I remember the excitement as we readied ourselves for that (delayed) flight to New Delhi in May 2010. Several businessmen and women were headed for the Aman ki Asha Indo-Pak Meet along with those of us privileged to be among the organisers.
Personally speaking, I had no great expectations from the meeting. It promised to be a groundbreaking event, certainly, taking forward the work of individual businesspersons who had been interacting with counterparts across the border. Amin Hashwani, who headed the Indo-Pak Young CEOs Forum, was one; Faiza Samee, who has for years been supplying India’s glitterati with exclusive wedding and party wear, is another. My earlier interactions with Indians were mostly limited to journalists, artists and activists, most of whom I’d found open-minded and curious about Pakistan, eager to build bridges and be friends. I knew that Pakistani businesses would benefit greatly from trade with India – after all, there’s a huge middle class across the border, larger than Pakistan’s entire population. But I had no idea what to expect from India’s business community. And I certainly didn’t expect more than a lukewarm response.
Our Indian hosts – the CII and Times of India – and their guests blew us away with their warmth, hospitality and openness. It wasn’t just the speeches and the panel discussions – wonderful as some of those were. It was the interactions over (wonderful) dinners and lunches and teas, in between sessions. There was curiosity, there was warmth, and there was openness.
The hawkish (or so we had thought) Indian finance minister Pranab Mukherjee disarmed (no pun intended) everyone when he set the tone by referring to Pakistanis as his “brothers and sisters”. Saying the “sky is the limit” for trade between the two largest nations of South Asia, he regretted that this was the “least integrated region” in the world, worse than even sub-Saharan Africa.
He then outlined an eight-point agenda to change that scenario: better communication, a liberal trade regime, complementarity of export surplus, creation of transit facilities, free movement of goods, transit trade to Afghanistan and central Asia, replacement of the existing positive list by negative lists of goods beyond which Pakistan would permit imports from India and improvement in infrastructure for trade and transport.
Two years down the road, we are well on this road although there is clearly still a long way to go.
Mukherjee also unintentionally caused considerable mirth during his speech when he kept referring to Jang Group’s Managing Director Shahukh Hasan, one of the driving forces behind Aman ki Asha, as Shahrukh Khan. Someone whispered a correction in his ear after he sat down and he apologised. Shahrukh Hasan gamely took the joke further when he stood up to ask a question, introducing himself as “Shahrukh Khan.. sorry, I mean Hasan.”
The keynote speaker, the widely respected ‘godfather’ of India’s software industry and founder chairman Infosys Dr Narayana Murthy took the bonhomie of the opening session further with his inspiring speech. “Our common past is far longer than our divided present. We must find a way to recapture that spirit of oneness and togetherness. Such a spirit of togetherness requires us to work towards a lasting peace,” he said.
Murthy reminded the audience of Quaid-e-Azam M. A. Jinnah’s words: “our objective should be peace within and peace without, we want to live peacefully and maintain cordial and friendly relations with our immediate neighbours and with the world at large.”
Murthy also invoked Mathma Gandhi: “the cry for peace will be a cry in the wilderness so long as the spirit of non-violence does not dominate millions of men and women.”
And he shared a personal story, about his son who was studying in the US and had become good friends with a Pakistani student. “Both boys are only separated by a short flight when they are at home but in reality, visiting each other is nearly impossible.”
His son “dreams of a day when his friend could explore and experience all that India has to offer and that he in turn would be able to visit Pakistan. He envisions a future where Pakistan would be an important export destination for India and that India could import significantly from Pakistan. He wishes for the day when Indian and Pakistani scientists collaborate to find cures for diseases such a TB and malaria. Most of all he hopes for a cricket team that could bring the best of Pakistani and Indian talent together and beat every other nation.
“If we foster economic cooperation in the spirit of peace, our countries can meet any challenge. Countless lives on both sides of the border and the future of our children and grandchildren can be that much brighter if only we make achieving a peaceful future our top most priority,” said Murthy.
Another person who stands out in my mind is Brijmohan Lal Munjal, the “bicycle and two-wheeler king” of India and perhaps the world. The founder and former president CII and Hero Honda Motors chairman gave a wonderfully moving, even emotional, speech in chaste Urdu at the concluding session of the two-day conference.
At 86, Munjal still clearly remembered his childhood in Kamalia, in Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur) district of Pakistan, where he was born. “I cannot forget those days. When I went back there, I travelled to my school to check whether my name was still mentioned on the school board,” he said.
His speech was strewn with beautiful Urdu (a language he is fluent in) shaiyri that he recited in perfect diction: Tha mitaa deney ko nafrat ek sadee ki/ mohabbat ka aik lamha kafi hai (to wipe out a century of hatred, all it takes is a moment of love).
He spoke with fondness of his roots and of the people of Kamalia, where he still has old friends he is in touch with. “I personally tried to help some of them when they were starting business ventures in Pakistan,” he said, relating how he sent machinery for a cycle venture in Pakistan from his factory in Ludhiana. “And I was there when the first cycle was rolled out.”
(Given the continuous state of tensions between both countries, I wondered how he had managed to do this, but didn’t get a chance to talk to him afterwards.)
Munjal’s obvious sincerity, down-to-earth gentle good humour and poetry won the hearts of all those present in the packed hall. Like everyone else present in the hall, he warmly and open-heartedly welcomed and supported the Aman Ki Asha initiative was indeed genuine. “It will certainly make a difference; I feel that from my heart,” he said.
The discussions were so engaging that Pakistan’s ambassador to New Delhi Shahid Malik, who had come intending to be there for a short while only, ended up staying for the full two days. He was also believed to have submitted a most favourable report to Islamabad about the event and the issue of trade between the two countries.
Even people not directly concerned with trade and business were enthused by the visit of so many high-powered Pakistani businessmen and women. Senior journalist Jyoti Malhotra arranged a hi-tea event at the Delhi Women’s Press Corps for some of the delegates to meet journalists. The meeting room was packed with media men and women armed with notebooks and cameras. Such is the disconnect between the two countries that the very first question, from a young woman, was about her surprise at seeing so many women in the delegation. Who can blame her for thinking like this – she had probably never met a Pakistani woman before.
Such misconceptions will only be removed if the visa restrictions are eased so that people can travel and meet and if the media starts to project the other side with all its complexities.
P.S. It’s good to know that visas for the business community are being eased and we welcome Indian delegates at the 2nd Aman ki Asha Business Meet. I hope they got non-police reporting visas. Is anyone doing anything to restore cell phone roaming between India and Pakistan?
The writer is a consulting editor for Aman ki Asha.