Loosening cultural, travel and trade restrictions is a vital first step to rediscovering our two countries’ shared heritage
India and Pakistan may be neighbours but it’s surprising how little they really know about each other. Their rich common heritage is easily forgotten amid mutual baiting and negative stereotyping, and it’s difficult to imagine them ever being truly at peace until these obstacles have been overcome.
“I’m really surprised to see so many women … I thought you would be all covered in burqas,” said a journalist at the Indian Women’s Press Club when the Pakistani contingent arrived last April on a visit organised by Aman ki Asha (a joint initiative for peace by the Times of India and Pakistan’s Jang media group).
Indians who visit Pakistan are invariably pleasantly surprised by the openness, helpfulness and hospitality of Pakistanis. It is hard for them to believe there is so much vibrant art, fashion, music, dance, media, literature and theatre. They are moved by the outstanding work that people are doing, often voluntarily, in fields ranging from women’s and human rights to education and medical care.
Many Pakistani men, women and children participate in the fortnightly Critical Mass cycling events in Karachi; there’s a Critical Mass in Lahore, too. Music lovers in both cities organise the well-attended annual All Pakistan Music Conference that showcases classical musicians, singers and dancers. Pakistan hosts the largest privately organised annual puppet festival in the world. The festival organisers (the Peer Group) also arrange annual music, dance and theatre festivals.
Pakistanis also proved, during the restrictive military regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, that it is possible to have a lively theatre scene, including productions staged in backyards and open spaces in poor localities. Some activist groups, such as Ajoka Theatre and Tehrik-e-Niswan, still do this to raise awareness.
The few theatres we have in Pakistan remain solidly booked. Indian journalists who saw a local production of the West End hit musical Mama Mia in Lahore were stunned by the talent, and by the slickness of the production by the group which had put on Chicago the previous year.
But far too few opinion-makers from India and Pakistan are able to visit the other country. Trapped in a long history of hostilities, our governments are reluctant to grant visas to each other’s citizens, even journalists. Their reciprocal protocol only allows two journalists from the other country to live and work in their capital cities, Islamabad and New Delhi – and they must obtain special permission to go elsewhere.
Despite the shared border, languages, food, music and cultural traditions, we don’t even have the option of a tourist visa for each other’s citizens. When visas are granted, they are reminiscent of the cold war era tendency to grant city-specific, single entry visas limited typically to a fortnight or a month. Visitors must report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure.
Our cell phones, on roaming anywhere else in the world, stop working when we step into each other’s country.
We’ve banned each other’s newspapers and television news channels – ridiculous in this age of internet access. India doesn’t allow Pakistan’s cooking, sports or entertainment TV shows or live link-ups to Pakistani TV channels. Pakistan is more relaxed on this score and allows India’s extravagant soap operas – but many here (particularly in the military and the bureaucracy) still operate on the premise that India is enemy number one.
Even as Pakistan reels from unprecedented floods that submerged one-fifth of the country and affected 20 million people, officials are dithering over allowing relief and aid workers from India.
European states came together despite a long history of bloodshed and hostility because it made economic sense to do so. For India and Pakistan too, co-operation and trade make sense. Businessmen and women recognise this, and they endorsed economic ties at a large meeting in May organised by Aman ki Asha.
In an age of nuclear weapons and unmanned drones how much sense does it make to keep armies amassed at the borders? Our people – one-fifth of the world’s poor – need schools, hospitals, shelters, infrastructure, not more missiles and bombs.
It is only by opening the India-Pakistan border to each other’s travellers, to commerce and to our shared culture that we can combat the negative stereotypes that feed mutual hostility and militarism in the subcontinent.
Beena Sarwar will be taking part in a series of lectures on Pakistan and its journalists in London, starting with Chatham House at 6pm, Monday 11 October; School of Oriental & African Studies at 6pm, Wednesday 13 October; and the Guardian Foundation at 7pm, Friday 15 October.