India, personally

Going by the media hype amplifying the statements of Indian politicians you’d be forgiven for thinking that all of India wants to go to war with Pakistan. Or, at the very least, have nothing to do with its troublesome western neighbour. You’d be dead wrong, going by the Indians I have encountered.

No, I’m not talking about the traditional peace activists, bleeding heart liberals with emotional ties to the other side because that’s where their forefathers migrated from, people whose parents or grandparents studied at Kinnaird or Government College, or who have a nostalgia for Lahore, or who had homes and lands in Sialkot, Jhelum or other Punjabi towns or villages.
I’m talking about youth like Nikhil, all of 22 years old. No nostalgia, no ties to what is now Pakistan. Dressed in red reindeer patterned sweatpants and a red Polo t-shirt, he came to meet me in Delhi with a mutual friend, only because he wanted to “meet a Pakistani”. He had never come across one before.

What did he think about happenings at the Line of Control (this was mid-August, when tensions were at their peak). He didn’t really know much about all that, he said (obviously either didn’t watch much TV or was impervious to the rants featured in the media). After a little small talk, he took off. I was clearly not quite the alien species he was perhaps subconsciously expecting. This is not to poke fun at him. After all, the first time he visited India as a young cricketer, even Imran Khan thought Indians would have horns on their heads, as he admitted in a talk in Delhi years later.

There’s a whole new generation of Indians out there like Nikhil, who have no ties, emotional or physical, to the area that became Pakistan. Many of them are not Punjabis either. They are all over the country. Not just Delhi or Amritsar, but Kanyakumari, Hyderabad, Kerala, Kolkata, Vadodara… And they want peace. They want to travel, to sample food from the other side, to shop and to make friends.

Consider the recent journey of the Delhi University Students for Peace. They set out from Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of India, cycling through the hinterland, stopping to rest at ashrams, dharamshalas and schools in small towns and villages along the way. Their slogan: “We love our neighbour Pakistan”. Schoolchildren along the way cheered them on and made peace flags and signs for them. And some pretty high powered leaders lent them support – even BJP strongman and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi gave them a letter applauding their mission. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit met them and hosted them at a reception.

But never mind those who met them under the glare of the media and may have been trying to make political capital. What about the thousands of ordinary people they met along the way – they got at least 5,000 signatures for their cause. Had the kind of hostility amplified by the media existed at the grassroots level, they would certainly have encountered it. And yet, they only received overwhelming support and goodwill. What does this say about the mood that is projected in the media?

Of course there are elements in India that are hostile to Pakistan and want either aggressive action or at least nothing to do with it. Those who vandalised the Pakistani (and Indian) artists’ paintings in Ahmedabad. Those who attacked the ‘Dosti bus’ from Delhi to Lahore. Those who are calling out Tom”teach Pakistan a lesson”. Do they not have their counterparts (and worse) in Pakistan too? These extremists – in Pakistan, ‘fasadis’ not jihadis – cannot in any way be considered representative of the people of India and Pakistan as a whole. Yet they are the ones who make it to the news headlines.

It’s a sign of political maturity that the leadership of both countries is not taking the bait of the ultra right on either side, and that the Prime Ministers are going ahead with their meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this month. They may not accomplish much, or resolve any outstanding issues, but as Ali Sardar Jafri wrote, “Guftugu band na ho / Baat se baat chaley…(Let the dialogue continue).”

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