Planting the seeds of peace - Sq Ldr Anil Sehgal Back   Home  
If pronouncements of the forty Indian and Pakistani youth who gathered recently at Singapore are any indicators, these seemingly dreamy thoughts of the renowned poet can perhaps be safely realised.

The occasion for the gathering was a weeklong conference, ‘Focus on Kashmir’, organised by the United World College of South East Asia, at their sprawling campus in Singapore, from June 23 to 30. The programme consisted of political discussions, cultural activities and social interaction to build trust and understanding between the participants and culminated in a joint statement calling for the peaceful and non-violent resolution of the Kashmir conflict.

As the conference started, tensions and apprehensions were writ large on the faces of the participants from both warring nations. Many a session was fraught with palpable hostility and the organisers had to intervene to bring about tolerance and sanity.

Fed on the mis-information disseminated through their textbooks, media coverage and the political pronouncements of their respective regimes, the participants initially took upon themselves the roles of the proponents of their national aspirations. However, much sooner than expected, the barriers of cultivated animosity gave way to humane ways of tolerance and mutual respect and appreciation.

“We all came here to fight over Kashmir; to stick to the Pakistani position over the issue come what may,” says Rajia Abbas, a second year student of BSc (Hons) at the Lahore University of Management Studies. “We were more than sure that the Kashmir problem was a deliberate creation of India and that the people of Kashmir wanted to join their Muslim brothers in Pakistan. But after listening to the Indian point of view, I am not so sure about the issue today,” adds Rajia, one of the most vociferous members of the Pakistani contingent.

Rajia has Kashmiri blood flowing in her veins. Her maternal grandfather, Ghulam Ahmed Tarali, a staunch supporter of the Muslim League, was forced to flee his native village of Taral in Kashmir in the aftermath of Partition, leaving behind his relatives and only son. He settled in Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir and never forgot his roots.

“My grandfather always wanted to go back to his native village in Kashmir. Towards the end of his life, he became a schizophrenic. He would often run away from home muttering the name of his native village and only son. His mental illness prevented him from realising that he could never return to his roots. He died a very unhappy man,” Rajia says with tearful eyes.

The daughter of a practicing cardiologist in Islamabad, Rajia feels that most Indians have not accepted the reality of Pakistan. “Indians are as touchy about the existence of Pakistan as Pakistanis are about Bangladesh.”

Rajia plans to share her changed views about the Kashmir issue with her friends and tell them “there are instances where the Indian point of view holds a lot of water”.

“I am aware of the stiff resistance I am going to face in propagating views that do not exactly match the official stand of my country. And I am prepared for it,” says the gritty girl from Lahore.

Before he came to Singapore and met his Indian counterparts, 19-year-old Fawad Irfan thought that “all Indians are uncivilised barbarians and fanatics who hate Pakistanis”. After a weeklong interaction with Indian youth from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Fawad feels that “Indians are perhaps better human beings than us. I have not come across any hatred towards Pakistan or Pakistanis”.

He also plans to spread his message of peaceful co-existence and tolerance through the street plays he regularly performs in Bahawalpur. “Religious fanatics do exist in both countries, but they are in the minority. We need to lessen the hatred so widely spread in our society,” says Fawad, the son of a well-known Seraiki writer.

18-year-old Ragni Kidvai, a student of the Karachi Grammar School, had no bias against India or Indians. Being the only child of Nuzhat and Zaheer Kidvai, well-known peace activists, exposed her to “positive human vibrations” early in life and she has been regularly participating in peace vigils with her parents.

As a member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), Ragni visited New Delhi in November 2001, along with her parents, to participate in the South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) conference. “We stayed with a Hindu family. I find no difference in India and Pakistan; our social concerns are so similar. I moved about Delhi like an Indian; nobody asked me whether I was a Muslim or a Pakistani,” says Ragni.

Delhi is one of Ragni’s favourite cities; she says she has faced stiff opposition from fundamentalists in Pakistan who wanted her to change her “Indian name”. “My father, an erstwhile seaman, is a great lover of classical Indian music and named me Ragni Marea which means ‘music of the sea’. I love my name, irrespective of whether it sounds Indian or Russian,” declares the young peacenik.

What if she falls in love with an Indian boy? “Religion or nationality will not come in my way. Of course, I will marry him; although, I know, there will be social resistance to my decision in Pakistan” says the Karachiite.

Indian participants also came to the conference with biases against Pakistan and her citizens. 18-year-old Gaurav Jain admits he had “lots of hatred and animosity against Pakistanis for the perceived wrongs committed against India. Now I understand them and their attitudes. I feel there are instances where we too have gone wrong. Today, I meet them as if they are my long lost brothers”.

Anmol Tikkoo, also 18, had to flee from Srinagar at the age of five, along with his parents and elder brother. In spite of their personal losses and sufferings (his paternal uncle was shot dead by militants), his parents taught him to be understanding and tolerant. “My parents advised me that whenever I feel the loss of a part of my childhood, I should remember the Muslim youth who had been forced to join the militants and, in the process, lost their lives,” says the composed and serene Anmol, who joins Swarthmore University in the United States in September this year.

Thanks to the tolerance taught by his parents, his bitterness has since turned into sadness. “I often wonder whatever happened to our proud heritage of Kashmiriyat; where is that traditional bond of love between the Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir? We ought to remember that in the game of violence there are no winners; all parties lose,” he adds.

The conference is a laudable effort in people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan. It gave the youth from each country an opportunity to understand and appreciate the other’s point of view.

The Pakistani participants confirmed that the contingent was taken by an NGO on a conducted tour of the refugee camps in Azad Kashmir before coming to Singapore. They were duly briefed about the Pakistan’s stand in the Kashmir imbroglio. While the youth stuck to the tutored stand in the beginning, their natural honesty soon took over. They even joined their Indian counterparts in shooing away the retired Pakistani brigadier who tried to present half-truths in his presentation. In the words of Gul Jaffri, a Pakistani national living in Singapore, “The Indians converted the Pakistani youth and vice versa.”

When renowned Indian singer Seema Anil Sehgal sang her songs for peace and harmony, written by famous poets from the sub-continent, both India and Pakistan, at the conference, the Pakistani youth joined the chorus with great gusto and gave voice to “Hum jung na hone denge” written by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with as much enthusiasm and vigour as to “Lahoo ka rang ek hai” written by Pakistani poet Qateel Shifai.

Left to these youthful representatives and future leaders from India and Pakistan, the future of the sub-continent seems to be in safer hands.
Published in Pakistani Weekly TheFridayTimes