Although it may be hard to believe, the sight of Indians and Pakistanis talking to each other is not at all unusual. Despite the barbed wires that separate people of the two ‘enemy’ nations, one finds Indians and Pakistanis connecting beyond physical and mental barriers. With the help of virtual technologies, it is no longer an uphill task to connect with someone from across the border. While one-off interactions are quite common, an Indo-Pak peace building initiative recently introduced a peace building course that aimed to facilitate interaction between select individuals in an organized and structured manner for a longer duration of time.
Aaghaz-e-Dosti (AED), a civilian peace building initiative spearheaded by Mission Bhartiyam, a Delhi based non-profit and The Catalyst, based in Pakistan, working for normalization of relations between the two countries through people-to-people contact, introduced a novel peace building course called ‘Friends Beyond Borders’. For the first season of the course, which ran for eight weeks, AED received around 80 applications from different parts of India and Pakistan, small and big areas alike. This eight-week intense, interactive course, paired an Indian and a Pakistani through a mentor who was responsible for moderating interaction between them. The participants were designated as Indo-Pak E-Pals or Fellows. Devika Mittal, an AED convener, described the course as intending to “facilitate people-to-people communication, generate a culture of mutual respect and understanding, strengthen bonds of friendship, and develop a faculty of critical thinking for participants to be able to accept and move ahead with differences”. In her views, what South Asia requires at the moment is a celebration of differences to be able to counter extremist narratives of hate and violence.
As part of the course, twelve cross-border pairs interacted on several broad themes including politics, culture, religion, media, and society. Each week, the pairs were given discussion points, activities, and resources on a particular subject. They then explored the topic and worked on theme-based assignments as a pair. Participants spent the first five weeks learning about diversity in terms of religion, language, culture in India and Pakistan, common challenges faced by both countries, role of media in the Indo-Pak relationship, and a basic introduction to peace and conflict resolution.
I spoke to four participants and two mentors about their experience of participating in the course.
Akshay Mankar, an undergraduate student at Hidayatullah National Law University, India, was paired with Salma Noureen, an educator from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. Akshay shared that his motivation to apply for the course was to contribute towards the noble goal of peace. “Before the course, my perception was that Pakistanis have a single identity; that as Muslims. It is from this course that I learnt of the diversity of identities in Pakistan, both Muslim and non-Muslim. I also used to blame Pakistan for all the problems in the Indo-Pak relationship. I have now realized that this is not correct. Both nations have their fair share of blame.” For Akshay’s project partner Salma Noureen, this was the second time she was involved in a cross-border peace building exchange. For Salma, no nationality teaches people to be prejudiced and biased. Hence, judging people based on their nationality is a narrow-minded exercise. Through her interaction with Indians so far, particularly in this course, Salma believes, “they are more concerned, aware of the changing world, and are able to see things in a broader perspective”. As a Pakistani, she feels that she has more to connect with on a common ground with Indians than disagree with them. During the course, Salma witnessed a glimpse of what she refers to as the ‘diversity of India’. She was ignorant of the many dimensions of India and the course helped her enrich her understanding of India. Akshay shares that Salma taught him to be optimistic for peace and strengthened his belief in humans striving for humanity on the other side of the border.
Yashika Pahwa and Madeeha Dogar, two young ladies from India and Pakistan respectively, was the other pair that I spoke with. Madeeha is a teacher's assistant with ACE International Academy, Islamabad. Yashika has a Masters Degree in Psychology. Yashika, who aspired for a more serious and deeper conversation than the occasional informal interactions that she’d had with Pakistanis earlier, was convinced about this course right from the beginning. Despite the considerable age gap between the two, Yashika and Madeeha broke the ice as soon as they began talking. Their common belief in being sensitive to alternate realities helped them through the course's journey. “Today, Madeeha is a good friend on whom I rely for advice, with whom I happily share my problems just like I would do with my friends here in India. I have learnt that Pakistan is a great country which has amazing talent with a potential to make impact at the global level”, Yashika recounts. Madeeha on the other hand recalled being inspired by her father’s interactions with Indians while he was studying. Her views of India came from Indian dramas, leading her to believe that Indians are mean, opportunistic, and can never be trusted. Her imagination of India was more ‘Hindu’ than a country that accommodates more religions and cultures than one can even imagine. Talking to Yashika, she says, changed all of that. They connected especially through their love for food and exchanged details of the kind of food that was popular on both sides. The pair, like others in the course, made an attempt to learn the other’s language as Madeeha wrote to Yashika in Hindi while Yashika tried doing the same in Urdu.
The mentoring process was facilitated by team members of Aaghaz-e-Dosti. The idea was not to instruct but to provide participants a flexible platform to help them build their interactions. Imrana Qasim from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, who mentored Fatima Shah from Pakistan and Aasma Pratap Singh from India, spoke to me about how the friendship paradigm that this course brought forth attracted her to play the role of a mentor. She was all praise for the pair whom she credited to being open and patient to divergent views. “Through activities such as video sharing, media analysis, and sharing of cultural values, I experienced a growing friendship between the two as the course progressed. Thinking altered, misconceptions were resolved, perspectives were enhanced, and more support was built in for Indo-Pak friendship”, said Imrana. Madhulika Narasimhan, a researcher from Delhi, mentored two pairs for the course: Richard Salafia from India and Faisal Latif from Pakistan, and Jasmine Singh from India and Muhammad Saad Farooqi from Pakistan. Madhlika claims the experience allowed her to both contribute to the process of peace building, as well as gain individually from it. She said it was a challenge mentoring the pairs since they already had a defined mentality about the ‘other’. Being sensitive to their ideas and thoughts was what she deemed important. Although she denies experiencing a sense of euphoria or achievement for having interacted with Pakistanis, because of her regular conversations with people from across the border, the course did allow her to dwell in exploring the mystery that surrounds a common understanding of issues between India and Pakistan. “I felt the course gave a sense of space and freedom to the participants, allowing them room for discussion and disagreement, rather than burdening them with structured thought processes. What the participants documented, stemmed naturally from their experiences, believes Madhulika.
Friends Beyond Borders concluded in early August with fellows interacting with Dr. Meenakshi Chhabra of Lesley University, Cambridge, Dr. Dhananjay Tripathi of South Asian University, India, and Dr. Zahid Shahab Ahmed of National University of Sciences and Technology, Pakistan, through video conferencing. While sceptics continue to doubt the fruitfulness of people-to-people dialogue between Indians and Pakistanis, what a course like this demonstrates is that even if virtually, such initiatives can indeed have a potential long term impact on the way relations between India and Pakistan take shape in times to come.
You can check out the Aaghaz-e-Dosti Facebook page and follow them on Twitter at @aaghazedosti.
Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere is an independent researcher with interests in politics, gender, peace and popular culture. She has been a former UGC fellow at The Dept. of Political Science, The M.S. University of Baroda, Gujarat. She has recently submitted a PhD thesis in Political Science and is a team member with Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein
She blogs at http://www.68pagesofmylife.blogspot.com and tweets at @mailtonidhi
Written by Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere and published on 16-October-2015