Flying back into Southasia in the middle of the night, it becomes a ritual to look down at the India-Pakistan border slip by nearly 40,000 ft below. And before long, the lights of Lahore become visible in the north, even as the pilot of Air India flight 112 comes on the intercom to an announce the arrival of the frontier.
South of Lahore and southwest of Amritsar, the border is a lit-up fine line in the darkness of the desert and one can imagine the concertina wire, the service road, the watchtowers and gun-toting border guards. The calamity that this border represents is so heart-rending that this columnist cannot but repeat the refrain every time he overflies it.
It should not be the task of romantic peaceniks alone to bemoan the rigidity of this border, but that is how it is for now. The economists, political analysts, professors and editors, not only of India and Pakistan but of the larger Southasia, should be continuously agitated by the 'hardness' of this frontier. Why? Because it is a symbol and also a very physical presence highlighting the lost possibilities through the decades.
The opinion makers of Southasia should be working overtime to convert the closed India-Pakistan border into a porous frontier but the reality of realpolitik keeps our imagination at bay. We are at business-as-usual when we should be helping build a groundswell demand for the opening. If Jawaharlal Nehru and the Quaid did not foresee a distancing between the populations of India and Pakistan, why should succeeding generations follow the dictates of geopolitics this mindlessly?
As things stand, foreign ministry bureaucrats in Islamabad and New Delhi are on the job, working gingerly on India-Pakistan rapprochement, doing what little they can in the absence of the groundswell from civil society. We do have, therefore, the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus route and the Khokrapar-Munabao rail link restored, but these are modest achievements unable to generate momentum for the larger opening. Bigger initiatives have not been taken because the analysts and opinion makers are willingly locked into the unimaginative, self-preserving conservative agenda of their respective national elites. This sense of self-preservation keeps the gentlemen from going excitedly against what is considered the 'national' agenda, and so the demand from the citizenry fails to arise
Would India and Pakistan as nation states be compromised in their national identity and manoeuvrability if the border were to be opened up and visas freely given out to feed the demand on both sides? Of course not. Would 'crossborder terrorism' increase or decrease with such an opening? For sure, it would not increase? Would a border opening and the revival of economic and cultural linkages after five decades of cruel closure promote the cause of peace even more? Without a doubt, because many layers would thus be added to the peace constituency. Then why are the elite commentators not speaking along these lines, why are the mullahs and the pundits quiet about rapprochement, and why are the leaders of industry so subdued on the matter?
It is the atmosphere of distrust created over the decades, encompassing three-and-a-half wars and fuelled by the anger of the Partition refugees on both sides, stoked by the Islamist and Hindutva forces, the militarist takeover of Pakistani society, the imperiousness of the Indian state machinery, and the Kashmir issue which holds all Southasia hostage in its intractability.
From up here on AI 112, the frontier runs north-south like a pretty necklace but it is an obnoxious presence nonetheless. The Nepal-India border, let it be repeated, stands up as the ideal frontier of Southasia. It is open, porous, respectful of identical demography and sensibilities on the two sides, allows unimpeded commerce - and yet keeps national identities and respects sovereignties. Transferred to the India-Pakistan sphere, the consequences for the economies are mind-boggling.
The advantage of an open border would naturally accrue first to the people of the neighbouring regions of Punjab-Punjab and Sindh-Rajasthan-Gujarat. Each state or province is a powerful part of its respective national union or federation, so the reason they have not been able to force Delhi and Islamabad to ensure a thaw at the border is hard to fathom. With the receding memories of Partition, with India-Pakistan rapprochement despite the vicissitudes, it is time for the chief ministers in Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Karachi and Lahore to respectfully
inform Islamabad and New Delhi of their intention to meet to discuss loosening the bilateral frontier.
Let the chief ministers do what is good for their people. Only then will we see the end of the caricature that is the lowering-the-flag ceremony at the Wagah-Atari border point, where army men on each side stomp their boots and provide crass example of what is said to be the national attitude, which we know is not. It is
time that those lights at the border are switched off.