South Asia Engagement Forum launched at Harvard: “Only when we demand change, will it occur”


South Asia Engagement Forum launched at Harvard: “Only when we demand change, will it occur”
Engaged participants at the SAEF launch seminar: Human rights lawyer Ameya Kilara, MPA ‘18 candidate and SAEF co-chair talking about the warmth she received in Pakistan. Photo: Beena Sarwar

India, Pakistan students at Harvard Kennedy School join hands to lobby for peace in their home region

Students from India and Pakistan have come together to launch the South Asia Engagement Forum (SAEF) at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Prof. Hugh O’Doherty addressing the seminar: Trying to understand why people engage in violence.  Photo: SAEF.

Prof. Hugh O’Doherty addressing the seminar: Trying to understand why people engage in violence. Photo: SAEF.

The well-attended SAEF inaugural seminar brought together students, scholars and experts from institutions like Harvard, MIT, Tufts and NorthEastern as well as community members across the Boston area, at the Malkin Penthouse at HKS on 17 November 2017.

As someone “raised in conflict” in Northern Ireland who witnessed the repercussions first-hand, Prof. Hugh O’Doherty, adjunct lecturer at HKS, drew from his personal experiences in Ireland and across the world, including Kashmir and Nepal. He stressed that no matter how improbable peace might appear, continuous dialogue can lead to resolution.

From Pakistan, Muhammad Khudadad Chattha, MPA-ID ‘18 and SAEF co-chair shares the experiences that drew him towards peace initiatives. Photo: SAEF.

From Pakistan, Muhammad Khudadad Chattha, MPA-ID ‘18 and SAEF co-chair shares the experiences that drew him towards peace initiatives. Photo: SAEF.

He posited that “it’s not change that people resist but loss”. When we define ourselves as “not you”, we risk loss of identity after we start to see “the other” as human, he said. “Only when we demand change, will it occur”.

Executive director Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute at Harvard University, Meena Hewett, lauded the initiative and pledged her institute’s support to it.

SAEF core team after the event (clockwise from left): Beena Sarwar, Maroof Syed, Keshav Sharma, Gulika Reddy, Gunjan Veda, Muhammad Ali, Vaidyanathan Iyer, Muhammad Khudadad Chattha, Ameya Kilara, Vinay Nagaraju, Zain ul Abideen. Photo: SAEF.

SAEF core team after the event (clockwise from left): Beena Sarwar, Maroof Syed, Keshav Sharma, Gulika Reddy, Gunjan Veda, Muhammad Ali, Vaidyanathan Iyer, Muhammad Khudadad Chattha, Ameya Kilara, Vinay Nagaraju, Zain ul Abideen. Photo: SAEF.

SAEF co-chairs, Ameya Kilara, MPA ‘18 and Muhammad Khudadad Chattha, MPA-ID ‘18, shared personal stories on how the initiative took shape over the course of the year and introduced the objectives of the group.

Ameya Kilara, a lawyer from Bangalore, talked about visiting Pakistan as a teenage student – “a most memorable experience” that she said changed her life. She outlined a three point agenda for the group: It aims to connect people across individual country borders, engage in policy discussions, and influence governments in South Asia.

Meena Hewitt of Harvard’s South Asia Institute: Full support.  Photo: SAEF.

Meena Hewitt of Harvard’s South Asia Institute: Full support. Photo: SAEF.

Born to a military household in Pakistan, Khudadad talked about the anti-India narrative he grew up with, and how that changed gradually over the last decade or so after he met and became friends with Indian students. He shared the future events lined up by SAEF, that include a series of discussions over the Spring 2018 semester, focusing on common challenges faced by countries in the region like geopolitics, climate change, poverty eradication, and education. These will lead to a one day conference on “The Future of South Asia” later in the year.

The event concluded with a panel discussion on the role of the media between two eminent journalists from Pakistan and India respectively — Beena Sarwar, editor of Aman Ki Asha, a unique peace initiative launched by two media groups of India and Pakistan, and Vaidyanathan Iyer, national affairs editor at Indian Express.

Professor Zakia Sarwar reciting Fahmida Riaz’s poem “Tum bhi hum jaise nikle”. Photo: Photo: SAEF.

Professor Zakia Sarwar reciting Fahmida Riaz’s poem “Tum bhi hum jaise nikle”. Photo: Photo: SAEF.

Discussing the question of whether the media reflects hostility and prejudices held by the public or whether it has a role in creating and mobilizing public sentiment in negative ways, they highlighted a range of issues faced by the media in South Asia. These range from conflict of interests arising from private ownership of media houses, to online trolls and twitter bots suppressing dissent, to the dominant narrative, to the ethical responsibility of media to present unbiased and objective opinions. The event ended with participants asking questions and offering ideas and suggestions for the forum.

Development and public policy consultant from New Delhi Gunjan Veda, HKS MP ’18, introduced the speakers and moderated the seminar.

The organisers plan to bring together the student, alumni and wider academic communities to engage in discussions on South Asian geopolitics, culture, trade and business, environment and climate change, and more. For more information, email [email protected]

— aka




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