Emotions ran high, and the rhetoric was scaled up. It was a business forum but more than products and services, love and friendship were getting freely traded. At the recently concluded Indo-Pak Reverence Conference in Pune to promote peace through business, over 100 Pakistani business delegates chose to celebrate Id with a difference - in India, mingling with their counterparts on this side of the border.
Perhaps it takes a generation or more to get over the trauma of great human misery. Most of the delegates at the Indo-Pak Reverence Conference were born after partition; with very little of the old guard present, they were ever so eager to move forward towards prosperous business associations, and less interested in remembering the past. The usual demands - to open up the border and allow people-to-people contact between citizens of both countries - were expressed, albeit with a business lens rather than a social one. The earlier route to India by air - through Dubai - cost Rs.50,000 for a return flight, whereas the Lahore-Delhi return ticket costs only Rs.14,000, delegates pointed out. Such money saved in the two countries might become money spent in our own social and economic development, it was argued.
Some of the vigour among the delegates is the result of past economics and today's market forces. Pakistan lacks a significant manufacturing industry, and businessmen import a wide range of goods at very high costs, both for personal and business needs. In the automobile sector, for example, only a few brands - Suzuki, Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and two Chinese brands - are available to Pakistani car buyers, and that too at a premium to their prices in India. For example, Suzuki cars in Pakistan cost 30-50% more than their Maruti equivalents in India. All auto components are imported, and - as in the days of the License Raj here - there are restrictions on manufaturers of components that inhibit their growth to meet rising demand. Says Sarfaraz Dhanaji, a 49-year-old auto dealer from Karachi, "it would be much cheaper to import vehicles or components directly from India but these products continue to be on Pakistan's negative list of imports."
The Pakistani banking sector has some interesting features, notably the SME (small and medium enterprise) loans that its central bank requires all banks - nationalised, private as also foreign - to operate. Andleeb Ahmar, a banker from Lahore working in Pakistan's Union Bank, says "ours was the first bank to open an SME department, and through our 60 branches, we reach out to small business persons who did not have any bank credit facility earlier, and were dependent on moneylenders for working capital at 30 percent. Now we give them overdraft facility at 10-12 percent. We have structured various products: one for small suppliers of textile dyes which is mainly concentrated in Faisalabad; one for sugar distributors, another for paint dealers etc." Pakistani banks are on the lookout for joint ventures to exchange expertise and products.
The insurance industry in Pakistan too, in making changes, and the 46 companies serving that market are looking at new ways of minimising their exposure to risk. Azhar Siddiqui, an executive with Beema Pakistan in Karachi, has high hopes for partnership with Indian insurance companies, especially to market their product Daulat, a reinsurance product based on gold holdings within the country. He believes that "this would stop flight of capital abroad that happens when our insurance companies reinsure against risks with investors abroad. Daulat would allow an insurance company to retain higher profits".
Fayyaz Qureshi (30) and Ishfaq ul Hassan (44), both jewelers from Rawalpindi, are looking at partnerships with Indian jewelery manufacturers for designs, machinery, as well as skills. They've heard that Indian artisans are flown to Karachi via Dubai for 2-3 months to train Pakistani artisans, but feel this should happen legally and directly, rather than through such circuitous routes.
It is quite apparent that the business community is pressing both governments to liberalise trade relations and move towards unification of commerce in the subcontinent, alongside opening up the borders for people to move more freely. "The border is a line, not a chain that cannot be broken' says Ishfaq ul Hassan. Besides business interests, both the sides have roots across the international border. Ishfaq, from Rawalpindi, had tears in his eyes speaking of his desire to kiss the land in Jalandhar where his forefathers are cremated.
Interestingly, at the conference, Oxford graduate Masrur Scheik, the leader of the Pakistani delegation, was presented national flags by students from 32 different countries studying at Pune's Symbiosis Institute; the Pakistani flag was missing, even as those from the far corners of the world were at hand. Masrur promised to take the message home to politicians in Pakistan, to open borders to students. Dr Amber Faisal (40), a paediatrician from Lahore, held talks with Ruby Hall hospital in Pune for training Pakistani nurses. Dr Sanwal Das Manwani, the sole Hindu delegate among the visitors, runs a 36-bed hospital in Lahore; he was considering importing medical equipment from India. "The fear psychosis is the making of media", he says, adding rhetorically that if things were all that bad for Hindus in Pakistan, how is it that they continue to stay there.
Andleeb Ahmar says that when she told her nine year-old daughter about her India visit, the daughter wrinkled her nose in disgust, uttering "India, ummm". Andleeb explained that we are the same people and unless you respect all religions, you are not a good human being. A week later, the young one said "Mamma, even I want to go to India". Ahmar says we have a responsibility to teach our children positive things about each other, and not allow their minds to be shaped by political forces alone.
Many of the Pakistani delegates confessed they had apprehensions about this first visit to India, and their families and friends back home were worried they might not come back safely! They were pleasantly surprised to find a warm reception not only at the conference, but on the streets and in shops too. Overwhelmed by affections, young Dhanji said that he did not feel like going back to Pakistan! The way Samir Gulzar put it, "99.9999 per cent of the Pakistani people want peace and it is only that 0.0001 per cent that is causing trouble. We better ignore the one stupid issue (meaning Kashmir) they are fighting over."