I write this blog amid an atmosphere of constant acrimony between the states of India and Pakistan for many months now. Daily headlines scream at the innocent reader how the other side violated ceasefire and indulged in unprovoked firing. I am sure on the other side too, such headlines make xenophobic sentiments soar, taking us further and further away from rapprochement of any kind. It also kindles some old memories as well as some recent experiences which compel me to share my opinion on this festering wound on the soul of the subcontinent.
More than a decade and a half ago; as an Air Force Cadet at the National Defense Academy, I heard about the death of seniors with whom I had trained just a few months back. And now they were dead. The Pakistanis had killed them. The Pakistanis were our enemies and we needed to exact revenge.
Yet many years later, as I pursued my Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, among students from nearly 100 nationalities, I found a natural affinity with people from not only India but also Pakistan. In fact, upon meeting a student from Pakistan, a smile inadvertently played on my lips and my arms opened automatically for an embrace and I was left wondering, "Are we really so different that we can't be friends?"
One day during lunch at school, I was sitting with Saadia from Pakistan on one side and Divya from India on the other. We were discussing everything from politics to movies to cricket to food back home and everything seemed exactly the same in the two countries. That was when it hit me that leave alone our differences, the people of India and Pakistan are in fact one people but divided into two nations.
To explore this crazy idea, I discussed it with a few more Indian and Pakistani students. Reflecting on the question of similarity of Indians and Pakistanis, Amir, a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School from Pakistan, wondered aloud; "Whenever I meet someone who looks like us, I don't know why I ask: Are you Indian?" Similarly, Irfan Alam who is a mid-career student from India posed a rhetorical question to me: "Why do I feel like talking to every Pakistani as much as I feel like talking to every Indian?"
I was encouraged by the fact that people on both sides of the divide felt the same familiarity towards each other which they did not quite understand, as after all we were always told that the other side was the enemy and we were fundamentally and irreconcilably different.
Still I felt that mere feelings were not enough and had to be substantiated by research to lay credence to the claim of being one people.
The research about the Indian subcontinent educated me that it is defined as a peninsular region in south-central Asia, delineated by the Himalayas in the north, the Hindu Kush in the west, and the Arakanese in the east. The region roughly comprises of the territories of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh with the addition of Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The fact that this region is isolated from the rest of Asia by mountain barriers led to the development of a shared civilization history which goes back more than 5300 years. Being geographically isolated, the region developed a distinct culture that is still shared by people from India and Pakistan. The culture cuts across nationalities and manifests itself in the major languages, traditions and the norms of the region.
Indians and Pakistanis share a history where they together fought off the armies of Alexander the Great and suffered together under the atrocities of Timur the Lame. They struggled together against the British Raj and won independence together. Yet, they fell into the trap of an idea promoted by the divide and rule policy of the British. That policy said that they were no longer one people, because they followed different religions and people of different religious faiths could not be one nation. Suddenly brother turned on brother and the subcontinent burned and is burning still! Four wars and thousands of deaths later, the people of the India and Pakistan are still held hostage to that idea.
Both India and Pakistan not only share history but also misery. There is shortage of power in both India and Pakistan. At night, the footpaths in both Indian and Pakistani cities are full of sleeping, homeless people. Piles of rubbish litter our streets and theirs. There are armies of beggar children on both sides of the border, yet instead of choosing to recognize the common problems confronting us, we chose to spend billions of valuable dollars on our armies, stockpiling ever growing mountains of weapons designed for mutual destruction.
Yet, I feel a surge of hope when I hear about Bollywood songs playing at Pakistani weddings and Pakistani singers making a mark in India. I feel hopeful when Sarmad, an MPA student from Pakistan, tells me that people of Pakistan want peace, not war. I see hope in the fact that despite India having a predominantly Hindu majority, it still has more Muslims than in Pakistan and Pakistan despite being an Islamic state has Hindu and Sikh minorities. How can people who share common languages, festivals, traditions, tastes, culture and even appearance to the extent of common names across the border, be called different? We, the people of India and Pakistan, look the same, eat the same food, watch the same movies, play the same games, and share the same problems, yet we are divided. This can only be an accident of history that sooner than later has to be corrected if we are to progress as a people who have lived, shared and prospered together for eons altogether.
While we need to be pragmatic and respect the idea that India and Pakistan are two independent and proud nation states, we certainly can dream of a day when India and Pakistan can be like US and Canada. When People, Ideas, Culture and Prosperity flows freely across irrelevant borders. I dream of a day when I can eat the biryani in Gawalmandi street in Lahore and my friends can eat the golgappe in Delhi. A day when we can harness the collective youth and energy of the subcontinent to restore the pride, prosperity and peace that is due to this land which is the cradle of civilization itself.
In the end, I ask a simple question, if France, England and Germany can set aside their differences spread across centuries of conflict and two world wars, to create a European Union, why can't we?