Nothing works better than a big smile and a tight hug when it comes to making friends. These are time-tested principles and I saw them work their magic once again on women and students from Pakistan who visited Mumbai recently.
Five Pakistani women were hosted by the sociology department of Mumbai University and the Austria-based NGO Women Without Borders to contemplate on the 26/11 terrorist act in Mumbai three years ago, and to together look for new ways forward to a more happy and healthy relationship between India and Pakistan.
The theme unravelled before a packed auditorium of about 300 Mumbai students was New Hope for a New Beginning? Breaking Down Barriers between Indian and Pakistani Youth. The students from Pakistan admitted that at first they were not sure whether they would even get a visa to travel to Mumbai. They also wondered if the audience in Mumbai would be hostile towards them due to the tragic events of 26/11.
The Pakistani students found accommodation at the university guest house, and were overwhelmed at the appreciation and hospitality shown to them in Mumbai. During the three days spent on the campus many smiles, hugs and gifts were shared apart from ideas. It was inspiring to see young people from both sides of the border eager to contribute to a more dignified and graceful relationship between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed neighbours at war with each other for over six decades.
The young are frustrated that all friendly efforts made by ordinary people are constantly threatened by repeated acts of intolerance and senseless violent extremism. Without undermining the importance of high-level negotiations between governments, the idea is to continue an uninterrupted, frank and friendly flow of ideas, particularly among the youth of both countries. The meet also celebrated the role of countless women who have already been in the forefront of reaching out to those across the border – despite the fact that their contribution is seldom recognised in the face of official community leaders who are mostly older men.
The Mumbai meet was an occasion to honour Gandhians like Pushpa Bhave, Vice-President, Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), who shared her decades-long-experience against violent extremism, with the future generation. It was also to get one generation of female activists like Bhave and Ritu Dewan to pass on the baton to the next generation, in the hope of inspiring them to demand a more gender-inclusive approach to all negotiations on peace and prosperity
within the South Asian region, whether at the community or state level.
Dewan is a professor of economics at Mumbai University and a long-time member of PIPFPD, the largest people-to-people organisation of Indians and Pakistanis. PIPFPD was born in 1994 to include civil society views on all matters, including the presence of the military in Kashmir to the common love of Indians and Pakistanis for Bollywood films. The conclusion of all those against violent extremism is that the politics of confrontation has brought no benefit to ordinary people. It is no secret that even a little reduction of tension between India and Pakistan will allow the South Asian region to make galloping economic progress.
Despite strict travelrestrictions, more than 200 Pakistanis were given visas recently to attend the last meet of the PIPFPD held last December in Allahabad. However, a last minute, police reporting visa issued to Beena Sarwar miffed the Pakistani editor of the peace initiative Aman ki Asha so much that she chose not to attend the Mumbai meet. Which is a pity because Beena is not only a prominent media personality, but one who stands tirelessly for an unconditional no war pact between India and Pakistan.
The Mumbai meet was followed by a reflective session where participants explored different possibilities of cross-border collaboration in the future. Considering how the world has changed and the exciting role of new media in all our lives, Professor Arshi Saleem Hashmi from Islamabad’s National Defence University promised to help more students in Pakistan to prolong the dialogue online.
This is Me Who are You? is a group already increasing in membership on Facebook, with a blog where participants share experiences and ideas about relevant research projects, and discourage stereotyping of each other.
The anticipation is that creative use of new media tools and hectic sharing of literature, photographs, and live and streaming videos of life as lived across the border will inspire all ordinary citizens in South Asia to become the change that they are so desperate to see around them.