The team consisted of journalists, artists, filmmakers, writers, academics, peace activists, human right activists and women's rights activists. This visit had its importance because it was made at a time when human civilisation is standing at the brink of nuclear disasters, mindless violence, militarisation of nation states and growing communalisation of communities. The visit was also made to reiterate the women's movement stand against "Bushful" unilateral decision making, which has destroyed one of the world's oldest civilisations in recent times.
We made this peace journey by bus. The Peace Bus started its journey from Calcutta in the early morning hours. By late morning we had crossed the border and stepped into Benapole, in Bangladesh, where we were subjected to rigorous passport and visa checks. Though we understood the formalities, it was painful to see how pieces of stamped paper and physical boundaries had created such huge barriers between people who look so much alike and with whom we are sharing a common history and culture. We were accorded a warm welcome at Benapole and in keeping with the tradition were offered fresh coconut water and flowers, after which we resumed our journey of discovery. The Peace Bus passed through the breathtaking countryside of Jessore, Magura and Faridpur districts, roads lined with jackfruit trees in full bloom, coconut palms, orchards, neat mud thatched houses and dainty villages. Many eyes amongst us became misty in remembrance of childhoods spent in these places, alienated now with the physical creation of borders.
There were many experiences and nostalgic memories to share and before we knew it we entered the Rajbari district situated on the banks of the Padma river. The Padma river, calm and serene, with the sun half way through the western sky casting its brightest colours into the river waters was a sight of grandeur, and seemed to beckon us to explore the other part of Tagore's "shonar Bangla". We rode through the heart of the river on a ferry from Daulatdia ghat to Gwalando ghat. Gwalando ghat is the place from where trains used to run to Calcutta before the partition of the sub-continent. From here, we drove through Manikganj
district and Dhaka district before we finally reached Dhaka city at 8:30 pm after a 13-hour journey.
The welcome that we received from our Bangladeshi sisters was an emotional high point for us. The warmth of their greetings and the delicious home-made coconut laddoos moved and churned something inside us. Our experience strengthened our resolve to make this trip successful. In line with the spirit of the visit, we did not board any hotel but each one of us stayed all the six days with Bangladeshi families, in their houses. And after these six days these homes have become our second homes in Bangladesh.
On 15th of May we began the formal processes of knowing and understanding Bangladesh. It couldn't have been a more auspicious day to begin, for on that day, the birthdays of Lord Buddha and Prophet Muhammad were being celebrated on both sides of the border. In the next five days, through a packed schedule, we visited NGOs and their projects, human right groups, human right activists, anti trafficking networks, women's groups, trade union leaders, exhibition of paintings and photograph by Bangladeshi artists which had been especially put up for us, grassroots NGOs, department of Peace and Conflict and Gender Studies of the Dhaka University and had a meeting with the press and civil society. At every place that we went, we found commitment for peace and concern for the growing communalisation of politics that inculcates hatred for the "other". In a press briefing from both sides of the border it was stated and reiterated that the governments of Bangladesh and India must find rational solutions based on international human rights standards to solve the border movements of people rather than resorting to 'witch hunts' and forced 'push-back' and 'push-in'. It was also emphasised that both governments must rethink on reasons for allowing free movement of capital but severely restricting movement of people.
We also met the minister for women and child welfare, the foreign secretary, the home minister, representatives of the Awami League and the Indian ambassador. Our meetings with them fortified our belief in achieving peace through people to people contact by reviving and building bonds of friendship and arriving at a shared understanding of our problems and similarities. In both of our countries, common people suffer from poverty, deprivation, marginalisation, unemployment, lack of access to water resources, trade, migration, trafficking, gender inequalities and communal killings. Despite the indices of economic growth this is the reality of our countries. At the end, questions from the grassroots that gave us food for thought and future action were - as to how one could bring about peace when right wing governments existed on both sides, specially when communal forces in both countries were talking the language of peace but actually dividing the people.
This beautiful journey of discovery, peace, justice and freedom was planned and organised by WIPSA (Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia) in partnership with the local hosts. WIPSA was born at the time of the Kargil war - in the summer of 1999 when war rhetoric was at its highest pitch and naked aggression, untold suffering on both sides unnerving with smoking guns, body bags and grieving mothers and wives. During this time a few women came together with their grief and WIPSA was born. The women organised a peace mission by bus to Pakistan which was followed by a return visit soon after. Among the trustees of this initiative are Nirmala Deshpande, V Mohini Giri, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, Kamla Bhasin, Meera Khanna and Padma Seth.
Peace is not merely the absence of war. Nor can peace be brought about by nations warring with each other. India went to war with Pakistan four years ago yet there is no peace between the two countries. The US went to war with Iraq vouching for world peace after the war is over, yet there is no peace in the world. There exists more hostility between nations. India has never waged a war against Bangladesh but people of the two countries are not exactly in peace with each other. There is peace between two countries when there exists an atmosphere of mutual trust and arising out of that there is cooperation for human and economic growth. This can only be achieved if we can have understanding and respect for each other's differences. This initiative has set out to achieve peace between the people of India and Bangladesh through people to people contact and is the beginning of a probably long drawn process. The pages of history will not record it perhaps but it will be entrenched in our memories forever from which will follow many more such visits and bonding of many more hearts across the border. Through this we envision will emerge our cherished dream of a just, equal and violence free South Asia, the essence of which we hope to carry to the rest of the world. As women, the whole world is ours and as women we know no boundaries.
Amrita Dutta, Jagori
* Jagori is a Delhi based women's group and resource centre.