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Punjab Caught in Fray of Politics

India-Pakistan border closures has kept apart families in the mostly Muslim community.

June 22, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MALER KOTLA, India — Nothing gilds the future of a young Punjabi couple like an engagement ring, but Shahida Kalo has had to tuck away her ring and her hopes into a box, waiting on the whims and plunges of the troubled India-Pakistan relationship.

Two years ago she was engaged at 17 to a cousin in Lahore, Pakistan, a couple of hours away by road. But 18 months ago, relations between the two nuclear powers plummeted and she had to put her wedding dreams on hold when the border closed.

The twists and turns in diplomatic rhetoric make predictions about India-Pakistan ties difficult, even for experts. As the politicians alternately beckon and bluster, Kalo eagerly follows the television news, trying to divine her future.

This mainly Muslim community is torn, with families scattered on each side of the border. Cross-border marriages among Muslims here have been traditional since the partition that created Pakistan in 1947, dividing Punjabi Muslims.

"Our culture is the same, our food is the same, our dress is the same, our language is the same," said Maler Kotla businessman Amjad Ali, 49.

Pakistan and India recently agreed to exchange high commissioners, stepping back from 18 months of hostilities when the nuclear powers came perilously close to war. The thaw melted the surface ice, but there are doubts about how far they will go to make peace in Kashmir, the core dispute.

Hanging on the latest thaw are the marriage hopes of at least one Punjabi couple and the safety of civilians in the strife-torn region of Kashmir. And businessmen like Ali, a textile and furniture manufacturer, dream of a direct trade route to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Set in a verdant patchwork of rice paddies, Maler Kotla is a prosperous Punjabi town with pin-neat streets, its market a colorful splash of summer fruit. In a country of 1 billion, where survival for many is a grinding struggle, Maler Kotla is blessed. The Himalayas pour spring waters into Punjab's four rivers and its many canals; the earth is so fertile that the state, on just 1.5% of India's landmass, provides a quarter of the nation's wheat and 10% of its rice.

The state has the best infrastructure in the nation, according to the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy, and the highest per capita income.

Water buffalo wallow luxuriously in ponds, some so deep that only their nostrils protrude. The houses are well-appointed, topped with eccentric water tanks shaped like soccer balls, cars, hats or airplanes.

Kalo, a laborer's daughter, saw her fiance, Asef Ashi, once -- four years ago -- after her parents arranged the marriage. She glanced shyly into his eyes, trying in one moment to glean what she could of her future. He was handsome, and his voice was silky. Recalling, she blushes, covers her face and giggles. Yes, she liked him.

Perhaps marriage will free her from her drudgery of sewing two dresses a day for less than $2 in a house in the back alleys of central Maler Kotla. Perhaps she will have to work harder.

Ashi, 22, works in a fabric shop. She doesn't know what his dreams are, but she's willing to work for them.

Kalo and others like her pin their hopes on an agreement between the governments to resume a bus service from New Delhi to Lahore next month.

Kalo heard nothing from her fiance until he called a few days ago, promising to bring her to Pakistan as soon as the bus line resumes. After 18 months apart they spoke just 10 minutes.

"He said I miss you and you can guess what else," she said. When Ashi told her he loved her for the first time, "I was thrilled," she added. "My heart was beating so fast. As soon as the border reopens, we'll marry.

"The entire fight between the two countries is because of Kashmir. I hope they'll solve the Kashmir problem once and for all and harmonize relations."

The border was closed and diplomatic ties were cut after an attack by Islamic militants on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 that killed 14, including five assailants. In April, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee offered peace talks if the Islamabad government closed Islamic militants' camps in Pakistan and prevented them from infiltrating Kashmir.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says that the incursions have stopped. He has called on India to take more concrete steps toward peace, but the Indians insist that the militants in Kashmir are still active. The U.S. ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, also said recently that terrorism emanating from Pakistan has not stopped.

After the border closed, some families in Maler Kotla missed relatives' weddings or funerals. Some could not visit dying relatives.

The day the border closed, Tahira Parveen, 30, was trapped on the wrong side. She managed to return to her Pakistani husband in Lahore but was deported last year, despite offering authorities proof of the marriage. She thinks that she was kicked out because relations between the countries were then at rock bottom.

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