In the second half of October, I landed once again in the city of Lahore just as I had last year around the same time to be part of the Panj Dariya Media Conference (Five rivers media conference). The conference, the fourth in a series since 2005, is a collaborative effort of the Lahore and Chandigarh Press Clubs. The idea, as is somewhat evident from its name, was to bring together journalists who cover the land of five rivers: the Punjab. That stretch now lies divided by the Radcliffe Line into two Punjabs—one in India, the other in Pakistan. The Indian Punjab of 1947 has since been carved into the states of Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
While the first conference was organised in Chandigarh seven years ago, the last three—one in Chandigarh and two in Lahore—have been held in a span of 13 months, clearly a signal that even if disputes between the countries are far from resolution, at least journalists are keen on greater interaction. One of the important ideas mooted at the conference this time was to allow journalists on either side to travel back and forth, not just in batches for such short five-day trips but also as individuals for longer stints.
The proposal entails getting journalism students of either country to intern in newsrooms across the border. The gap between a mere proposal and its actual acceptance by the two governments is very wide, given the mutual mistrust. I am not certain it will be implemented, but what I am sure of is that the experience that mid-career journalists can pick up at short closed-door conferences is really no match for what a young intern can learn finding his or her way through an alien city in search of a story.
A TALE OF FEW CITIES
The recent steps announced to relax the India-Pakistan Visa Policy have emboldened activists in Pakistan to demand sister-city status for Lahore and Delhi. There is anyway a bit of Lahore in Delhi and a bit of Delhi in Lahore. Residents of the walled old city in Lahore speak Punjabi laced with Urdu, while those in Delhi speak either a hybrid of Hindi and Urdu or Punjabi laced with Hindi. If there is a Kashmere Gate in Delhi, there is one in Lahore too. If Central Delhi has a Lahore Gate, Central Lahore has a Delhi Gate. The list goes on. But the closest that Lahore really comes to is the adjoining district of Amritsar. Residents in both places speak identical Punjabi and are great hosts. Combine that with the fact that they are diehard foodies. So you have people who are capable of eating and feeding their guests full meals between meals. Little wonder then that what is said of Lahore in Pakistan is said of Amritsar in India: “People here live to eat.” Then there is Chandigarh, Independent India’s planned replacement for Lahore where Panjab University moved after Partition from Lahore via Shimla and Hoshiarpur. Chandigarh, with among the highest per capita incomes in the country, is a clean, well-planned and well-funded union territory that lacks the chaos and warmth of Lahore.
COMMON HEROES, DIFFERENT APPROACH
If you are an Indian and visiting Lahore these days, there is a good chance that a number of people who get to know that you are from India—and in most cases, it is really hard to tell—will inform you that the city’s Shadman Chowk is being renamed after the revolutionary Bhagat Singh. On 28 September, Bhagat Singh’s birthday, the provincial government of Punjab in Pakistan made this declaration after a prolonged movement by some sections of civil society. Saeeda Diep of the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies tells you the government has relented after a campaign that lasted 15 years to get the crossing renamed after the firebrand freedom fighter. Singh and his associates Sukhdev and Rajguru were hanged in Lahore Jail which existed in the past where the chowk now stands. Singh, held guilty in the Lahore Conspiracy case for the murder of British police officer Saunders, was just 23 years old. The rechristening was announced in September, and, like all matters bureaucratic, will take its time to be completed. For the moment, it is still Shadman Chowk, but is expected to be renamed before 23 March next year—the day the three were hanged in 1931.
Activists competed among themselves to get the place renamed for years together before the Pakistan government acceded to their demand. Eventually, the Pakistan People’s Party introduced a resolution to that effect in the Assembly this April, and the move was cleared. Meanwhile, back home in New Delhi, the Indian Government is yet to act on repeated requests from assorted quarters to simply put up a plaque in Parliament house—which in 1929 was India’s Central Legislative Assembly—at the spot from where Singh and his fellow revolutionary B Dutt hurled crude bombs and distributed leaflets before surrendering without offering resistance. The event dates back to 8 April 1929. Singh and Dutt carried out the symbolic bombing—by today’s explosive standards, it was like a burst of firecrackers—with the intent of jolting the ‘deaf’ in favour of complete independence. Singh was arrested just minutes after the bombing. Even comrades Indrajit Gupta and Somnath Chatterjee as Lok Sabha speakers could do precious little to get that little plaque placed on that seat in the visitors’ gallery from where Dutt and Singh hurled the bombs and flung leaflets amid shouts of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long live the revolution).
One of the best ways to get to know Lahore is to take an auto-rickshaw ride. Unless you are really out of luck, the typical auto-rickshaw driver you encounter is the talkative, Punjabi-speaking Lahoriya (the closest Indian equivalent is the talkative, Punjabi-speaking Ambarsariya rickshawalla in Amritsar some 50 km east of Lahore) who will only be too glad to double up as your guide and offer a crash course in local politics, weather and cuisine. With about 100,000 autos in Lahore, these are not just a mode of transport but effective advertising vehicles as well. Auto-rickshaws with vinyl ads plastered across their backs sell anything from shampoos to Jihad. A recent one that can be spotted on the back of these vehicles is a poster proclaiming support for Malala Yousafzai, the teenaged blogger from Swat who was shot at by Taliban militants. The fact that ‘I support Malala’ posters compete with ones that proclaim ‘Jihad: now or never’ is a reflection of the bundle of contradictions that Pakistan today is.