A smart move, but maybe futile.
By Sujeet Rajan
WASHINGTON, DC: Amidst a war-like situation at the Line of Control, with frequent border skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops, which has claimed lives of soldiers on both sides in the last month, spurt in terrorist infiltrations into India, and renewed talk by Pakistan of a ‘resolution’ to Kashmir – which has infuriated India – something strange is happening: mushrooming civil diplomacy initiatives to bring the people of the two nations closer.
News broke out today that the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent flowers to the ruling UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi when she was in hospital in New Delhi last week, with a ‘Get Well’ message. No word yet if Gandhi smelled the flowers, what her response was – she is at present in the US on a medical visit.
News also came in today that the Stimson Center – a think tank here that conducts research and offers policy ideas on global peace and security challenges – has launched a website called ‘South Asian Voices: Generation Why’ (http://southasianvoices.org/) to stimulate a cross-border dialogue.
“This new website is designed to serve a new generation of young analysts in India and Pakistan to enable them to find common ground and communicate directly with each other on security issues that now divide their nations,” Stimson President and CEO Ellen Laipson said, in a press release.
It doesn’t end there. The Center, with the help of funds from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, will also select each year two Indian and two Pakistani bloggers as visiting fellows at the Stimson Center for a year; help them hobnob with Capitol Hill gentry.
“We’re calling this a website for Generation Why because talented young analysts in India and Pakistan are questioning why relations remain so strained between their countries,” Stimson co-founder Michael Krepon said.
The website itself is loaded with intellectual blogs and commentaries from academics, from India and Pakistan, with a lone voice from the US: Rabia Akhtar, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Security Studies Department at Kansas State University. Her dissertation is titled “Legislative History of U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy towards Pakistan.”
Stimson’s noble intention, smacks however, of just yet another gated avenue for academics to strive for a fellowship to the US. Lost perhaps would be the most important voice of all: the common man of the two countries, people who live on the borders, the families of soldiers who have needlessly died, in the Kargil War. People who have been ruined because of riots, hate another community because of their religion. Their voice, which resonates more strongly than all the academics of both the countries combined, won’t be heard in the corridors of Capitol Hill; they won’t get a chance to air their grievances and misgivings about their neighbor across the border.
But Stimson is not alone in trying to foster bilateral relations between the people of the two countries. A spate of such initiatives in the last month has taken place, in Canada, India and Pakistan.
Naheed Hassan, the Founder of Indireads (www.indireads.com), an e-publishing company based in Toronto, Canada, that specializes in writers of South Asian origin, released a collection of short stories called Love Across Borders that featured romantic fiction from Indian and Pakistani writers, and gave the collection away free to coincide with the independence day of both the countries.
Hassan, who has an MBA from the Harvard Business School, and an MPA in International Development from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, left a career in the corporate world, to launch her publishing company. She says it’s time to move on from the horrible violence of the partition, and forge new ties.
“For nearly 70 years now, what we have heard are stories of loss, death and maybe even hatred amongst people living in India and Pakistan, across the two sides of the border,” says Hassan. “The events of 1947, with the post-partition violence and uprooting, were undoubtedly tragic but isn’t it time that we moved on from those stories, and tried to create newer narratives – of hope and love?”
Hassan also voices a concern, which may concern the folks at Stimson heralding the new initiative for bloggers.
“A philosophical, preacher-like approach towards peace just leads young people away, which is an opportunity lost, so we decided to implement a much more subtle approach. The objective with this collection is not to deny long-established facts, but highlight the many positive stories that surround us every day,” said Hassan, who points out that “military and the politicians and political agendas is what drives all relations at the state level.”
The anthology got endorsements and support from prominent personalities, including lyricist Javed Akhtar, actress Shabana Azmi, writer Amitava Kumar, former American envoy to Pakistan Cameron Munter, and the publisher of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Hameed Haroon.
Another cross-border initiative last month was a joint effort by the Karachi-based PeacheNiche and the New Delhi-based investigative news website, Tehelka, who launched a platform called Baatcheet, to give an opportunity for people of both countries to communicate with each other on social issues.
The month-long project saw over 40 students from the media and visual arts department of Karachi University interact and collaborate through social media with journalism students of AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Another niche effort called Skype Dosti project, connected 10 teenage students from both Pakistan and India on Skype.
Despite all these initiatives – including Sharif’s flower diplomacy – the fact remains that the relations between India and Pakistan are fragile. Almost daily there are reports of exchange of gunfire at the LoC. With the upcoming general elections next year, and the worsening situation in Kashmir after a few years of peace, India holds deep reservations against Pakistan, suspect their motives. Those feelings have percolated strongly through the media to shape people’s opinions. The recent arrests of terrorists from Pakistan on Indian soil, who masterminded some of the biggest attacks against India, have not helped foster ties. The state-controlled media in Pakistan have turned a large swath of the population in the country into rabid India haters.
In the US, the dynamics are different than on the sub-continent. While it’s easy to create projects geared towards fostering people-to-people relations, there are underlying factors that determine friendship between people of the two countries.
The people of Pakistan in the US are also viewed plainly as Muslims, a term that evokes for many images of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bombings in Boston, forced the NYPD to carry out surveillance at mosques, earmarked the places of worship as ‘terrorist organization.’ That term continues to haunt America of a future threat on its soil.
The roots of distrust for South Asians and those from the Middle East run deep, and that in turn prevents the Indians and Pakistanis from hobnobbing too closely with each other, especially first generation immigrants, apart from students on campuses where South Asian Students Association bring communities together.
In Love Across Borders, a short story by Adiana Ray dwells upon the subconscious hostility that Indians and Pakistanis have for each other, where hatred prevails over civility. In that story, two cosmopolitan desis meet in Boston. The generations of pride, rivalry and competitiveness ingrained in them, prevail, as light-hearted banter turns to jibes, and then turns ugly.
More than fostering a dialogue between their neighbor across the border, Indians and Pakistanis in the US have a far greater fear, that they don’t become part of a mainstream dialogue for every terrorist attack that happens here.
Take this latest case of hatred for Muslims coming from an assistant manager at a Walmart store in Hamburg, NY. He reportedly posted a photo of Muslim customers on Facebook, along with the comment: “Halloween came early this year. . .do they really have to f**kin dress like that. . .your [sic] in my country. . .get that f**kin s*** off!!!!!!”
The manager was fired from his job today.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar).
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