last half-century has been one of mutual suspicion, bitterness and conflict
between the nations of this region. We must work towards a future full
of peace and happiness for all the people living here.
"A peaceful environment in South Asia can only be achieved if the people themselves lead the way by going s step further than their governments. Hands Across The Borders is a people's initiative in this direction," says the leader of the expedition, Akhil Bakshi., who had earlier led the Central Asia Expedition along the old Silk Route through Central Asia, Chinese Turkestan and Tibet and the Azad Hind Expedition, in the footsteps of the Indian National Army, from Singapore to Delhi.
Bakshi envisaged this expedition as a mass contact programme. The idea struck him three years ago while driving one night in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya during the Azad Hind Expedition. Over the next few months, the proposed expedition was discussed with a cross section of people and the response was immense and exciting. He visited Pakistan and Bangladesh - and discussed the expedition with friends from Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka and found that his concept of Hands Across the Borders was one shared by a vast number of South Asians.
Our 14-member team comprised of youth leaders, social activists and development workers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India. Messages of support were received from the Prime Ministers of these countries. The expedition carried goodwill messages from the Head of the Governments of India and Bhutan addressed to their counterparts in other countries. The expedition addressed thousands of meetings. The constant refrain in these meetings was: the nations of South Asia have a shared past, a shared heritage. We are united in our problems as we are united in our immense potential. This makes us natural allies. We cannot wish geography away even if we wanted to. We have already wasted 50 precious years seeing enemies in friends, fighting phantoms and ghosts. The last half-century has been one of mutual suspicion, bitterness and conflict. We must work towards a future full of peace and happiness. The coming century beckons us to make a new start, to embark on a new course based on peace not conflict, dialogue not confrontation, healthy cooperation not destructive competition.
Akhil Bakshi elaborates:
"We want the people of South Asia to realise the significance of this
common mission: the urgency to lift our masses out of poverty, ignorance
and despair. Throughout South Asia, a subcontinent rich in resources and
in the spiritual and cultural achievements of its people, millions of
men and women suffer the daily degradations of poverty and hunger:
And each day the
problems grow more urgent. If we are to meet a problem so staggering in
its dimensions, our approach must itself be equally bold. The expedition's
approach was outlined in the concept of Together Towards Tomorrow
a vast cooperative effort unparallel in magnitude and nobility
of purpose, to satisfy the basic needs of South Asian for homes, work,
health and schools. One of the points mentioned in our charter was reduction
of defence spending.
If we are successful,
if our effort is bold enough and determined enough, then the close of
this millennium will mark the beginning of a new era in the South Asian
experience. The living standards of every South Asian family will be on
the rise, basic education will be available to all, hunger will be a forgotten
experience, the need for foreign aid will have passed, and though there
will still be much to do all South Asian nations would have entered
a period of self-sustaining growth."
The Agenda For Friendship titled Together Towards Tomorrow was presented by the expedition, on behalf of the youth of South Asia to the Prime Ministers of Nepal and Bhutan and to the Foreign Ministers of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Mr Jigme Thinley, the Head of the Government of Bhutan offered to invite the expedition members to Thimpu for the SAARC Summit being held in the year 2001. The SAARC Secretary General, Mr Rodrigues, said that he would place the agenda for consideration at the next SAARC Summit being held in Kathmandu in November 1999. The agenda appeals to the leaders of South Asia to show vision and political courage and freeze all conflicts for the next ten years, reduce defence spending by 5 per cent a year and divert savings for development works; fulfill the basic needs of the masses during this period; utilise our combined knowledge in areas of space and nuclear science for the benefit of all people of South Asia; expand employment opportunities for youth by lifting all barriers to free trade; evolve a joint education system; allow unrestricted travel; and establishment of a South Asian Sports Academy and a South Asian Development Corps.
According to Sonam Tashi, a young agricultural scientist and the expedition member from Bhutan,"In South Asia, we are also united in our problems. So our future is also one. We will sink or swim together. Our people and leaders must realise this fact." Suraiya Begum, representing Bangladesh, runs a NGO for destitute women and children in distant Phulna. "Travelling through the length and breadth of South Asia I have observed how similar all of us are. Why? India seems to be a part of Bangladesh " says Suraiya. Representing Sri Lanka was Asoka, who works near Colombo for Sarvodhaya Shramdana Organisation, a movement inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. "For me it has been an opportunity of a life time. Being a devout Buddhist, I worshipped at the Golden Tooth Relic in Kandy, the Mahabodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, the temples at Kancheepuram, Tirupati, Jagannath Puri, Sarnath and Kashi; the Gurudwaras at Patna, Anantpursahib and Amritsar; the chiilas and mazaars of Sufi saints in Bangladesh, Ajmer and Fathepur Sikri; churches in Dharamsala and Dadra, Nagar Haveli; and meditated in Guru Padmasambhava's cave in Bumtang in Bhutan and the Ashrams in Sabarmati and Shirdi. This expedition has made me aware of the shared heritage of the people of South Asia," says Asoka reflecting on her experiences.
Veteran film personality Sunil Dutt has been on road with the expedition all along - through thick and thin. "I am a soldier of peace," he says. "When Akhil Bakshi gave the call for the people of South Asia to join hands and collectively work for peace and development, I decided to support his initiative." Throughout the long journey, Dutt captivated large audiences with his emotional oratory that touched the hearts of the people. "Dutt Sahib and his deep commitment to the humanist cause enhanced the credibility of our mission," remarks Bakshi. Two days before the expedition was to enter Pakistan, the Kargil conflict flared up and, after waiting for a week, our mission was temporarily brought to a halt. The course of events that followed showed how important it is for the people of South Asia to launch a common struggle for peace and development. When asked if the aims of the expedition will be met, Bakshi narrates the story of a French Marshall who asked his gardner to plant a certain tree. The gardner objected saying that the tree was slow growing and would take a hundred years to bear fruit. "In that case," said the Marshall, "we have no time to loose. Let us plant the tree this afternoon." Likewise, suggests Bakshi, we all must plant our saplings of peace today. "On behalf of the youth of South Asia, I can say with confidence that we have had enough of warmongers. We would like our great role in history to be that of peacemakers," says the optimistic expedition leader. The prayers of all the people of South Asia are with him.