As a Pakistani I would have liked to see Asia Society’s recent gathering of young Indian and Pakistani leaders in Islamabad meet under happier circumstances. Then we could have taken our Indian friends on a sightseeing excursion to the ancient ruins of Taxila, or to see the curved arches of the Pakistan Monument Museum lit up at night. Unfortunately, we came together in late September with the backdrop of the war on terror and the ever looming cloud of hostility between our two countries.
But for all the history of animosity and violence between our nations, this small gathering proved that our children might be able to meet in those better circumstances if we realize how much our two countries share and stop focusing on what separates us.
The focus of our meeting, part of an initiative to get young leaders from Indian and Pakistani engaging in a positive dialogue, already showed some of the progress made from previous generations. The issue of partition, which loomed so large for our parents and grandparents, was not on the docket. Instinctively we realized that as much as we must be aware of our past, both common and separate, and of things that unite or divide us, it is time we stopped waging a war on history. To us partition was an accident of fate—just as any other historical event usually is—and Pakistan and India exist as two neighbouring countries.
We discussed, too, how history, even contested history, can be corrected to reveal a more honest rendering. When Pakistan founder father Muhammad Ali Jinnah left Delhi for the last time, he said: “The past must be buried and let us start afresh as two independent sovereign states of Hindustan (India) and Pakistan. I wish Hindustan prosperity and peace.”
This is just one snippet from our contested history that gave our group reason to pause and rethink the national narratives of mutual hate. Jinnah, who was once hailed by Indian National Congress as the “best ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity” and who had once famously proclaimed “I am an Indian first, second and last,” remained an Indian national even after partition. He wanted to spend his retirement years in Bombay just as Gandhi, the father of India, wanted to spend his last days in Pakistan. Neither was given a chance.
There is, however, a chance for our generation to look to this shared history as much as, if not more than the three wars we have fought since independence and the build-up of nuclear weapons. Sixty per cent of Pakistanis are below 30 years or less. This means that 60% of Pakistanis living today were born after 1983 and have no recollection of the two fissions of 1947 and 1971. Their Pakistani identity is not based on “not being India”, or seeing the other country as a mortal enemy. This is not to say that the younger generation should ignore history, but rather learn from it and attempt to move beyond violence to a place of peaceful co-existence.
Unfortunately, while five Pakistanis and six Indians broke bread in Islamabad, our governments continued to engage in a disastrous zero-sum game of one-upmanship, with the two prime ministers taking pot shots at each other in New York. We did our best to ignore their examples and talk about some of the biggest issues facing our nations.
Among us was Satchit Balsari, an emergency physician from New York who could just as easily have been a writer, poet, or star from the cast of the popular American series Grey’s Anatomy. Then there was Tridivesh Singh Maini, a passionate author who is often invited to speak in Pakistan on India-Pakistan issues. He gave me his book on partition which is a testament to the humanity of ordinary people faced with adversity. We had the measured and collected Priti Radhakrishnan, a lawyer who is known to be a headache for major drug companies in New York. There were also Rohit Kumar, the head of public policy for a leading national legislator in India, and Ayesha Amaan, an extremely enterprising young woman who broke social and cultural barriers to become a very successful businesswoman and philanthropist in Bangalore. The Pakistani set of leaders included Mehmal Sarfraz, a leading journalist in the country, Samar Ataullah, a film-maker, producer and media consultant, Saba Shaikh, a lawyer-cum-civil society activist and Sarah Hossain, an internationalist poet, feminist and writer.
During the course of the discussion, many of us had to learn and unlearn what we thought we knew about the “other”, so much that the very idea of “otherness” became irrelevant. At the forum we transcended our national identities and met as individuals with common dreams and hopes, much of which we also pinned on there being a chance for sustainable peace and goodwill between our two countries.
In the end we were one team and each of us was a team player. Being part of the “Goof(a) Gang”, the name we spontaneously decided to give our class of fellows, taught us that no matter what difficulties our countries encountered in the past, peace and tolerance are common human aspirations—aspirations that now need to translate into tangible reality.
Yasser Hamdani is a lawyer practising mainly, though not exclusively, in the area of human rights, especially minorities’ rights, access to information and freedom of speech.