Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away Thursday. Vajpayee has many achievements to his credit, but one of them was starting the famous Delhi-Lahore bus service to foster better relationships between India and Pakistan. Vajpayee had even travelled on a bus to Pakistan during its inaugural run on February 19, 1999 and was received by Nawaz Sharif, his Pakistani counterpart.
This excerpt from Kingshuk Nag’s book Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons, published by Rupa, describes how the former Prime Minister charmed all during his visit:
Atal’s mentor in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, in the mid-1960s (in conjunction with socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia), had come up with the concept of a confederation of India and Pakistan. This concept, in a way, repudiated the one of Akhand Bharat that extreme right-wing Hindu organizations had been espousing, and paved the way for good bilateral relations between the two countries which could then present a joint front on many matters. Once India achieved its nuclear power status as did Pakistan, Atal felt that it was time that the two countries started working towards good relations.
Atal’s counterpart in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, also believed that the two countries should foster good relations. Sharif sent an invitation to Atal to visit Pakistan. Pakistan wanted to test the commitment of the new BJP government. Atal responded wholeheartedly and crossed the Attari–Wagah border in Punjab by bus on the afternoon of 19 February 1999. He was accompanied by twenty-two distinguished Indians who included journalists like Kuldeep Nayar, cultural personalities like Mallika Sarabhai and film personalities like Dev Anand and Javed Akhtar. The bus that Atal went by was to become a daily feature from Delhi to Lahore and back.
The bus service was to foster better people-to-people contacts, including allowing families that lived on either side of the border to meet each other. Immediately after crossing the border, where he was received by Nawaz Sharif, Atal said, ‘This is a defining moment in South Asian history and we will have to rise to the challenge.’
Atal’s aide Sudheendra Kulkarni later recalled how Pakistani information minister Mushahid Hussain had said to him on the sidelines, ‘Vajpayeeji has real guts to come to Pakistan like this and at this time.’ Hundreds of people had lined up at the border to witness this historic crossover.
Talks between Atal and Sharif led to the Lahore declaration by which both countries pledged to a peaceful resolution of bilateral disputes, especially Kashmir, and fostering friendly commercial and cultural relationships. The declaration stated that the two sides would engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts, nuclear doctrines and avoidance of conflicts. The two countries agreed to give advance notification of ballistic missile flight tests and conclude bilateral agreements. They were also committed to undertaking national measures to reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorized incidents that could lead to a nuclear war.
More than anything else, Atal managed to charm the Pakistani public with his disarming ways, although fundamentalist organizations and parties launched public demonstrations against his visit. Atal also visited the Minar-e-Pakistan during the trip, a monument set up in 1947 to commemorate the birth of the nation. Atal said that he had been dissuaded by many from visiting the minar because it would be tantamount to giving a stamp of approval to the creation of Pakistan.
‘I insisted on coming because I saw no logic in what was being told to me and I made it loud and clear to them that Pakistan does not require my stamp for its entity. Pakistan has its own entity,’ Atal said. He added, ‘If somebody back home asks this question, this will be my answer there too.’ Incidentally, at a reception at Governor House, Atal recited his poem ‘Ab jung naa hone denge hum’. Atal was felicitated at Lahore Fort where, hinting at the common heritage of the two nations, he pointed out how Shah Jahan was born in the fort and Akbar had spent close to a decade there. The audience was so impressed by Atal’s speech that Nawaz Sharif quipped, ‘Vajpayee sahab ab toh Pakistan mein bhi election jeet sakte hain. [Mr Vajpayee can now win elections even in Pakistan.]’