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When Vajpayee took a bus ride and it seemed peace with Pakistan was possible

At a time when India’s ties with Pakistan have reached its lowest in backdrop of Pulwama attack, ThePrint recalls A.B. Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy of 1999.

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New Delhi:Hum jung na hone denge … Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda… Hum jung na hone denge…

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words reverberated through Lahore as the Indian prime minister arrived in the city by bus on 19 February, 1999. Little did he know then that within just months of his historic initiative, India and Pakistan would be embroiled in another jung — the Kargil War.

Twenty years later, the words sound like a cautionary reminder after calls for “war” reverberate through social media and on TV news channels following the suicide bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 CRPF personnel last Thursday.

Undoubtedly, the ‘bus yatra’ or the ‘bus diplomacy’ as it was called in later years, established a milestone in the history of India-Pakistan ties even as it positioned India in the critical eyes of its neighbour as a tolerant nation that is not hungry for war. That is why when Vajpayee passed away in August 2018, Pakistan remembered him with these lines from his poem — Hum Jung Na Hone Denge.

On its 20th anniversary, ThePrint recalls Vajpayee’s bus yatra to Lahore.

‘India wishes Pakistan well’

The ‘bus yatra’ was part of a confidence-building measure or CBM that both Vajpayee and his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had taken at the SAARC Summit in Colombo in 1998 in the aftermath of the nuclear tests that were carried out earlier that year by both neighbours that had sent shockwaves around the world.

As a result, both leaders came under severe pressure from the international community, especially the US which threatened sanctions on both, that both countries have good neighbourly relations.

Seen as someone who would not stop all channels of communication with its neighbour, Vajpayee went to extra lengths and made sure that he visited Minar-e-Pakistan, a symbolic icon of Pakistan’s creation, as part of this ‘bus diplomacy’ despite stiff resistance from the Pakistani security.

As former Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief A.S. Dulat mentions in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, Vajpayee not just visited the monument, he even wrote in the visitor’s book there: “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.”

In more ways than one the bus ride not just removed tensions from the only road linking India and Pakistan, it also gave a strong message to the common man on both sides of the border that war is never an option to resolve differences but dialogue is.

Also read: How Modi speaks a different language with Pakistan than what Vajpayee did


American diplomat Strobe Talbott, who was then US deputy secretary of state, likened this initiative by Vajpayee with that of Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1971 and Gorbachev’s opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

As Talbott put it in his bestselling account — Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb — the sudden closeness between the two neighbours at that time seemed to suggest what New Delhi had always maintained — that it would “not need any help from the United States” in dealing with Pakistan.

Although inauguration of the Sada-e-Sarhad, the official name of the Delhi–Lahore bus service, took place over a span of 26 hours, Vajpayee and Sharif were able to achieve a lot.

Sharif, who welcomed Vajpayee with open arms as the Indian PM stepped out of the bus in Lahore, also supported him in signing the historic Lahore Declaration in which both countries vowed to avoid a conflict and committed to implementing the Simla Agreement of 1972, which recognised the Line of Control in Kashmir.

The leaders promised to open a new chapter in the history of India-Pakistan relations.

‘Ghar nahin aaoge?’

According to Dulat, Vajpayee had planned to only cross the border by bus, meet and greet Sharif and come back. But Sharif had convinced him to stay back and visit Lahore saying, “Dar tak aye ho, ghar nahin aaoge? (You have come to the door, won’t you come inside?)”

In fact, Sharif was determined that the visit, however short it was, should be memorable for Vajpayee. He organised an event for Vajpayee at the Lahore Fort, which was carefully curated and arranged by Salima Hashmi, then principal of the National College of Arts and elder daughter of poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Vajpayee made sure that he took with him an eclectic mix of people on the bus. It comprised writers, journalists, scientists, cricketer, artists and actors among others. Dev Anand, Kapil Dev, Mallika Sarabhai, Javed Akhtar and Shatrughan Sinha were some of the late Indian PM’s co-passengers on the bus.

Late veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, who had served as India’s High Commissioner to the UK in 1990, also travelled with Vajpayee to Lahore on the bus. In his last book, On Leaders and Icons: From Jinnah to Modi, which he wrote before he passed away in August 2018, Nayar said Vajpayee was conscious of the fact that his visit might not be seen positively within his domestic constituency as well as in Pakistan.

While in Lahore, Vajpayee and his entourage had to face severe protests organised by the Jamat-e-Islami, a political organisation, who even hurled stones at some of the cars of the diplomats and stalled the movement of Vajpayee’s convoy while it was headed for the event at Lahore Fort.

Also read: Vajpayee’s ‘insaniyat’ remark wasn’t one-off, his team worked on Kashmir for years

The consequence

By May that year it was clear that Vajpayee’s ‘bus diplomacy’ had not travelled down the road to peace. Both sides were to be bitterly engaged in the clashes high up in the mountains that led to the killing of Indian and Pakistani soldiers.

While India emerged victorious in the Kargil War in July, it was jolted by yet another terror attack in December — the hijack of Delhi-Kathmandu Indian Airlines flight IC-814.

In exchange for the release of hostages, then minister of external affairs Jaswant Singh and current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who was then Intelligence Bureau special director, decided to free dreaded terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar, who went on to form Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terror outfit that continues to wreak terror on India even after 20 years.

JeM claimed responsibility for the attack 14 February when Adil Ahmad Dar rammed his vehicle laden with explosives into a convoy carrying CRPF personnel in Pulawama district of Kashmir.

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  1. It requires both courage and statesmanship – what some call the high road – to talk about enduring peace between India and Pakistan. Not in a dewy, sentimental way, but fully conscious of the challenges and the pitfalls, and from a position of strength and deterrence. Vajpayeeji deserved his Bharat Ratna. UPA ought to have conferred it in 2005.

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