Cross-border friendships: A Dreamer’s Recipe for Peace
What inspired you to be a peacebuilder? Any reasons for specifically choosing to work on India-Pakistan issues?
I am not sure if there is a special category of person called ‘peacebuilder’. I feel personally perturbed by the animosity that India and Pakistan have built towards each other for decades, and I want this to change. People in both countries have many stereotypes about each other, thanks to how we learn about the other side from history books, and more so from the media. Politicians, of course, know how to whip up nationalist sentiments at the drop of a hat, and spread hate. This makes me deeply upset because the focus is deepening divides instead of celebrating our shared heritage and interconnectedness. Sitting and wishing for a transformation will yield no results if I don’t do something. This belief is what led to my getting involved in India-Pakistan exchanges aimed at improving relations between the two countries through people-to-people contact. I must be honest and say that I have done very little but I am doing what I can.
How did you begin your journey into peacebuilding?
I used to work with the Kabir Project at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. It is led by Shabnam Virmani, a documentary filmmaker and dear friend of mine, who turned to the poetry of Kabir after the violence and insanity unleashed in Gujarat in 2002. Of all her films, the one that affected me most was ‘Had-Anhad’ (Bounded-Boundless). It had a big impact on me, particularly the Pakistan sequences in the film. The ceremony at Wagah seemed absurd. The people on the other side seemed so similar to the ones on this side. Something felt utterly strange. I felt a deep sorrow but at that point of time I didn’t know that I too could do something. This experience stayed at the back of my mind. I joined the Kabir Project to look after the educational outreach aspect of their work. It was a rich and meaningful experience, soaking in the poetry of Kabir, Bulleh Shah and Mira, learning from them, and sharing that with children and teachers through workshops and interactions.
After that, I moved back to Mumbai. In 2012, while working with Shishuvan School in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to visit Pakistan as part of Exchange for Change, a project run jointly by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and a Delhi-based organization Routes 2 Roots. After that, I have participated in other peacebuilding initiatives, and also been to Pakistan twice, for the Children’s Literature Festival in Lahore in 2013, and the one in Islamabad in 2014.
Any hiccups through this journey?
Oh yes! I have come across people who think that being Indian is synonymous with being anti-Pakistan. I used to get annoyed earlier but I realized that I needed to stay calm in order to continue doing my work. Prejudices will not disappear overnight. Those who are hurting will not heal in a jiffy. In order to do peacebuilding work, one has to prepare oneself to listen to all sorts of perspectives, yet stay calm. It’s not easy. Not at all. One of my school mates once commented on my Facebook page, stating that I should give up my Indian citizenship if I love Pakistanis so much. It is a rather simplistic understanding you, see. It is possible to love Indians and Pakistanis, and Afghans, and Americans, and Tibetans, and Palestinians. Why should love and friendship be restricted only to people who share our nationality? In fact, I prefer using words like ‘friendship’ and ‘love’ over ‘peace’. Friendship sounds like something you and I can do. Peace somehow sounds distant, something that is decided by people who sign treaties and agreements.
What keeps you going in the face of these hiccups?
Hope. And people who share my hope and dreams.
Tell us about your collaborations and friendships through this journey.
I have many dear friends in Pakistan, and there are some wonderful anecdotes to share. However, given the constraints of space, I’m going to mention only the ones I’ve also collaborated with on specific programmes. Anam Zakaria and Haroon Khalid in Islamabad are the ones who come to mind immediately. I met them thanks to the Exchange for Change project I mentioned earlier. Since then, we’ve done a lot of stuff together – whether it was participating with them at WISCOMP’s Conflict Transformation Workshop in Delhi, or working with Haroon at the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, or being fellow panelists at a discussion on peace education in Islamabad. They are two of my dearest friends, and I make it a point to meet them every time I visit Pakistan.
Then there’s Shiraz Hassan, my journalist friend from Rawalpindi, who is one of the nicest people I know. He speaks little but is an amazingly warm-hearted being who I remember most for bike rides, walks through bazaars, and his unique sense of humour. Aman Ki Asha gave us the opportunity to participate in the ‘Conversations’ series, an exchange of letters over six weeks, and these got published in The News. We discussed art, history, music, literature, politics, our work, our everyday lives, the similarities and shared cultural heritage. I eventually met Shiraz in person on my second trip to Pakistan.
I’d also like to tell you about my friend Sheharyar Rizwan who lives in Lahore. He’s a journalist with Dawn, and we have been paired for this year-long programme called the Building Peace Project. We are one of ten such India-Pakistan pairs who write collaborative blogs, stay in touch through social media, and participate in online discussions around prescribed readings. I am so grateful to have discovered Sheharyar. He lives so far away but I know if I have to reach out for help, I can do that without a moment’s doubt. You see what I mean? One feels personally invested in friendships. ‘Peace’ just seems so out there.
Tell us something about Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein.
Actually, the idea is quite simple. In India, there’s so much bad news about Pakistan that it is almost impossible for a large number of people to even imagine that they could be friends with someone across the border. Similarly, in Pakistan, there are people who promote hostility towards India. I felt like there’s only so much that conferences and seminars can do. People-to-people contact is where the real stuff of peacebuilding seems to lie. I thought it would be a good idea to share stories of cross-border friendships, so I started looking for these. I got Pakistanis to write about their friends in India, and Indians to write about their friends in Pakistanis. These stories are about how they first met each other, what this friendship means to them in the context of the hostile relations between our countries, how their perceptions about the other side have changed because of this friendship, etc.
When I think of friendship, I think of warmth and caring, of opening up one’s heart to listen and be there. See, you can be friends with people of another nationality. When you find common ground over so many other things, nationality becomes just one of your many attributes. Who you are is not just your citizenship, or the country you were born into. I also visit schools and colleges, on invitation, to talk about these ideas with young people, sometimes using art, theatre and films.
What are your views on young people and their role in peace-building?
Young people living in India and Pakistan, and in the South Asian diaspora, have a very important role to play. Our countries have been in conflict for too long, and our people, societies and economies have suffered a great deal. Though a large number of young people have grown up listening to stories of Partition because their families were personally affected, many of them want to establish friendly relations with people across the border. People want the healing to happen. The pain is too much to bear. Despite the stereotypes people in both countries have about each other, many Pakistanis would love to travel to India, meet their friends and family here, visit their religious shrines, study here, or even just travel around. Similarly, several Indians would like to go to Pakistan, either to see the homes of their ancestors who migrated, or because they have friends they’ve met on Facebook, or have studied with in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, or just for tourism. It’s such a tragedy that we don’t even have enough exchange programmes for young people in both countries. Imagine Indians and Pakistanis studying together, or working at the same place. Such amazing opportunities to learn about each other, and move past our legacy of suspicion!
How has the new media contributed to peacebuilding?
Oh yes! Definitely! It’s thanks to Facebook and Twitter that thousands of young Indians and Pakistanis have got the opportunity to interact with each other without the rigmarole of applying for a visa and, if they are lucky, getting one. These are rich conversations. Young people are not talking only about India and Pakistan. They are talking about combating gender-based violence, improving education, protesting against human rights abuses, making music, conserving heritage, or even just movies and television shows they like watching. These conversations show us how shallow our stereotypes are, how urgently we need to embrace each other, say sorry, and commit ourselves to each other’s well-being.