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People-to-People Contacts: What More Needs to be Done?

 The News

Thursday, December 09, 2010

By Laleh Habib

One crisp November morning in Mumbai, Rahul Kansal, Chief Marketing Officer of the Times of India, and Shahrukh Hasan, Group Managing Director of the Jang Group of Pakistan, met at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. They finalised the details of a project they had been discussing for some time, a people-to-people initiative aimed at promoting peace between India and Pakistan.

Later that day, another group of individuals also came to the Taj but with a decidedly different agenda. The two events that transpired at the Taj and elsewhere in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, revealed how the actions of individuals can influence the decision-making process of nation states.

 The attacks resulted in increased tension between the two countries. And, although the terrorists did not enter India on visas, India’s subsequent restrictions on visas for Pakistanis has made it much harder for Pakistanis to obtain visas. The attacks also led to delaying the launch of Aman ki Asha, a peace campaign jointly initiated by the Times of India the Jang Group of Pakistan.

The response to these events also highlights the disconnect between government-to-government and people-to-people relations. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the Government of India ended the composite dialogue process with Pakistan. However, despite a brief delay, the Jang Group and the Times of India did not allow the Aman ki Asha process to be derailed. In fact, they believed that the incident made peace between the two countries all the more necessary.

By and large, the people of both countries agree. Surveys carried out by the Jang Group and the Times of India prior to the launch of Aman ki Asha reveal that more than three-quarters of the population of both countries want peace. The enormous affinity between the people of India and Pakistan was evidenced most recently in the tremendous reception that the Pakistani delegation received at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, second only to the applause received by the Indian delegation. The compulsions of geography, a shared history and culture, and economics, demand that we live as friends.

However, this sentiment is not reflected the governmental level. For over sixty years, our governments have been locked in a state of conflict that is not only at odds with the aspirations of the people of the two countries, but at their expense. Peace between India and Pakistan is not just desirable, it is imperative for both countries. The economic, social, cultural and especially the human cost of the conflict is more than we can bear. Pakistan, one of the worldís poorest countries, maintains the seventh largest standing army at a cost beyond our means. Other priorities like education, healthcare and development have fallen by the wayside in the face of real or imagined conflict with India. For India, the problematic relationship with Pakistan is a major restraining factor to its potential for growth. The continuing hostility with Pakistan is a blot on its international image. We need a paradigm shift. And since the governments find themselves straitjacketed by public, historical positions, the people must to push for it.

The Jang Group and Times of India polls found that the citizens of both countries believe people-to-people relations to be far more amicable than government-to-government relations, and see people-to-people interactions as the most powerful instrument of peace. They also believed that the media was the most influential and credible of all the civil society institutions. History abounds with examples of how people-to-people contacts have helped pave the way for peaceful relations when traditional diplomacy failed. France and Germany are an excellent case in point through various initiatives, including student exchanges, twinning of cities and commercial bodies, they moved beyond the baggage of two world wars, and now exist as part of the European Union.

In South Asia too, there is potential for people-to-people contacts at every level, from academia to economics, from culture to sport, general tourism, medical tourism and religious tourism. The Jang/TOI polls revealed that Indians believe sporting ties would be most effective in bringing peace while Pakistanis ranked economic relations as most important. Tourism, educational opportunities and cultural exchanges also featured prominently.

 Aman ki Asha harnesses the tremendous power of the media and of people-to-people contacts. It aims to create an enabling environment for peace and reconciliation by and for the people of Pakistan and India, by facilitating dialogue on all contentious issues. It encourages people-to-people interaction at every level of society.

 Aman ki Asha loosely translates to ‘Hope for Peace’, Aman being an Urdu word and Asha being Hindi. Even the name underscores the collaborative nature of the project. It was launched on January 1, 2010, with a joint front-page editorial in The Times of India, The News and Jang the first time ever that publications in India and Pakistan collaborated like this.

 Numerous events have been hosted under the banner of Aman ki Asha. There was a major Indo-Pak business meet in Delhi in May this year that led to the formation of committees in six sectors to promote bilateral trade and investment (the members of the IT Committee from India are due to land in Pakistan on Dec 9 to meet with their Pakistani counterparts). Aman ki Asha has held a strategic seminar, an editor’s conference, a conference on water issues, mushairas, musical and literary events, to name a few. There many more projects underway.  Needless to say, it’s been a very busy year.

However, every event or discussion that Aman ki Asha has organised began and ended with the issue of visas. This is a refrain that has been echoed at every level of society for decades. What more needs to be done in the context of people to people contacts? The answer is evident: people must be allowed to meet.

Current visa requirements between Pakistan and India are among the most restrictive in the world. But the extreme border controls have not brought about peace or resolution. They have not kept out terrorists. They are a manifestation of the ongoing, low intensity conflict between India and Pakistan that hurts people at the grassroots level more than any other fallout of this state of hostilities. They are the single biggest hindrance to peace between us. Hence the Aman ki Asha campaign, Milne Do.

Milne Do (Let People Meet) is an editorial and advertisement campaign aimed at highlighting the absurdities of the current visa regime and the human cost of these restrictive, archaic policies. We offered to create a pilot state-of-the-art meeting place at the Wagah border for those who desire to meet, be they divided families, friends, or those conducting business. We argued for the issuance of multiple entry visas for a year or three to five years after identities and bona fides were confirmed – as in the rest of the world. We argued for country visas instead of city specific visas and for the elimination of the unnecessary requirement that travelers must enter and exit the same point, using the same mode of transport. We argued for the issuance of tourist visas. We urged the governments to let people meet. We received an overwhelming response from the public.

Within days of the campaign commencing, we were inundated with phone calls, emails and letters, detailing the hardships of obtaining a visa and the tremendous personal cost. Two individuals spontaneously set up petitions against the visa restrictions between the two countries. We compiled the signatures from the petitions and presented them to the Pakistani and Indian Foreign Ministers after their meeting in Islamabad on July 14, 2010.

The meeting itself was a disaster by all standards. And the current visa requirements are even more cumbersome, with more conditions, caveats, and archaic requirements. People are being kept further apart as a result.

But despite the many roadblocks and disappointments, we continue in our attempts to encourage peace and bring people together. The Berlin Wall stands or rather, fell as an example of how the power of public opinion can overwhelm the attempts of the state to keep people apart. We will continue to rally up public opinion, to lobby with governments, till the voices of the many are reflected in the foreign policy decisions of the state.

And we will continue to reach out in that domain where, despite the efforts of both governments, borders still remain porous. The internet exists as a virtual forum for people-to-people interaction without physically meeting. There are currently about seven Aman ki Asha facebook pages, one of which is managed by the Jang Group and the Times of India, and the rest of which are very flattering, with thousands pf members, Indians and Pakistanis in their countries and around the world. There are several Aman ki Asha Twitter accounts, because of which weíve had to use the username amankiasha_1. Seminars and events in third countries are another way in which people to people interaction can be increased in the absence of government facilitation. Itís a long journey ahead, with much to do — but much more to look forward to. The writer is Coordinator, Aman ki Asha, Pakistan.

This article is adapted from a paper she presented at ‘Reviving the Dialogue’, an international Seminar on the India-Pakistan peace process, December 3-5, 2010 in Dubai, organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung


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