise funds for the tsunami victims. Among the Indian film celebrities were Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Sanjay Dutt and Rani Mukherji. Pakistani entertainers included the leading film star Meera Khan and comedian Omar Sharif.
Supporters of such people-to-people contacts say it can help create a better atmosphere and put pressure on both governments to move toward finding solutions to their political problems, including Kashmir.
This report was written by Subhash Vohra. For VOA News Now I'm Steve Ember.