I came across several people but I did not see an enemy
India and Pakistan turned 70 this year but continue to be enemies since their partition in 1947. Much like a family feud, the two nations remain hostile and the conflict has escalated since the bitter division at the time British rule was ending. The official story in each country projects the other as precisely that, “the other” and so an enemy. The governments and armies of the two countries undoubtedly have serious grievances and issues with each other. But the negative views dominating the mainstream narrative make the conflict not only seem much worse than it is, but also worsen the situation.
History textbooks project a distorted view to children. The media feed this by exaggerating and replaying any negative event involving the other side over and over, and blaming the “other” often without substantiated basis. Efforts to reach out to the other are treated with suspicion. Hardliners on either side denounce political leaders from their own side who make such attempts. Ironically, these very hardliners use religion to divide and seize every chance to fuel hatred and revenge. False information and misperceptions create more conflict and make the official storyline seem true in the eyes of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, just like in a family.
It is usually only when Indians and Pakistanis step into a third country that they get a chance to meet each other. They then often become friends and see that they are like each other sharing similar food, culture, and language. My perception about the “other side” has been very positive because, being currently based in the US, I have friends from Pakistan also living here who go out of their way in small and big ways and are there for me. For example, I am vegetarian and whenever we have dinner together they make sure while cooking to carefully separate their vegetarian cooking without my ever requesting them. Once when I was to travel to India and mentioned casually to my Pakistani friend that I was out of kurtas, she bought fabric and put it in my mailbox late at night so I could take it with to India and get it stitched.
But on a recent first-time visit to Pakistan, I experienced for myself our sameness and more importantly, the desire for peace on the ground in the country itself. So many I met spoke about this desire – which is after all a universal quality of the human heart.
I came across several people but I did not see an enemy. They were people just like “us”. They spoke the same language, wore similar clothes, and looked like us. Lahore looked a lot like Delhi. Except for the road signs in Urdu, I could have been in parts of Delhi. I did not feel that I was in a foreign country.
A taxi driver who took me around observed that the two countries try to scare each other by acquiring weapons and bombs. If they tried to be friends, both would save a huge amount on defense and use it instead to improve the lives of their people, he said. He was sure that the people of both countries would be better off if the two governments became allies.
Others I came across from different walks of life echoed this view. One person shared enthusiastically that he was from Haryana state in India, his family spoke Haryanvi, and they looked up to India because India seemed to have greater equality for women. A young woman shared the story of her old grandmother who migrated from India at the time of partition and reminisces about her hometown in India.
At the hotel reception when I gave my blue passport as proof of identity, the man at the counter looked at it carefully. He said he had never seen an Indian passport before because he was new at the job. The Pakistani passport is green, he mused, then declared “we are one”. He recalled visits from members of his mother’s side of the family who live in India.
A couple of times people mistook me for a Pakistani because of my appearance and language. I did not get any hostility towards Indians in any of my encounters, only a lot of warmth and friendship.
A longtime friend in Lahore who is a practicing Muslim mentioned during a conversation in Pakistan that a true Muslim holds values of forgiveness and compassion, and not hatred and revenge for others. If more Hindus and Muslims come to see that our religions have similar values at their core — forgiveness, compassion, and tolerance — then maybe there is a chance for religion to bring us together rather than divide us. No religion in its essence promotes or condones violence.
Hope for peace
I left Pakistan feeling there is hope for peace. We as people hold the power to shift the narratives of our two countries. We can tell a different story; one that is based on our experiences and honours the reality of our people. The people in the two lands are not each other’s enemies; it is our governments and security establishments, as well as our perceptions, that create the problems.
When someone speaks of the other country negatively, we do not have to validate that perception without checking the facts. We do not have to participate in spreading a negative view of the other without knowing more. We can correct, one at a time, the misperceptions that fuel strong feelings of resentment between the two countries.
The next time someone says, “Pakistan is like this” or “India is like that”, why not question these assertions? We can pause and remind ourselves that once we lived side by side in the same country.
I wonder where we could be if we were to hold ourselves back from blaming an entire people or religion for the conflict the two sides are in?
Every time there is a terrorist attack, whether on one side or the other, it is the people who suffer; human beings who are also someone’s daughter, son, mother, father, brother, sister, or spouse. They have the same hopes, dreams and fears as we do and they too want peace. They are our real partners for peace.
The writer is a development consultant from India currently based in USA. Email: [email protected].