A group of young Pakistani students, all in their early twenties, sat across the room from me. Alongside them was a group of Indian students. Even up close it was difficult to tell the difference. Apart from the fact that they looked similar many of them had exchanged clothes, so there were no giveaways. They’d been through an exercise: a simulated dialogue as if between the two nations, talking about their common problems, including that most intractable of issues, Kashmir. They hadn’t come up with any solutions, but they had agreed that it was important to keep the channels of communication open.
What struck me about these young people was that, despite the diet of hate and propaganda they’d all been fed at school and university about the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’ nation, they were remarkably free of prejudice and willing to believe the best of each other.
I was reminded of another occasion some months ago, this time in Pakistan. It was the 30th anniversary of the Pakistani army’s invasion of Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) and the beginning of the process that led to the liberation of that country. In Lahore, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women held hands and swayed to the music of Pakistani singer Nayyara Noor and the stirring lyrics of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:
When the music came to an end, the Pakistani women offered their Bangladeshi sisters an apology for the army action – for the rape, the carnage and the looting – something that the Pakistani state has yet to do. Looking at the two groups of women it would have been difficult to say who belonged where: and indeed, some had family in two countries and some even in three (Bangladesh, Pakistan and India).
The theme of the meeting between the Pakistani and Indian students was ‘rehumanizing the other’. Why and how is it, they asked, that an individual, a community, a people, indeed a whole nation can be turned into the ‘other’; and a myth of fear and hatred built around that ‘othering’?
This cuts across religious lines. Pakistani Muslim men believe that Bangladeshi Muslim men are weak and emasculated; Indian Hindus believe that Muslims generally and Pakistani Muslim men in particular are strong, libidinous and virile, with an unbridled sexuality. By contrast, Muslim men see Hindus as effeminate and weak-kneed. These messages pass into our textbooks and permeate our media so that students reared on these stereotypes may grow up thinking there is little to be gained by trying to understand the ‘other’. Sadly, many of us are only too willing to believe this: it takes so little – a darker skin tone, a religious belief, a biological difference, an alternative sexuality, a class divide, or simply another location – to mark us as something different. And from here it is a small step to transforming the ‘other’ from a human being with feelings, emotions and desires, to a ‘thing’ to be feared and destroyed before it destroys you.
I’ve often thought that the flip side of the coin is the rise of ‘identity politics’ – for often the very identity that is under threat becomes a rallying point for oppressed people. But while this is empowering it can also create barriers to communication. That’s why I think the Pakistani and Indian students had it right: they agreed that the most important thing was to keep communicating.
This isn’t easy, of course. As India and Pakistan make noises about talks and summit meetings (probably because of pressure from the United States and the fear of sanctions) they simultaneously bring in laws and regulations that make it more difficult for people from the two countries to get close to each other. India recently introduced – and then hastily withdrew – an ordinance which said that all Indians receiving foreigners, even as private guests or business contacts, must register them with the police. When asked the reason for the new law, officials from the Home Ministry said it was because they feared ‘infiltration’ from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Those who resist this paranoia, or participate in the kinds of meetings the students were involved in, run the risk of being labelled ‘anti-national’ and ‘agents’ of the other regime. Yet if anyone can bring peace to the troubled South Asian region, it is these young people and others like them who refuse to give in to the rhetoric of hate.
On the last day before the students headed back to their homes they put on a concert. As a dozen young women stood up to sing Sufi songs from the Pakistani desert I turned to one of their teachers and asked, in Punjabi: ‘Are these yours or ours?’ She laughed and said: ‘I don’t know, it’s difficult to tell, I think they’re yours and ours.’ It’s in the ‘and’, I think, that there’s hope for our future.
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.
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