The difficult road to peace
By Vanita Sharma: Dawan, September 13, 2007
One-off holidays or visits are a good start to breaking down barriers, but it is only when people are able to freely interact with each other not just as tourists but as colleagues and friends, that real changes will begin to take place, writes Vanita Sharma
The peace process between India and Pakistan will only succeed when the people on both sides are able to challenge the misconceptions and fears that they hold about each other.
Indian and Pakistani politicians have disagreed over the order in which political issues should be dealt with during the peace process. However, the one thing that they have both agreed upon is that restoring people-to-people contacts and rebuilding trust between the people of the region is integral to creating lasting peace.
Over the last four years, there has been considerable progress in re-establishing connections. Transport links have been reopened via air, bus and train. The ban on visas has been lifted. Cricket matches have been played and there have been numerous successful exchange visits between Indians and Pakistanis. As they have begun to re-visit each other’s countries, Indians and Pakistanis have had a chance to reassess their apprehensions about their erstwhile enemies.
Between 2003 and 2005, I lived and worked in Pakistan for several months which gave me the opportunity to experience firsthand the impact of people-to-people contact. On my first visit, I was apprehensive and had my own stereotypes. I wondered whether, as a British citizen from an Indian family, I would be welcomed or encounter hostility?
Based on the portrayal of Pakistan in the global media I questioned whether it was really safe place for me to visit alone. In the end, I need not have worried. Within days I had made a range of new friends, and throughout my stay, I received tremendous hospitality. I was never in any danger.
In contrast to the images of angry protests or terrorist training camps seen on television, I saw another side to Pakistan. I met families, students, musicians, lawyers, reporters, taxi drivers, teachers and artists. Some were Sunni, some Shia, some Ahmedi, some Hindu, some Christian and some with no religion. I talked to people with a variety of political opinions and those who were politically apathetic. I came home with a more diverse view of Pakistan
I realised that the power of even just one meeting and one conversation should not be underestimated. For example, after I gave a talk in a college in Lahore one of the female students came to speak to me.
She told me that she had expected me to be scarier and meaner and explained, “I’ve never met an Indian before. I am really surprised … you are actually nice!” We spoke only for a few minutes, but it is encounters like this that give people the chance to put a human face to the previously mysterious and frightening ‘other’.
This girl’s fears about Indians were probably not completely eradicated by our meeting, but our meeting at the very least caused her to question her assumptions. Such an encounter is the initial step required in order to dismantle the deeply ingrained prejudices that exist on both sides. But it is only the beginning.
Sceptics have questioned the value of people-to-people initiatives, arguing that encountering hospitality during a one-week visit does not automatically signal that there has been a long-term change in mentalities. There is some truth to this.
Sharing stories about my positive experiences with friends and family in the UK and India caused them to question their assumptions about Pakistan. They were surprised and inspired by the hospitality and goodwill that I had received. But whilst my experiences challenged their impression of Pakistan, it did not necessarily transform their stereotypes.
Reversing the effects that decades of hostile Indo-Pak relations have had on the mindsets of the people will not happen overnight. The prejudices that Indians and Pakistanis hold about each other permeate down to the subconscious level. It will take more than just cricket matches or a shared love for Bollywood films to dislodge them. Closer and deeper contacts are needed.
I returned to Pakistan four more times. During two of these trips, I taught history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) after the faculty invited me to apply for a job. Living in Pakistan for several months gave me the opportunity to go beyond superficial meetings and form deeper friendships.
While at LUMS, initially many of my students were attracted to my course because I was an Indian and they were curious to see what I was like. But, by the end of the semester, for many, that novelty had worn off. I was just another teacher. Someone they liked or disliked depending on whether they found my course interesting or boring, too much hard work or intellectually stimulating. I had the chance to get to know them as individuals and to help them develop as students.
In the classroom our different identities made discussions more interesting, but it also provided an environment for us to relate on a different level other than just as an Indian and Pakistanis. As teacher and students, we had an opportunity for closer and different kinds of interactions than would be possible on a holiday visit.
In order to have a real chance at changing hearts and minds, it is these types of deeper links that need to be formed. But, at present, visa restrictions continue to make this difficult. I only had the opportunity to work in Pakistan because I am a British citizen. My Indian and Pakistani colleagues (with rare exceptions) found it impossible to get teaching posts in each other’s countries. Establishing trade links is equally difficult.
One-off holidays or visits are a good start to breaking down barriers, but it is only when people are able to freely interact with each other not just as tourists, but as colleagues and friends that real changes will begin to happen. It is through these more lasting relationships that there will be a greater possibility of developing real trust and goodwill.
People-to-people contact is an important component of the peace process between India and Pakistan. However, the scope of interactions allowed needs to be expanded. Unless this happens, the impact will only be superficial and transitory.
Vanita Sharma is a Scholar of Peace Fellow with Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) and is conducting her DPhil research at Oxford University.