Lalita Ramdas records a different Indo-Pak negotiation
July 2002: Looking back over the past ten months - virtually from Sept 11 2001 - it appears as though all normal life and emotions had come to a grinding halt - that we were moving inexorably from one ghastly event to another - that the programming was being done by powerful, invisible, evil minds and hands - over whose designs we had no knowledge and even less control .
Looking back at schedules and diaries and stored email data in this one insignificant household tucked away in a small village in India - it is clear that we have all been in a totally reactive frame. We began with fighting for justice for the Afghan people ; for all innocent Arab-American-Muslim citizens around the world; moved on to vigils and pleas to the Indian and Pakistani regimes to restore communications and withdraw their forces from the borders after the attack on the Indian Parliament; mobilised intensively to fight the genocide let loose by communal, right wing forces and the state in Gujarat; and finally to battling the danger of newer levels of escalation, the eyeball to eyeball confrontation, heightened war hysteria, and the trading of nuclear threats - after the attacks at Kaluchak.
It is in the context of this scenario that I share with you our journey to the United World College, Singapore, last week and the unfolding of a story which might serve to renew hope in many hearts and minds.
Why this initiative for peace? Why focus on Kashmir?
Because someone had a dream - to give a new meaning to the founding philosophy of the UWC movement - namely of youth building bridges of friendship by living and studying together in the ten United World Colleges in different parts of the world, (including India), bringing together young people from nearly 85 countries. However it was felt that students should actually be involved in a more `hands on' involvement with some of the intractable and continuing conflicts between their countries. The decision to focus on Asia and the Indo Pak conflict was arrived at after a series of intensive brainstorming sessions - with the Israel-Palestine Conflict coming a very close second.
People, planning, process
Some sixty young people between the ages of 16 and 18 years. And some `not so young' graying heads too! We came from schools and colleges in India, Pakistan, and about a dozen other nationalities/countries around the world - Columbia, Argentina, Mexico, Turkey, Hong Kong, Germany, Singapore, USA, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Malaysia, Italy, Israel, ………four were Kashmiris living outside of Kashmir in India and Pakistan
A group of interested students at the UWC - SINGAPORE began brainstorming around the idea from as far back as last November. It is they who came up with the basic design which was gradually hammered into shape over a series of meetings over the past many months. [All this in addition to their ongoing and heavy academic load in preparation for their final IB exams in May]
By April the entire process was more or less in place - especially the all important task of selecting just forty out of the three hundred students who had applied. The selections were based on a variety of criteria - with maximum weightage given to an essay on the question of Indo-Pak relations with respect to Kashmir and their own levels of commitment to work with the issue over a period of time. A team of staff and students then made the final selections - a tough job from all accounts. But in the event they had done a good job - keeping in mind a balance between gender, elite and non-elite schools, and geographic spread.
Fundraising was a special task - and a staff member who also happened to be an ex UWC student - was especially assigned for this purpose. Almost all the students were supported by the UWC for their travel - and the money came from a variety of sources - from UWC itself, parents, business houses, raffles and auctions, and some foundation money. Given the continuing impasse as far as direct travel across India is concerned, the Pakistanis had to fly to Bangkok, and then into Singapore - thus doubling the expenditure!
Resource persons - A special feature of the week was the presence, as Chief Guest and special resource person, of Gerson, a sixteen year old Columbian student activist who has been working for peace and against the use of child soldiers in his country since he was just ten years old. Gerson Andres Florez Perez has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian National Committee, and he certainly provided inspirational inputs to the young Indians and Pakistanis who were happy to have such a role model who could navigate them through their own complex situations.
Michael Shanks, a theatre activist and environmentalist from Seattle, USA, was also recruited to the team and handled most of the sensitive facilitation needed right through the week. The use of simulation games and an extraordinary range and variety of activities by him and other student facilitators ensured a very high level of interest and participation by the students.
Three others were from peace groups in Pakistan and India [ Pak India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and Indo Pak Soldiers Initiative for Peace (IPSI)]; Admiral L.Ramdas, Brigadier Rao Abid Hamid, and Lalita Ramdas were among those who spent almost the entire time with participants, and were available for counsel both on factual and on emotive issues.
Hopes and Expectations, Doubts and Fears
Children from both sides arrived at the workshop with high expectations. The mood could be described as an interesting mix of excitement, curiosity, anticipation and apprehension, along with a certain scepticism. Given the focus of the workshop, clearly there was an unspoken hope among most of them that they would be able to find some solutions to the longstanding `Kashmir issue' - and therefore be able to take back a concrete plan of action. Maybe there was a feeling of importance too that they, as young folk, might in fact be able to arrive at some answers which had eluded their elders for so long.
Kids also came with the usual basket of popular perceptions and stereotypes of the `other' - seen for years as `the enemy', and about whom they had built up certain common stereotypes. A few Indian students spoke of the reactions of their friends when they said they were coming for such a workshop .."Arre yaar - how boring - unke saath milkar kyaa hone vaalaa hai?" .[How boring, of what use is it going to be to meet with them?" ] . From conversations with the Pakistani students, it appeared that they were asked to ensure that the Kashmir issue must be settled soon, preferably in favour of Pakistan!
The `received wisdom' could more or less be summed up as follows : "Unse bachke rahana - bahuth chaaloo log hain - kuchh bhi kar sakthe hain"! [Be careful of them - (Indian or Pakistani as the case might be) - they are very clever (cunning) and they are capable of just about anything]". Judging by conversations, the minds of family, friends, even teachers, seemed to reflect a prevailing sense of futility and cynicism about whether this bunch of kids might actually be able to achieve anything useful. At the same time there was clearly a shared curiosity as to how this interaction would actually turn out.
Notwithstanding all of the above and other interesting anecdotes of how `officials' responded on both sides of the border, here was a bunch of young people, many of whom had not been out of their home countries, and had never met their counterparts from `SARHAD KE US PAAR '. They had come in a spirit of readiness to learn, and to have fun - and it was the latter which provided the real glue to the entire exercise. That there were virtually no heated battles - verbal or otherwise - was a tribute to the care, concern, and yes, vigilance of the facilitating team!
Making peace is hard work
And it certainly was hard work - no holiday for sure! Sessions began right after breakfast at 0730 in the morning - and except for short breaks for lunch and dinner, they went on till late at night. And it was then that what we called "the real business" of the entire week was conducted - between 11pm and 3am !! Namely, the nightly heart to heart chats in small groups - outside under a brilliant moon; sipping cokes and coffee in the common rooms; or in their dormitories where there were carefully mixed groups - Indian, Pakistani and at least one `neutral' facilitator! The organizers had correctly anticipated that the real business of `bonding and bridge building' happens typically outside of the formal sessions. They were therefore more than willing to turn a blind eye to participants scrambling in at the last minute for breakfast, or slipping in to a session a few minutes late, as long as they were present and on time for the guest lectures.
Who am I? Who are you?
The first day and a half were devoted to `Getting to Know each Other' through a series of games and talks and creative activity designed to enable participants to express their hopes & dreams, aims & objectives of coming, fears and anxieties, personal and professional interests. A wonderful mural was constructed collectively, with each individual being given a square on which they could either paint, draw or write something which would express their vision for Peace in Kashmir. Before the end of the first evening, the facilitators had taken the group to a point where an Indian and a Pakistani student were teamed up together in pairs, through a random selection -in which they worked for the duration of the workshop.
Trust and Team Spirit - the basic building blocks for peace
Colombian Nobel Peace Prize Nominee - Gerson, had some wise words to share with this band of potential peace activists on the opening day of the formal programme:
"Adults call us the `future of the world' - why do we have to wait till we grow up and then decide what to do? What is important to be able to say clearly what we feel here and now - before more children are either killed or become orphans. In a world where war is increasingly international business, the only weapons you need to wage peace is respect and tolerance, and learning how to LIVE together, apart from merely learning HOW to live. We need to learn how to respect differences and above all to learn to believe in yourself. This is the message you have to carry to your leaders"
But the questions came fast and furious after the standing ovation. "If both our Governments have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo how will the Kashmir issue ever be solved?" "What about all those who believe that violence and terrorism is the only answer?"
Gerson was firm and clear in his responses - "you have to believe in peace, and demonstrate a commitment in your objective - only then can you take the word out to others. Peace is not an easy concept".
We were to return time and again to the words respect, tolerance, love, in the days we spent together painfully learning, unlearning and re-learning together - young and old alike. And a good part of the programme design was focused on the central message of shedding all the baggage of the past - shedding our fears - and building mutual confidence and trust in different ways. Beginning with simple classroom and management exercises, this evolved gradually into a variety of team building and trust creation activities conducted by different facilitators. On the fourth day - a local group `ASIA WORKS ' working on Leadership Development, took students through a grueling set of rope climbing, blindfold bridge crossing and wall climbing which required absolute trust in each other and demonstrated confidence in the team. The exhausted students voted it one of the best sessions.
Construction of history
This session marked a defining moment in the entire week - enabling the transition from being `politically correct and polite', into the focus issue of Kashmir and Pak India relations over the past fifty years. The session was divided into three sections .
In Part I, six country groups - three Indian and three Pakistani- were asked to spend 30 minutes reconstructing the history of the Kashmir conflict based on their recall of history and listing them on six chart papers for all to scrutinise. Going around as observers during their group work was revealing. Suddenly there was a change in the mood - this was serious stuff - perceptions and facts as taught or learned by each side were being written down in black and white and would be subject to scrutiny. I could hear anxious comments - `but if we put this down, there is bound to be a fight'. We don't want to spoil the mood'.'We want to stay friends……….''We must be sure of our facts'………..We reassured them that there would be no fights and they could go ahead without any fears.
Part II consisted of the feed back to the first part. Ground rules were explained - results of group work would be scrutinised by every one - in silence! No contesting or argument would be permitted at this stage. The objective was not to get into the rights or wrongs of the facts - but to understand why and how perceptions could vary so drastically; and how these had created a situation wherein two neighbours with so much in common could go to war with each other nearly four times in fifty four years. Viewed in retrospect, this was an important and necessary precaution.
Part III of the history exercise was slightly more difficult. Participants were now regrouped into four mixed groups of Indians and Pakistanis . The task was to jointly assess four selections from Indian and Pakistani history text books dealing with similar or the identical period/events. Prof Krishna Kumar's seminal work Prejudice and Pride - a comparative study of how history is taught in Indian and in Pakistani schools - was used as one of the points of reference. And the debate that followed was noteworthy in the degree of maturity, openness and sensitivity as can be seen in the following selection of comments from the feedback session:
Stella, a history major, then spent a while outlining some of the key principles which need to be kept in mind in any serious study of history - deriving from the last set of comments.
History for peace - is it possible?
We ended on a high note with unanimous support for the idea that there is need to enlist enlightened historians and educationists who would provide students on both sides with a broader view of History as an exercise in making Peace and not War. At the moment the education system in both countries is caught in the deadly vice of `perceiving education as a means of imparting a strong sense of National Identity', with `Nation Building' as the dominant aim. Intellectual development of the child is seen as secondary and therefore the teaching of history is also used as a means of ideological indoctrination. The proposition that we can and should act now, and independently, without waiting for the state, or institutions or education departments to initiate action met with vociferous support. All it needs are a few good people - a few interested schools from both sides of the border.
**In the perception of several of us, the session on Construction and Deconstruction of History played a key role in setting the tone for a non-confrontationist approach to the rest of the workshop, where several sensitive issues would need to be negotiated.
The power of Media, and its role in obtaining peace
From History to Media was the logical next step, creatively explored through lectures and interactive exercises. There were inputs from well known local media persons - as well as powerful experiential learning through a mutual examination of samplings of popular press and media publications from both countries. Given that media increasingly plays a powerful role in shaping popular perception - the impact of this segment was, if anything, even more dramatic. It succeeded in illustrating and demonstrating how the state, in collusion (deliberate or otherwise), with forces inimical to the construction of peace, had been able to sway the thinking and attitudes of millions in the subcontinent. This was especially seen in the responses and reactions to the nuclear tests and later the comparative nuclear capabilities of both countries; the Kargil conflict; the Gujarat riots in India; cross border terrorism; and several other current and historical events.
"We no longer know what to think or say - it is really shocking and at the same time so revealing" - "Ma'am - Didi - Surely something needs to be done? How can they get away with this?"
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL - understanding the dynamics of personal positions and the interface with interpretations of political developments.
Two very different kinds of sessions played their own role in shaping the trajectory of the workshop.
The first was a post dinner session evocatively titled MY KASHMIR - with all participants divided into small groups, where they were able to share their own intimate stories, perceptions, opinions, hopes, fears and dreams for Kashmir, for themselves, for their countries and their people. This was an almost totally student facilitator led exercise - and from all accounts, was an amazingly sensitive journey into some of the innermost feelings and contradictions within themselves.
The second - a lecture and Question and Answer session entitled `The Politics of the Indo-Pakistani conflict' turned out, quite unintentionally, to be more controversial. Projected as a presentation about the roles and actions of several players and actors in the present situation by a professor of political science, it unfortunately came across as a largely one-sided account - and led to some very strong reactions and discussions among students.
However, it also served to illustrate how easily biases can enter into apparently `neutral' interpretations - and was used to further strengthen understanding of the need to exercise utmost care in arriving at judgements or hastily formed opinions. And this was the perfect platform from which to launch into the segment which would look more minutely into how these opposing and conflicting positions and perceptions could best be managed.
Conflict management skills
Almost an entire day was devoted to an in depth delineation of actual conflict management skills by a professional , Keith Fitzgerald of SEACHANGE, who has handled several real life situations of tension and conflict in over 40 countries. In an insightful series of talks and activities, students actually played out a tactical game in which Indian and Pakistani positions and perceptions on Kashmir were outlined, and then negotiated to a point where some meeting points could be reached . Keith strongly contests the very notion of conflict resolution which he sees as a misguided notion. He underscored the fact that conflict is a necessary part of all relationships, and needs to be managed by the application of skills, tools and processes, till solutions can be negotiated to everyone's mutual satisfaction - leading to a win-win situation..
We do however need to be clear about our objectives -
The students very quickly learned what several diplomats and political leaders seldom seem to do - that we must make a distinction between `coercion' and `persuasion' - that there is a need to evolve and agree upon a framework which will provide some Common Measures of Success. One of the most important of these is that we should be able to generate SEVERAL OPTIONS - so that there is a good chance that diverse interests in any conflict will have a better chance of being satisfied. Student Perception : "Now we are beginning to see and understand how hard it must be to arrive at answers in a peaceful way."
The peace movement in India and Pakistan
It was against the solid backdrop of understanding the frailties of history and the media; the importance of TRUST and TEAM building; as also the need for skills in negotiation as much as a clear objective of PEACE, that there were presentations about the Peace Movement in India and Pakistan by retired Service men who are today committed to waging peace and are involved in several peace initiatives, including a clear position against nuclearisation and militarisation.
By sheer `happenchance' - and thanks to the vagaries of visas and flights - the first formal presentation regarding the peace movement in both countries turned out to be a study in contrast - with one presenter outlining various peace initiatives, and taking a clear position against nuclear weapons, while the other dealt with a familiar historical recap of real and perceived grievances! For the students, already alert to the nuances of the situation - they were agitated that a session purportedly for Peace Initiatives, actually had some `not so peaceful undertones ! Fortunately, the actual presenter finally did arrive and put the record right in a masterly presentation a few days later. The questions were again probing and insightful ……..
What is the space for 'Voices of the future'?
A brief digression here into the ways in which the Indian and Pakistani establishments function might be useful here as an object lesson in understanding the deep divide and the extent of baggage and mistrust which we are all carrying and which any peace negotiators - young or old - have to overcome.
The Singapore college had, several months ago, invited the envoys of both India and Pakistan, to address students on the Kashmir Issue and also explained the proposed Focus Kashmir Programme and requested their support and co-operation. The reaction of the diplomats to this is itself revealing of the entrenched positions from which movement is difficult. The Indian envoy seemed to have reservations about a college in Singapore hosting such a Conference, which he felt was against India's policy of `no third party mediation 'on the question of Kashmir!! In contrast, The Pakistani High Commissioner was almost over enthusiastic in his support to the enterprise! Furthermore, unconfirmed reports indicate that a large part of the Pakistani student delegation were `briefed' by Foreign Office representatives in Islamabad before their departure and were also provided with sheafs of propaganda material. Typically each one only acted in accordance to the predictable and well known positions of their governments on Kashmir!
The Pakistani envoy in Singapore hosted a reception for all participants- Indians, Pakistanis, other student and staff of the UWC, and also some of us who were there as Resource Persons. [However, this happened after the college held out for an invitation to all participants, as against just Pakistanis!] There was no evidence of any such support forthcoming from the Indian Mission much to the dismay of the organisers, whose concerns were naturally that students from both countries should feel that their Governments representatives abroad were supportive of youth initiatives for peace.
After our arrival in Singapore and hearing of these unhappy developments, the Admiral sought a meeting with the Indian High Commissioner, hoping to persuade him that his presence might encourage these young Indians and Pakistanis who had come together in an endeavour to bring peace. At the end of an hour long conversation we thought that we had managed to convince His Excellency that his valuable time might have truly been well spent with a group of idealistic youth from both countries - and that this kind of investment in bridge building might serve both countries well in the long run.
However, it seems that this was only a partial change of heart, judging from the invitation received telephonically on behalf of the High Commissioner for just five Indian students (out of a total of 20), along with us four Indian resource persons, for a luncheon. We had to decline this on two grounds - one that it was impossible for any of us to get away during the lunch break given the packed nature of the programme. More significantly, the decision was taken on a matter of the same principle conveyed to the Pakistan High commission - namely that the invitation should include all participants in the spirit of the entire conference.
We really wished that he or his deputy had been present at the Public Dinner event where young Indians and Pakistanis stepped up to the mike and spoke of their commitment and resolve to find peaceful solutions to the problems.
We wish too that he could have heard and seen Kashmiri singer Seema Sehgal, surrounded by the entire group of admiring students from both countries, sing nazms and songs of peace by Indian and Pakistani composers and poets, including one by our honorable Prime Minister - Shri Vajpayee, saying that we will not allow war to break out and how we must work for Peace.
Suffice it to say - that these are the grim, but sad realities of our present attitudes to each other and there should be no illusions as to the long struggle ahead. One is saddened however by the tunnel vision displayed by those whose very charter should be to actively take the lead if not support, the emergence of such courageous initiatives - especially involving young people!
Peace initiatives on the ground
The last two days were spent examining and exploring various PEACE INITIATIVES and coming up with concrete possibilities for action at policy level, with peers, media, education system and community. In between, role plays, songs and other exercises helped to develop deeper understanding of the actual ground realities and the mind sets on either side. It was continuous learning - even for the adults - and we will recall the controversy over a song , "Mandir, Masjid, Girjighar ne Baant liyaa Bhagwaan ko, Math Baanto Insaan Ko" which has been sung over decades as part of the communal harmony programmes in India. Every one loved the song, learned and sang it with gusto, until some doubts surfaced from some Pakistani students as to whether it called into question their belief in the 2 Nation Theory. We shared our reservations, agreed to disagree , but in the event decided amicably against a public joint rendition of it, with both sides being able to laugh, and cry, and to say with hope, confidence, and a certain wryness - "we will remain friends even after all of this".
It is nobody's case that long standing issues such as Indo-Pak relations and Kashmir can be addressed or solutions found in the space of a week long interaction such as the one described herein. There are still many areas of discomfort on both sides. Several basic issues were touched upon but not explored further, such as the question of secularism as a founding principle of one state, dear to the hearts of every Indian participant, and an equally strong affirmation of the Two Nation Theory which was the basis of the creation of Pakistan for students from there. The lessons to be drawn lie embedded in the boldness of the concept itself,the determination to go ahead with it in the face of numerous hurdles, above all the kind of heartwarming human relations and friendships that developed in the course of the days spent together.
The Singapore experience was special also because it provided an answer to the question raised by Gerson - `why do we have to wait till we grow up to show we can do something too?" That we have a lot to learn from young people was evident throughout in the quality and confidence of the team of young facilitators of the UWC movement, as also in the maturity and openness of the Staff of UWC who allowed and encouraged the young people to take the lead.
We have been part of several peace initiatives and workshops. With each one, we come away energised and excited - realising that working with young people in an open-ended and sensitive manner is most rewarding, and therein lies the hope for the future. We have also realised that it is important to sustain the enthusiasm , the euphoria, the hopes and dreams that such endeavours generate.
We are conscious that very often it is our own internal rifts and differences within the peace movement that causes even more disillusionment and harm to the aspirations and the idealism of youth. How can we enable and truly facilitate more such encounters? How can we pull together and synergise the outcomes and questions of several similar efforts and exchanges over the past few years? How can we use the lessons learned to help provide directions and support to a more broadbased Youth Movement for Peace in the Region? How can we help in taking these messages to our policy makers, politicians and bureaucrats, the media, and to the citizens of both nations?
More questions than answers - but maybe we too will learn to practice the values of respect, tolerance and real love which these wonderful youngsters showered on us and each other in such abundance!Lalita Ramdas
Lalita Ramdas lives and works out of the village of Bhaimala, in Alibag Dist on the Konkan coast, and is involved with several initiatives for Peace and Peace Education - especially on the Communal Question, on Indo Pak Relations and the Nuclear Issue. She also works with community and primary education in local Zilla Parishad schools in over 150 villages in Alibag Taluka through Pratham Raigad Trust.