We can tell a different story, one that is based on our experiences and honours the reality of our people
India and Pakistan turned 70 this year but remain enemies, as they have since Partition in 1947. Much like a family feud, the two nations remain hostile; the conflict has only escalated since the bitter division as British rule ended. The official story in each country projects the other as precisely that, “the other”, and so an enemy. No doubt there are serious grievances and issues that the governments and Armies of the two countries have with each other. But the negative views that are perpetuated worsen the conflict.
History textbooks project a distorted view to children. The media often 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. Political leaders on either side who make such attempts are denounced by hardliners of their own side: hardliners who use religion to divide and seize every chance to fuel hatred and revenge.
False information and misperception create more conflict and make the official story line seem true in the eyes of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, just as in a family situation.
When Indians and Pakistanis step into a third country they get a chance to meet each other. This is when, more often than not, they become friends and see that they are like each other, sharing similar food, culture and language. I have had friends from Pakistan who go out of their way to help in small and big ways, and therefore my perception about the other side has been very positive. But on a recent visit to Pakistan, I experienced first-hand our sameness and, more important, the desire for peace that so many there spoke about, which I guess is 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 Delhi. I did not get a feeling that I was in a foreign country.
Wasteful expenditureA 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, he felt both would save a huge amount of spending on defence, which could instead be used to improve the lives of their people. He was without a doubt that the people of both countries would be better off if the two governments became allies.
This view was echoed by others I came across. One person shared enthusiastically that he was from Haryana 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 grandmother who migrated from India at Partition. Though she was elderly now, she continued to reminisce about her home town in India.
When the person at the hotel desk asked for an identity proof, I gave my passport. It turned out he had not seen an Indian passport before as he was new on the job. He looked at it carefully, making a comparison with the green colour of a Pakistani passport and then declared, “We are one.” He recalled visits from members of his mother’s side of the family who live in India.
There were a couple of instances when I was mistaken for a Pakistani because of my appearance and language, which reaffirmed for me that we are indeed the same people. Among those I met, I did not sense any hostility towards Indians. I received a lot of warmth and friendship.
A long-time friend who is a practising Muslim mentioned during a conversation 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 unite and not divide us.
Neither religion in its essence promotes or condones violence, and so any narrative that promotes division and hatred is violent.
I left Pakistan feeling there is hope for peace. We as people hold the power to shift the stories 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; the problems are because of the two governments and the militaries, as well as our perceptions. 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.
Next time someone says “Pakistan is like this” or “India is like that”, we should ask if we hold the right perception. We can pause and remind ourselves that once we lived as the same country. I wonder where we can be if we 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 on the other side, its people suffer just as we suffer when there is an attack in our country. The people on the other side are just like us. They have the same hopes, dreams and fears as us and they too want peace. They are our real partners for peace.