On Dec. 13, 2001, a suicide squad attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. India blamed Pakistani terrorist groups for the attack. Amid shock and anger, India mobilized and moved tens of thousands of soldiers to its border with Pakistan. War seemed imminent.
Pakistani military and political leaders threatened to use nuclear weapons if India attacked. Top American diplomats and generals were convinced that Pakistan wasn’t bluffing. South Asia was in the grip of its first nuclear crisis. Television networks began calculating what might survive of cities like New Delhi and Lahore after a nuclear attack.
Indian and Pakistani soldiers relentlessly fired bullets and mortar shells across the border. Land mines were placed in rice fields in villages along the border. Residents were displaced.
The spring and summer of 2002 turned into a long season of furious nationalism. Intense diplomacy from the United States and Britain eventually persuaded India and Pakistan to withdraw troops from the border in October 2002. But the air, rail and road links between the two countries remained closed.
India was also shocked and polarized by February 2002 riots in the Western state of Gujarat under the watch of Narendra Modi, chief minister at the time. About 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed and roughly 150,000 people were displaced.
In July 2003, in a small step toward reducing hostility, the sole bus service between the two countries that runs between Lahore and New Delhi was resumed. An unlikely passenger on that bus from Lahore to New Delhi became a moving reminder of common humanity and decency.
Noor Fatima, a 2-year-old girl from Lahore, had several holes in her heart. The surgery was prohibitively expensive in Pakistan. Nadeem Sajjad, her father, a marketing executive, traveled with his ailing child and wife across several thousand miles, a difficult history and a toxic politics, to Narayana Hrudayalaya, a hospital in Bangalore, in southern India. The girl’s visit to Bangalore became a major media event. Ordinary Indians offered financial support; celebrations followed her successful surgery.
Gauri Lankesh, the Indian editor who was assassinated this month, wrote about Noor’s surgery, India and Pakistan in the Kannada-language paper Lankesh Patrike. Her original essay was published on July 24, 2003. Ms. Lankesh, a fierce critic of majoritarian politics and a champion of equal rights for lower castes and minorities, stood up against the powerful and stood for justice. In seasons of nationalist fury, she stood for pacifism. We are publishing this translated version to honor Ms. Lankesh’s courage and generosity of spirit.
Every evening, a peculiar convention takes place at Wagah, a village along the India-Pakistan border. Border gates of both countries stand five feet apart. Flags of both countries flutter nearby. On occasion, the soldiers on either side of the border ask after one another: “Good day! How are you?” When I visited Wagah in 1999, a senior Indian Army officer introduced me to his Pakistani counterpart. I stepped inside the no-man’s land between the two countries. The Pakistani Army officer came forward. We shook hands, even as the two countries were at war in the northern mountains of Kargil (in the disputed Kashmir region).
Amicable with one another during the day, the soldiers of both countries get into a kind of contest as the evening sets in. Ordinary Indians and Pakistanis gather near the gates and the daily ritual of lowering the national flags commences. (A choreographed exercise follows as both Indian and Pakistan soldiers stomp their boots angrily.) On which side were the soldiers more bellicose? On which side were they stomping their boots more vehemently and loudly? Mindful of details like these, the citizens clap and shout slogans and root for the soldiers from their country. It begins to feel as if a small war is about to break out between the soldiers.
A strange sight follows: After the flag-lowering ritual is over, Indians and Pakistanis rush toward the border gates. They stare at one another curiously. A sense of rivalry isn’t seen among them. A “you are just like us” sentiment prevails instead. Hoping to see relatives separated from them at the time of the partition in 1947, some Indians and Pakistanis visit the Wagah border time and again. They stand in silence searching for a familiar face on the other side of the border and head home only when the soldiers drive them away.
Noor Fatima has brought back these memories. News of her surgery has spread far. What I liked most though was the moral and economic support that Indians extended to her. They have offered her the help that politicians have been unable to give. Noor’s parents have welcomed it graciously.
Numerous Indians have donated money to the Dosti Fund (Friendship Fund) that Noor’s father set up to offer aid to poor Indian children. An industrialist, who had lived in Lahore before migrating to India after the partition, has offered 1.2 million rupees. This act of generosity from an Indian Hindu to a fund set up by a Pakistani Muslim demonstrates that the people of the two countries need friendship and harmonious co-existence.
At a time when efforts to divide people in the country along lines of caste and religion are underway, ordinary Indians have proved that they won’t let religious difference divide them. The Noor episode clarifies that India’s hostility toward Pakistan is limited to its own security and does not extend to the people of that country or their religion.
Indians have ignored the fact that young Noor is from another country. Those Indians who hesitated to come out in support of Muslim victims of the Gujarat violence have stood in support of a Muslim girl from Pakistan. Our hearts don’t have to be filled with hatred. Noor made us see that.
Gauri Lankesh was the editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada-language newspaper published in Bangalore, India. This article was translated from Kannada by Chandan Gowda, a professor of sociology at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.