There is a Pakistani in every Indian and an Indian in every Pakistani,” President Asif Ali Zardari famously said two years ago. Those words rang in my head with new resonance as I packed my bags and left Pakistan recently after a nearly four-year-long assignment as this newspaper’s (The Hindu) Islamabad-based correspondent.

It should have been easy to leave a country that is by word and deed hostile to India, and where the state machinery treats every Indian as a “RAW agent”, spending considerable human and material resources on the surveillance of the only two Indian journalists – from The Hindu and Press Trust India – that are permitted to be based there.

Yet, saying goodbye to Pakistan was much more difficult than I imagined. Like other Indians who have experienced Pakistan first-hand, I gained a vast number of friends for life and multitudes of warm memories. Against this reality, it seems absurdly unbelievable that these two countries are not even talking properly to each other, that I cannot visit my Pakistani friends easily, that they cannot come and see me. Even texting, one of the easiest and cost-efficient ways of keeping in touch these days, is not possible – or erratic, at best – betweenIndia and Pakistan.

Walking across the Wagah border into India took me less than five minutes. But as I turned at the gates to wave to a Pakistani friend who had come to see me off, the distance between the two countries seemed huge and daunting.
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At home, family and friends greeted me with relief, and asked me how I had managed to survive four years in “a country of terrorists.” Despite the close geographical proximity of the two countries, and the reams written and spoken in India about Pakistan, there seemed little patience for or understanding of the complexities of, an important neighbouring country, the shades of political, social and religious opinion among Pakistanis on such issues as terrorism and extremism.

There is similarly much in the way Pakistanis react to India that can send even the mildest Indian’s blood pressure rising. For instance, even well educated Pakistanis continue to believe that the Mumbai attacks were staged by RAW to defame Pakistan with the ultimate aim of snatching its nuclear weapons or dismembering thecountry. Young and old alike will assert that India is behind the wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan because “no Muslim will kill fellow Muslims”, even though they have no explanation for why Shias routinely get killed by Sunni extremists.

I would have heated debates with Pakistanis who consider themselves modern, enlightened, liberal and secular but would suddenly go all Islamic and religious when it came to an issue such as Kashmir, seeming no different from their ultra-conservative compatriots who protest against the clamping down on Islamic militancy in Pakistan as harassment of “brother Muslims.” They could tout jihad in Kashmir as legitimate even while condemning the Taliban who threaten their own modern, liberal lifestyle, despite the knowledge that the distinction between the two kinds of jihad, or the two categories of militants, is at best an illusion.

But at the end of the day, the goodwill I experienced in my daily interactions with ordinary Pakistanis, even during the most heated debates, was overwhelming and more powerful than anything else. Despite the heavy hand of the state in every sphere of life, I found people who were willing to set aside long internalised stereotypes and prejudices about Indians and Hindus to try and understand me and my point of view, and they accepted with good faith that I was trying to do the same. We may not have entirely convinced each other every time but we managed to build little bridges of our own and find our own modus vivendi.

If there is anything I learnt from those personal experiences in Pakistan, it is that these little bridges are the key to peace. And for this reason, peace making cannot be left to rulers. It is the people on both sides that have to take charge of it. What the people have now is a unique and contradictory chemistry of love and hate, curiosity and suspicion, friendliness and antagonism, admiration and envy, not to speak of nostalgia and convenient memory lapses.

Even now, the first thing that Pakistanis and Indians ask each other is: “We eat the same food, speak the same language, we even look the same, so why can’t we be friends?” The short answer to that is that we cannot be friends as long as we continue looking at each other through the narrow prism of our respective states. Pakistanis must locate the Indian within themselves, and Indians must discover their inner Pakistani. It would help understand each other better, and free us from state-manipulated attitudes. In our own interests, it is up to us, the people, to find ways to do this. For now, Khuda Hafiz Pakistan. (Courtesy The Hindu)