In the early 1990s I was privileged to attend one of the earliest unofficial track residential workshops and dialogues in South Asia, at a time when there was a proliferation of such efforts aimed at building capacity and confidence.
Twenty-five years later, it still feels like yesterday that I attended that workshop in Bhurban, Pakistan — the Security, Technology and Arms Control (STAC) — in May 1993. The excitement began with handing over my passport at the Delhi Airport exit to my professor, Steve Cohen, so that my visa could be stamped on it.
Other memories: A little suitcase full of cotton sarees and blouses my mother sent for the trip; meeting the other Indian participants at the Ford Foundation office in Delhi; the journey, and who I sat with on the flight; the first time I heard the PIA take-off announcement prefaced by ‘Inshallah, we will reach’; the chaos of Lahore airport, and after all the security in Delhi, the open stretch we strolled down to board the Islamabad flight.
I remember the morning walk in Islamabad, not seeing any women. And the winding drive up to the gorgeous Pearl Continental in Bhurban, beyond Murree. The cherry on the cake was hearing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sing at a private concert for a wedding at the hotel on our last night.
For almost two weeks, ten young Indians and Pakistanis, five Chinese participants, a Nepali and a Sri Lankan lived, studied and talked together — women and men, between 20 and 35 years of age, researchers, journalists and even bureaucrats.
The curriculum included international security; nuclear and missile technology; nuclear non-proliferation and other international arms control conventions; and simulations around regional decision-making.
The faculty was eminent: Frank Von Hippel, Barry Buzan, Patricia Lewis, George Perkovich, Praful Bidwai, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Giri Deshingkar and of course, Steve Cohen. Nevertheless, what most of us took away were the conversations and interactions outside the classroom.
The India-Pakistan interaction was centre-stage, of course. Many of us had had friends across the border but the chance to share rooms and actually live together was a gift. Evening walks with tea and pakora stops were an occasion to discuss what we had done in class and also learn about our beautiful surroundings.
Post-dinner, Zia Mian organised India-Pakistan sharing sessions at which we talked about our perceptions of each other, our first encounters with “the other” and our own politics. We questioned and we sought answers. The revelation for me was how different northern and southern perspectives on Indian politics were.
It was 1993. India had been traumatised by the Babri Mosque demolition, the Bombay riots and blasts. But back home, we still had different perspectives on critical issues. Sometimes, we actually connected more easily to people across the border than those from other parts of India. That still happens.
Some of us women participants got in the habit of hanging out together in one of our rooms. We would order kehva, and chat and sing late into the night like cousins getting together for a family wedding. We shared life stories and observed the gulf between what we were learning about security during the day and the things that made us worry in our real lives. Different standpoints, different views: what do women see when they think security? What is a feminist view? Still newish questions in 1993.
The STAC workshop, held Nathiagali the following year, had three or four subsequent iterations.
It was also in summer that the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies was set up, in May 1993. The inaugural meeting was in Kandy, but for 25 years, RCSS has been based in Colombo. Sri Lanka remains a neutral place where Indians and Pakistanis easily get visas. RCSS aims to promote collaborative projects between South Asians and provide a platform for regional dialogue are. It continues its efforts despite the vagaries of funding.
In 1997, RCSS started an annual workshop, along the lines of STAC, on non-traditional security issues — ethnicity, migration and environment. A quarter-century later, we see how prescient the choice of issues was. Soon, RCSS was running both workshops, which came to be known as the Summer and Winter Workshops, although they in fact happened in other seasons.
Every year, for about five years, over 50 young people had a chance to study and work together, learn each other’s preferences over small and big matters, and find common ground. That is between 200-300 people, who 25 years later, occupy senior positions in academia, media and government — a ‘who’s who’ of the region’s most influential security experts.
The Bhurban-Nathiagali-Kandy-Hikkaduwa friendships have been reinforced by joint projects and reunions at other seminars. My Kandy roommate and I co-edited a book on women and security in South Asia. Contributors were other women who had attended the two workshops.
All of us carry in our hearts, the memories of each other as young people we have laughed and sung with, caught dozing during lectures, fought with over small things and argued with over significant ones, or passed notes to. These memories keep us connected even when we do not meet for decades.
This week, my NGO in Chennai moved into a new office. At the celebration was my friend from Dhaka — a friend I met at the Kandy workshop in 1997. She was in town with her husband and both were present; in fact, she was my longest-standing friend at the gathering. Having her there reminded me that our work may be local but our context is regional, no matter what our governments say by way of their rules and regulations.
A quarter century later, the networks are a little frayed. Set up in the age before email groups and Facebook pages, they depended on our ability to write letters to each other. Our paths crossed from time to time, but some connections survive better than others. The golden age of multi-track initiatives is over.
Funding crunches and paranoid regulations limit the possibility of organising anything that is expensive (just think of the travel costs) and focuses on peace and security. There is cynicism about outcomes. Summits (organised by media houses), dialogues and also, networks created by civil society still exist.
Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy is one example, holding meetings and taking cognizance of issues on either side. Sangat South Asia has trained and connected feminist leaders around the region for a long time.
However, few have the funding to bring people together for a living-learning experience that will transform their thinking. WISCOMP organized a Conflict Transformation residential workshop for several years until recently. Alumni form a new generation peace network and stay connected over social media.
Even as we mark anniversaries with nostalgia, perhaps this is the new way — that legal and physical barriers will be by-passed now by virtual tracks rather than multi-track diplomatic initiatives.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist who feels lucky to have been part of several pioneering Southasian peace initiatives.