It's God's own country. Tragically reduced to a land scarred by strife and torn by terror. But an apt setting for people from two nations trying to comprehend the complexity that is Kashmir. Essentially one people fractured by a mindless moment in history, it was not difficult for the Indians and Pakistanis to respect each other's differences and yet view issues with trust and compassion.
Put together by the Indo-Pak Peace Forum, an initiative of the Young Presidents' Organisation, a worldwide group of business leaders, met in Mumbai to flag off Magical Mulaquat, as the event had been aptly christened, with a star-studded Bollywood extravaganza at the behest of the Pakistanis and then headed for their idyllic destination.
The message in every heartbeat: erase the past and use the present to script a new future.
I was returning to Kashmir after two decades. Memories of a college trip in the valley were indelibly etched -- vivid recollections of picture postcard azure skies, rolling meadows, tree-covered hills, tranquil lakes, gurgling rivers, Mughal gardens with flowers in colourful abundance, snow-capped peaks.
For the Pakistanis, it was a first visit to a land whose magnificence is legendary. For some it was a return to their roots.
"It's a spiritual visit. My ancestors are buried here," says Nasir Bukhari, "This dust, its fragrance beckons us here. It is part of my being."
His wife Ambreen had a strange experience. While she was walking across a street in Srinagar, a lady police personnel in uniform suddenly stopped to stare at the figure in an abaya, a black hijaab [veil] covering her head. She walked up to the utterly confused Pakistani visitor, hugged her, tears streaming down her face, "We've been waiting for this moment," she said in a choked voice.
It was an overwhelming experience for the Pakistanis. Awed by the scenic beauty of the land, there was also a tinge of sadness. Paradise was plagued with armed soldiers, barbed wires, security checks. An uneasy calm prevailed. There was the realisation that both countries had contributed to the present situation. And the most disturbing discovery that there was not enough political will to bring back peace in paradise even now.
Those of us who had been here before felt the old spark was missing. The vibrancy is yet to return. There is a certain despondency. As Seema Khan points out, "The youth of Kashmir must be motivated. They must build on their resources. There is a need for wider economic activity. The new generation can work with a broader vision and perspective to find an out-of-the-box solution. Generations before us have created enough chaos. We don't want the same for this generation."
People to people contact: The new mantra is one of the methods widely believed to help defuse tension and promote harmony. Our journey was one such exercise. These experiments are enriching. The similarities are striking. There was much amusement when a member from Pune, asked me, "You are from Karachi aren't you?" I smiled, "No I am from Calcutta, but my mother was born in Pakistan!"
On a more serious note, initiatives like this strengthen bonds. Since people from both sides of the divide go through the process together, it helps foster a common understanding. Both sides hear the government's official view, get a first-hand glimpse of the ground reality. This is a step in the right direction, even though they might have a different perspective. The bonds that are created allow discussions on contentious issues without illwill or rancour.
Essential though these steps are, it isn't always as smooth as a Shikara gliding on the Dal Lake. As Asad Umar says, "For those of us from across the border, it was a unique opportunity to interact with the chief minister, governor, leader of the opposition, Kashmiri Pandits etc but even the most well meaning Indians and Pakistanis will have a sharply different perspective. This is primarily because of the historical baggage that each side carries."
The pain of perceived wrongdoings. The baggage of the past, weighing down the present: Whether Kashmir should have gone to Pakistan during Partition itself... whether the instrument of accession was legal... the UN resolutions... plebiscite... the list of disputes is endless.
An area with huge potential has become a crucible of bloodshed and violence. Says Amin Hashwani, one of the architects of the Indo-Pak Peace Forum, "One way forward is to pause for a moment, to put on hold what India thinks, what Pakistan thinks and instead listen to the third voice. The voice of the Kashmiri people. These people have got a raw deal from both sides. We need to respect their wishes."
If the scenic beauty of Kashmir stirred their soul, interactions with various groups changed existing views. "Governments on both sides seem to be looking at their own interests rather than the people they are fighting for," says Taher Khan.
There is a crying need for a workable solution with the sole objective of benefiting the people. It could be greater autonomy, a legislative assembly with representatives from both sides -- a solution that provides a face-saver and above all benefits the populace.
"Besides the much-needed political will, we need forgiveness and large-heartedness on both sides, to let bygones be bygones," says Waqar Malik.
An eye-opener for most was the opportunity to interact with Kashmiri Pandits. Their plight was something the visitors from across the border were unfamiliar with. About the fear that had gripped the community and compelled them to leave overnight, terrorist threats had reduced them to refugees in their own land, their only companions -- their trauma, their anguish.
There were areas where both sides agreed. It was such a shame that huge amounts were spent on defence while inhabitants of the region could gain so much with better education and healthcare. If leaders from both sides could put ego and personal agenda on the backburner and with single-minded commitment try to resolve contentious issues. And while they are doing this, open the borders to trade and culture in a bid to foster friendship.
We had made a trip to Pakistan in November 2003 and were absolutely overwhelmed by the lavish hospitality. Unsure whether we could match it, there was good humoured teasing. We told them they had a genetic advantage -- mehman nawazi (hospitality) et al, we weren't even going to try and compete.
And as one Indian lady put it, "We did our best where hospitality is concerned." At the Bollywoood bash in Mumbai when Shah Rukh Khan walked into the room, the Pakistani ladies were swept off their feet and absolutely mesmerised rushed towards the superstar for a photograph to take back home. The Indian ladies who were dying to do the same, exercised extreme self-control and held themselves back allowing their friends from across the border to occupy centrestage.
This was mehman nawazi reciprocated Indian style!
Armed with local craft, the world famous Kashmiri shawl and memories of an unforgettable experience, we parted ways with a silent prayer for the land of fear to emerge as the land of peace and opportunity.