Pakistan – The Country of My Friends

Indo-Pak friends devika mittal (india) and aliya harir, saba khalid, namra nasir, raza khan (pakistan)

As I think of friendships across the border, my first memory goes back to the days of yahoo messenger, chatrooms and orkut! I would often visit the Pakistan chat room just out of curiosity. I can’t recall if I had made any friend from there through this. I owe my first friend from Pakistan to Harry Potter! Though my memory is posing serious challenges but what I certainly remember that I was able to strike not one but several conversations with so much ease with this one friend from Pakistan. I don’t even know if this person will even remember me because we lost touch and it has been so many years now but I certainly remember my first friend from Pakistan and I thank him because I think that it was probably because of him that I never ever had any hatred for a Pakistani.

The second round of friendships came with my admission time and entry in South Asian University (SAU). I will want people to genuinely believe me that one of the things that I imagined about SAU and which motivated me to apply was meeting Pakistanis! My fascination was derived out of my new found understanding of our past, the horror of our past actually. On both sides, we are often exposed to very biased and one-sided accounts of what had happened. I had got the opportunity to explore that the horror was also shared by both sides and I was filled with guilt and remorse. It makes me emotional everytime I think about what we did to each other. It disturbed me and I could not think of a way to make things fine. The only thing that came to my mind was to probably reach out to the “other”. I had befriended a Pakistani student aspirant during admission time and though he never joined the university, we became friends! His name was Zeeshan and as again my memory challenges me, I can’t remember much details. But what I clearly remember is that how when we started sharing photographs of our cities and when I saw photographs of a Pakistani city (forgetting which city it was..but I think it was Islamabad), I said “Yaar ye to foreign country lag rai hai” (This looks like a foreign country) and he laughed and said that yes it is foreign indeed.. it is Pakistan! I think this explains how our bond was. I had forgot the “difference”!

In the university with students from all 8 SAARC countries, the bonding was strongest with Pakistani students primarily because we spoke the same language. I also always feel that when Indians and Pakistanis meet, they are very extra sweet to each other! I somehow think it is because we carry the past baggage for which we try to make up for.  

My third and strongest round of friendships have come with Aaghaz-e-Dosti. It has helped me to not only get such close friends but actually family members across the border! I must reiterate that I do not like to write fancy and do not exaggerate. Visiting Pakistan for me solely meant visiting my friends. Because of the conflict and a culture of stereotypes and mutual suspicion, when we travel to Pakistan or a Pakistani travels to India, he/she is given many unwanted advices. People would say that they pray that we will come back alive. When I went to Pakistan, I also had such concerned friends in India. I must say that not even for one second, did I feel scared. Infact, I felt so much scared when I was to travel to Europe. With Pakistan, I did not feel any such feeling. I attribute this to my friends and “family” in Pakistan. My birthday was a day prior to my travel to Pakistan but I celebrated a second birthday in Pakistan. All thanks to Namra. I had really not imagined it and I don’t think I ever got a bigger birthday surprise than that in my life. There is a lot more that my beautiful, bold and so hard working friend did for me which I am not sure if I can ever return. My elder brother Raza bhai was I think on his heels during the entire trip. I don’t think I can ever say enough about how good he is. I was taken such good care by my two elder sisters – Safia didi and Summi didi. Then there were some non-Lahoris without whom my trip to Pakistan would have been incomplete. The time that I spent with the Pashto Poet-Philosopher Rauf, adorable Imrana, charming but very mischievous Huma and ofcourse Aliya without whom I cannot even imagine my daily life was when I secretly was so angry thinking about the culture of hatred and conflict that has been constructed. I had also got the opportunity to make so many new friends. While it is always customary to talk good about one’s hosts and for the right reasons that they really try so hard to get you across the border, I want to talk about the two university hosts for the bond that they had initiated which they were not compelled to. They were not compelled to wait for us hours before our arrival on the Wagah Border. They were not compelled to invite us to their home, invite us to meet their family members. Though I really feel guilty of not having done so and wish that the offer was not of limited time period, I was deeply moved by such a gesture. I had also got another new very wonderful friend named Zeeshan whom again I did not know previously but who really made sure that I didn’t ever feel alone. While I take a lot of time to talk freely with new people, I feel that he really broke that bubble so instantly through his friendly and humble nature. I met Dr. Wasif Ali Waseer who took out time from his busy schedule to be with us throughout the two days and had also made us met his really lovely wife Saba and with whom I bonded over some Indian serials.  While I think of all this, I am also reminded how these are all supposedly my enemies who were supposed to hate me. 

Pakistan means a lot to me and the reason are my friends and I have all kinds of friends, I should say. I have friends who are as good as family. I have brothers like Umair Bhai, Raza Bhai, Mujtaba, Adil, Zuhaib, Jahanzeb, younger brothers like Hussain, Syed Zeeshan Ali Shah, Faizan, Owais, sisters like Nazzia didi, Saba, Natasha, Imrana, Warda, Zoya, Suraya and very adorable younger sisters – Fatima and Mahrosh. I have friends like Poonamchand, Warda, Faisal and Asad on whom I can always depend on. I have found friends like Ashraf, Sehyr, Shabbir, Zeeshan Ahmed and Saif with whom I can engage in discussions on even critical issues. Pakistan has given me friends, mentors, inspirations. It continues to bless me with friends. With this, I must mentioned my newest friend from Pakistan – Dr. Munir whom I met in a conference on Human Rights Education in Germany. The Conference had seen practitioners and scholars from different countries and while it was an honor to interact and learn from all of them, the interaction with the Pakistani participant was certainly very different. It didn’t take us even seconds to bond and the bonding became so strong that once I ended up counting 4 Indians in the conference (there were 3 Indians and 1 Pakistani).

My friendships have helped me to understand conflict, to understand it from different angles, understand the complexities and more importantly, on how futile the conflict is.

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The Weapon of miscommunication

Aman Chaupal at Columbia Foundation School

Aman Chaupal with Saeeda Diep ji

“Do Hindus live in Pakistan?”, asked a young girl to Ms. Saeeda Diep, a Peace activist from Pakistan.

With a smile, she replied, “Yes, my dear. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and people of many other religious faiths live in Pakistan”.

“How are they treated?”

“Why doesn’t the Pakistan Government control terrorism?”

“Why did the army behead Indian soldiers?”

These were some of the many questions that students of a school in Delhi had asked the peace activist during an interactive session called Aman Chaupal, an initiative of Aaghaz-e-Dosti aimed towards Indo-Pak friendship. It was a small room with about 50 students heavily-equipped with questions and a lady with a serene and smiling face. She answered all the questions with an unchanging expression of calmness and with a warm smile. This was because she was on a mission. She was out to face the weapon of miscommunication. “We have about 20 Indian channels but you people do not have a single channel so you know nothing about Pakistan. We have not been able to present ourselves to you.” So after each question, she would say, “please ask more questions”.

Having some level of communication with people from Pakistan, I could not help laughing when the politically-charged questions didn’t stop. But I was not surprised at those questions. Infact, I, like Saeeda ji, was happy that they asked these questions because then they won’t think that we were there to “pacify” or “convince” them. Yet, I must admit that I was surprised to see that she had a calm and beaming face throughout the session.

Her words as well as those questions have stayed with me. She had emphasised on the lack of communication and the hawkish media that our Indian democracy has granted us. I would completely agree with her on this. The media is the fourth pillar of democracy yet in our country, it is not independent and is biased. It carries the burden of invoking nationalist fervor and in doing so, it often ends up with arousing jingoistic sentiments.

The media was at its worst best during the case of Sarabjit Singh when Sarabjit was made a “national martyr” and the attack on Sanaullah Ranjay was seen as a “reaction”. The same can be said for the border clash of January. There was no reporting at that time. The news channels were busy running documentaries. I often find it a little surprising that the media which is desperate to do something ‘innovative” does not ever attempt to consult the “other” side. There is a clear divide between what the major newspapers of both the sides report. Yet, no attempt is made by either sides to come up with a neutral source. No-one ever gets to know the “truth” and actually, it seems that no side is even interested to know. Why? There are reasons and the reasons are political.

This is a weapon and a far lethal one. The military clashes are short-lived. There is a ceasefire but this weapon is not short-lived. It is a slower process but much more effective. It allows for the proliferation of hatred to people beyond the direct sufferers. It is effective enough to make peace, a fantasy of the “liberal”. A resource for many, it helps to create an unchallenged “need” for war, for hatred. The war mandate rests on the unchallenged assumption that the “other” hates us. Thus, it is an important raw material for what Saeeda ji had said, a “war industry”. This also explains why there are attempts to disrupt any efforts to enhance people-to-people communication between the countries. Miscommunication is essential for hatred and suspicion.

In contrast to this is communication. It would be hard to find someone who has been to the other side of the border or has had some level of communication, with a negative opinion about them. With so much to talk about, share, in one’s own language (Hindi for us, urdu for them), it becomes difficult at ground level to find differences. Infact, when one meets someone from Pakistan, one is pleasantly disappointed because the image of a different “other” is shattered. Communication is the key to all our problems and so Saeeda ji had concluded the session with the statement,

“We will make efforts to connect you with children of your age so that you can see Pakistan from our eyes, not from your media’s eyes.” 

Visa for trust and friendship

Can you imagine the situation where we can meet a stranger who looks very different from us, speaks a different language and has different beliefs and values easily but can’t meet our own brother? Or when we are allowed to travel thousands of kilometers without much hassle but to travel mere 50 kms, we have to give a thousand reasons, documents of all kinds and wait endlessly but without any assurance of success?

Such is the relationship between India and Pakistan. Even after 65 years of the fateful parting of ways, India and Pakistan has failed to establish a normal relationship.  Even after several efforts by the civil society in both countries, the states refuse to surrender their ego and help in establishing in trust. However, people in both countries have acted much more mature and have moved on. They are ready for a strong bond of friendship and brotherhood. Many Pakistanis cross the border for medical treatments. Similarly, traders and business men have also increasingly moved beyond the borders. Education has also emerged to be a reason forcrossing over to India. Music has been one of the strongest agents for the change in indo-pak relations.

But, a little problem in the states’ relations and the next thing you know, the singer has been sent back or has been barred from coming to India. There have also been reports where the singer blames the organizers in the host country for not helping in the visa, leading to major tussles.  The most severely affected people are those who come to India for medical treatments and what about those who have relatives here? People, especially, in the border areas, have relatives in Pakistan and vice versa. Can we imagine their pain of not being able to see their relatives for years? I have read stories where siblings got separated during the partition. Thevisa problem is more severe for Kashmir. A Pakistani is not allowed to visit Kashmir. What about the Pakistanis who have relatives in Kashmir? Why can’t he visit them?

India has also appealed to Pakistanis in the field of education. Many students apply but they are also denied visa. Reasons include frequent visits to India, involvement with an NGO in Pakistan etc.  

There are also other restrictions concerning the visa. The processing time is too long. A Pakistani can not only visit Kashmir but has to apply the visa for a specific city. Multiple visits are also a problem.

It is not to say that security should not be considered, but we need to know who to target. Once in India, the Pakistani is, anyways, closely watched by the intelligence groups. The rule of applying for a particular city should be lifted. The person should be instead asked to report where he is going and for what, to the authorities. The authorities must monitor that. Those who have relatives or are here for education or medical treatment should also be debarred from the un-necessary hassle. Regarding the security, the reality is that the demons that conspire against India to unleash hell do not face much problem in getting the visas but the people with good intentions face all the hell in the world.

The Governments have recently announced that reforms will be introduced in the visa policy and it will become friendlier. We hope that it happens as without meeting each other, how can we think of friendship? How can we trust each other if we don’t get to interact? The misunderstandings exist because we don’t know each other, we have not seen each other, and we have not visited each other’s country? If we have friends in Pakistan, can we ever think of doing any harm to that country? The misunderstandings and suspicion exists because we think we are different. But are we, who speak the same language, look just the same, hold same values and beliefs and the same desire to visit each other’s country, really different?

also posted at: 

Rising Kashmir http://www.risingkashmir.in/news/visa-for-trust-and-friendship-31485.aspx

Counter Currents http://www.countercurrents.org/mittal090812.htm

The Samosa http://www.thesamosa.co.uk/2012/08/16/india-and-pakistan-visa-for-trust-and-friendship/