Aliya Harir was born in 1991 in Karachi, and grew up hating India. As a child, she’d often worry about India attacking Pakistan and ask her father where he’d take her in case an attack happened. But today, she is one of the founding members of the Catalyst, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working for peace. It is a part of the Aaghaz-e-Dosti (start of friendship) initiative, in association with Mission Bhartiyam group of India, to enhance people-to-people relations between India and Pakistan.

“Hatred that marked the creation of India and Pakistan 68 years ago is still prevalent in both the countries. Lasting peace is long overdue and crucial, and this must begin at the grass-root level. It is essential to enhance people-to-people communication as we feel that miscommunication and lack of communication have sustained the conflict," says Harir who was in India recently.

What triggered Harir’s change of heart? As it turns out, cricket had its part to play in the transformation. She was living in the US as an exchange student in 2011, the same year India won the 50-over cricket World Cup, defeating Pakistan on the way to the title. She wasn’t even over the heartbreak when she met the first Indian on foreign soil. Cricket came up during the conversation and Harir lost her cool. As the sting of the loss faded over the next few months and she met more Indians, Harir realized that “something was incorrect about India’s popular perception in Pakistan". The turning point came later that year, when she was nursing an illness at a hospital. To her surprise, most of her visitors were Indians. “It was the beginning of the realization that Indians and Pakistanis are very similar beyond the boundaries and differences constructed by politicians and the media," says Harir.

Back in Pakistan in 2012, she enrolled for a degree in International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University and started the Catalyst to bring about social change. And then Aaghaz-e-Dosti happened. In 2012, Mission Bhartiyam, a Delhi-based NGO which was already working in the field of peace, communal harmony and human rights, started the Aaghaz-e-Dosti initiative. In 2013, the Catalyst joined the initiative as a full-time partner.

Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an unfunded initiative, tries to reach out to students, common people, politicians and victims of conflict like soldiers, prisoners and fishermen. Organizations that have joined them—like Mission Bhartiyam and the Catalyst—undertake all activities voluntarily.

“Like any new venture, there were grave challenges," says Harir. “While some people were excited, many were pessimistic. It was also quite difficult to find collaborating organizations. There was also the issue of trust. People in Pakistan called us traitors. It took time to be accepted."

Aaghaz-e-Dosti’s chapters in Pakistan (Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Toba Tek Singh and Peshawar) and India (New Delhi, Dehradun, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Vadodara and Mumbai) are its core activity centres. “We conduct virtual activities wherever possible," says Harir. “Our strength is that we are a pool of students and young professionals who are doing this in addition to our studies or jobs. There are no full-time activists. This is a youth-led and women-led initiative."

Aaghaz-e-Dosti began by connecting people via social media (Facebook, Twitter) with campaigns such as Indo-Pak Tea Time, Did You Know, On this day in history, Exploring Indo-Pak and Know your neighbour. It holds interactive sessions in schools and colleges in the two countries called Aman Chaupals (discussions, seminars and peace workshops). It also has a peace-building course called Friends Beyond Borders—people from either sides of the border engage in dialogue over different issues for eight weeks over Skype which are run on social media.

“We conduct activities from member subscriptions and contributions. We look for funds from other like-minded organizations only for our annual event: the launch of the Indo-Pak peace calendar," says Harir.

Through the use of social media—it is now present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, Skype and Wordpress—Harir says, they have been able to connect people from both sides of the border, facilitate knowledge-sharing, and help develop a bond and hope for peace and progress.

Today, Aaghaz-e-Dosti has become one of the most prominent voices on peace between the two nations. It was a finalist under the “Advocacy" and “Best use of Social Media" at the third eNGO South Asia Challenge 2014. It was also recently felicitated by the Welingkar Institute of Management, Mumbai, at the Global Peace Initiative 2015 programme.

However, challenges remain. “We are yet to work on major issues like educational exchanges, cross-border music programmes and collaborations to ensure that peace education is part of formal education in both countries," says Harir. “But our ground-level activities have kept alive the constituency for peace, ensuring that the gun is not the only prism through which Indians and Pakistanis view each other."

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.

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