Jab we meet

Jab we meet

A dream of open borders
By Renu Shah Bagaria

Renu Shah Bagaria

Renu Shah Bagaria

Shortly after joining the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, while walking back to my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it struck me that I was finally encountering the moment I had waited for so long all my life. It was the evening of July 1, 2014 and I was walking with a Pakistani for the first time in my life, someone I knew would become a friend for life.

Having lived in Nepal for some years, I had met Pakistanis before, but only briefly, without much chance for personal interaction. I always believed that the problems between India and Pakistan are more political than anything else and had always wanted to talk to a Pakistani who did not represent the politics or the political system of the country. I did not know that it would take so many years, and that I would be so far away from home, India, before that would happen.

That day, Malik Siraj Akbar, my classmate at the Kennedy School, confirmed my views. He was as worried about what was happening inside Pakistan and the immediate attention Pakistan’s internal issues needed as I was about my country, India. Together, we wondered why animosity between our countries continues to surface.

We walked around looking for a restaurant that served desi food — as an Indian and a Pakistani we had similar tastes in food. We talked in our shared language, Hindustani; his speech has overtones of Urdu while mine has Hindi overtones. We easily and immediately connected with each other’s experiences. We talked about our countries and our families. We had similar anxieties about our families and visions for our countries and the South Asian region.

milnedoSo where was the difference that I had heard about through the media all my life? For now, all these “differences” seemed so irrelevant. A thought crossed my mind: if Malik and I could be such great friends and neighbours then why could not our countries, India and Pakistan, which we represented in a way at Harvard, live in peace? It troubled me to acknowledge how different, and difficult, the ground realities are.

Since then, I have made several friends from Pakistan here in Cambridge. Every time I meet someone from Pakistan, we instantly connect. Over these past few months I have repeatedly asked myself this difficult question: why India and Pakistan are considered so different when the people from these countries are so similar.

I feel so privileged for having so many friends from Pakistan. I looking forward to traveling to Pakistan one day not just as a tourist but also explore our common roots and to take with me the message of peace. I hope that my dream of open borders between the two countries will one day become a reality.

Learning from each other
By Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar

Malik Siraj Akbar

When I got a rare opportunity to study in India in 2005, the rich learning experience I had there completely reshaped me as a person and broadened my world vision. I was the first recipient of South Asia Foundation’s Media Scholarship along with Huma Sadaf, a female student from Lahore. The scholarship took us to the south Indian city of Chennai where we completed a post-graduate diploma at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ). Unfortunately, this excellent learning program has had to be discontinued because several future batches of Pakistani students were denied visas.

In the decade since I graduated from ACJ, there has hardly been a day in my personal or professional lives when I have not utilised the rich lessons I learned in India. One of my biggest challenges as a Pakistani is to convince people back home how diverse India is and how unconcerned ordinary Indians are with Pakistan. In contrast, if you listen to some segments of the Pakistani news media, you begin to believe that India and Indians are out there for the sole purpose of destroying Pakistan. In reality, Indians face the same hardships of everyday life including the challenge of making a living and staying healthy, just like Pakistanis.

By continuing to strain diplomatic relations and staying adamant against softening visa restrictions for each other’s citizens, India and Pakistan are denying our people, especially youth, great learning opportunities. Our generation should revolt against such policies and demand more regional integration and openness. Students from both countries should be encouraged and assisted to go visit each other’s universities and initiate dialogues and conversations that we have intentionally avoided for decades.

What is funny as well as tragic about my meeting with Renu is that we, two South Asians, had to wait to come to America to meet each other because it is easier for Indians and the Pakistanis to travel to the U.S. than to visit each other’s countries. Since I finished my studies in Chennai, I have met more of my Indian classmates abroad, as I was unable to obtain an Indian visa and return there to meet them.

From my experiences, I can testify that educational, cultural and professional exchange programs are powerful tools to empower individuals and societies. The two governments should initiate exchange programs so that students from both sides of the border have an opportunity to live, study, play, debate and work with each other.

You cannot (and should not) learn about your neighbors only through television news. In order to know people better, you have to walk up to them, interact with them, share each other’s sorrows and, more importantly, help each other during hard times.  That’s how you strengthen relationships with your neighbors. That’s how you end misconceptions and get to know each other better.

Indians and Pakistanis have missed these great learning opportunities for decades. They have allowed hardliners in both countries to disrupt cooperation and openness on the pretext of religion and national security.

The sooner regional integration and cooperation overpowers obscurantist elements on both sides, the faster we will march on our path to normalisation of bilateral ties. This is what will lead to an epoch of regional prosperity.

Renu Shah Bagaria and Malik Siraj Akbar are Mid-Career students at the Masters in Public Administration (MC-MPA) Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

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