Tensions between Pakistan and India seem to have eased greatly. There hasn’t been any armed conflict since the Kargil War in 1999. Last year the newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, invited the leader of the country's neighbor Pakistan to his Prime ministerial swearing-in ceremony (inauguration) in Delhi for the first time. On the flip side of the coin, however, there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome to secure Indo-Pak peace. Although the Partition took place only 6 decades ago, as suspicion and mistrust has taken root among different nationals and learned hatred penetrates children at a very early age, it is a rather justifiable concern that the shared cultural heritage between India and Pakistan, something that should lay the groundwork for mutual understanding, has been very much overlooked and might soon be forgotten. When patriotism becomes overstressed, and strict visa regulations limit people across the border from real human connection, it is very likely that they tend to see each other through abstract labels assigned to them, and miss the opportunities to build personal experiences just as human beings.
As vague and abstract a concept as the word peacebuilding may sound, it is not a subject only concerning the United Nations or world leaders. “Be the change you wish to see in this world”, as Mahatma Gandhi once said. Although that is something much easier said than done, we believe in the power of civic engagement and that fundamental social transformation requires changes from grassroots. Born and raised in India, Chintan Girish Modi, the founder of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, shares the same vision. Passionate about forging and encouraging cross-border friendships as a path to peace, he takes a personal approach to Indo-Pak peace activism.
Ever since he was a child, Chintan was always curious about the other side of the border. "When I was a child, people would ask which countries I would like to visit when I grow up. I would say Pakistan. That is an unusual answer for an Indian child to give. I used to be told I was stupid, and that Pakistan was not safe for me to go to. I was told that Indians who go there don't come back," says Chintan during the interview. As much as he was told to hate the neighboring country, his genuine interest and curiosity could not be that easily undermined. He wanted to see the reality on the other side of the border with his own eyes. The opposite of those warnings turned out to be true. Put the learned hatred aside, he was able to make good friends with many Pakistanis. National identities are not and should not be an issue. What matters in friendships are the shared values and genuine heartfelt connections. During his trips to Pakistan, he could communicate with Pakistanis with few language barriers and have relaxing conversations with cab drivers about Bollywood music. In particular, participating in cross-border educational exchanges has provided Chintan the precious opportunities to get in touch with Pakistani children. The enthusiasm and curiosity of those children impressed him the most. They are just as curious about India as he was about Pakistan when he was a child. They asked him to write down their names in Hindi and greeting words so that they could share them with their friends. They also had tons of questions about what it is like in India. Compared to the power of such human connections, learned hatred and hostility cannot be more futile. “Even as an adult, today, I find that those who seek to explore transnational identities can be called names, dismissed as naive, and have clouds of doubt looming over their integrity. In this scenario, some of us can feel completely bewildered because we see suffering as suffering– on this side of the border, and that. We see competing needs, values and narratives– not someone in the right, someone else in the wrong,” writes Chintan in his article Expanding My Heart published by Voices Breaking Boundaries, an arts organization based in Texas, a southern state in the US.
Such experiences have been so rewarding that Chintan was inspired to share them and offer an alternative narrative to the one overwhelmed with hatred and hostility. In the gray zone between peace and war, there is still so much to accomplish. Chintan launched the initiative last year, in 2014. On the Valentine’s Day of 2015, the launching of the website marked the first anniversary of Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein. The website aims at creating an online platform that showcases voices of peace and mutual respect. Stories of cross-border friendships between Indians and Pakistanis are shared to reinforce the idea that there is an alternative to suspicion, hostility and learned hatred, and highlight the shared cultural heritage of the people of India and Pakistan as a basis for recognizing and celebrating their shared humanity. Friendships Across Borders also works in collaboration with schools, colleges and universities to introduce a pedagogy of peace and to share positive stories from 'the other side'. The idea behind it is to build cross-border friendships to transform the narrative of suspicion, fear, and hatred that remains in the India-Pakistan context. People-to-people contact has the power to build trust and overcome decades-long animosity between nation states. Given the dark history during and after the Partition, a sustainable future for the Indo-Pak relations requires healing and reconciliation from grassroots.
In addition, Chintan has extensive experience in conducting workshops engaging young students and raising the awareness of issues concerning peacebuilding initiatives. Through creative activities such as storytelling, art, and quizzes, he devotes his energy to youth empowerment and tries to encourage the youth to get involved in the process of learning rather than only have himself lecturing. “Both Pakistan and India have a large population of youth and many of them use online tools such as email, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Skype. We need to find creative ways of using these tools and bringing them together to build a future that would affirm the well-being of people in both countries,” says Chintan.
Sofie Chen is a liberal arts student in Shanghai. Her interests cover gender equality and social transformation. She’s also working with the Indo-Pak SarhadPaar Peacebuilding Campaign.
Written by Sofie Chen and published on 26-April-2015