Seamstress in Punjab pins her future on peace talks

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The Independent Online

The world will be watching when General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan becomes south Asia's first leader to visit Camp David next week, but no one more intently than a shy 19-year-old Indian seamstress called Shahida Kalo.

The stark, back-street room where she runs up dresses for 40 rupees (45p) on an ancient Basant sewing machine could hardly be more removed from the American President's rural retreat, a place reserved for entertaining America's special foreign friends. Yet she has a profound personal interest in what happens there.

At Tuesday's meeting, George Bush will overlook the general's illegal seizure of power in a 1999 coup because of his limited moves to restore democracy, reward him for joining the so-called war on terror and cajole him to do more. But he will also encourage President Musharraf to press on with the shuffle towards peace-making India and Pakistan started in the spring, albeit haltingly and amid deep mutual suspicion.

Ms Kalo's future hinges on this process. The issue of war and peace between these neighbours, who only last summer were brandishing nuclear weapons at each other, determines fundamental personal issues: it will decide whether she has children soon, and where and how she lives.

Her home is in Malerkotla, a bustling town of 100,000 amid the paddy-fields and brick factories of the Punjab in India on the fertile northern-western plain that abuts Pakistan's border. The town is the state's only Muslim-majority community. It was also among the few places to escape the sectarian bloodshed that struck the Punjab when it was split by the 1947 Partition. Hundreds of thousands were killed as millions of Hindus and Muslims fled to either side of the new border.

But the Muslims of Malerkotla, 70 per cent of the population, maintained ties with relatives in Pakistan, sometimes strengthening these by marriage. So there was nothing unusual in the decision of Ms Kalo's family to arrange for her to marry a distant cousin, a 22-year-old tailor called Asef who lives in Lahore on the Pakistani side of the border.

Two years ago, the match was sealed when both families met for a traditional "ring ceremony", exchanging bracelets and clothes. Ms Kalo was allowed to see her prospective groom once, although only exchanging glances. Then a deadly attack by militants on the Indian parliament caused a hiatus in India-Pakistan relations. In December 2001, the border slammed shut, leaving the couple, and others like them, in limbo. It has remained closed. Now Ms Kalo feels "very sad and very angry" that rival governments are controlling her fate. She has spoken only once to her husband-to-be, and that was by telephone four days ago. They are now daring to hope. "He told me, 'Don't worry, when the border reopens I will get you over here'," she said, "He told me he loved me; my heart started beating very fast. I was very excited, and thrilled."

Both countries fear the other will gain favour, and political advantage and military deals, by agreeing to send troops to Iraq. India's hardline Deputy Prime Minister, L K Advani, who went to see President Bush and Tony Blair before Mr Musharraf's trip, described Pakistan as an "epicentre of terror". The general has appeared to threaten a repeat of Kargil, the battle three years ago over Kashmir. This drew counter-rumblings from India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who in April talked of extending the "hand of friendship", and of his army inflicting a "fourth defeat" on Pakistan.

And Kashmir remains a massive obstacle. India continues to scoff at General Musharraf's claims to have cracked down on militant infiltration across the Line of Control that divides it. Yesterday, 15 people, mostly civilians, were injured in grenade attacks on police in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Yet there has been progress. Moves are afoot to reopen the bus route on 1 July between Lahore and Amritsar, the Punjab's two old cities on either side of the border, 30 miles apart. This promises to bring an end to the separation of Ms Kalo and her betrothed. By India's standards, its 24 million Punjabis live in a state blessed with good fortune. It has water - with the nearby Himalayas, four big rivers and a British-built canal system - a prosperous diaspora in the United States and Britain, rich farmland, the best transport and communications infrastructure in the country, and the highest per capita income in India.

The closure has blocked a historic trading route and both sides are paying the price. "The benefit of opening the border would run into many millions of dollars," said Amjad Ali, 49, managing director of Sohrab, a group of spinning and furniture-making companies in Malerkotla. He believes the economics alone dictate peace. "In the end, there is no other way out." Ms Kalo, the seamstress, earnestly hopes he is right.

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