South Asia

Letter From a Pakistani to an Indian Friend: Can We Please Have a South Asian Union?

Let people meet, trade and travel.

Dear Vijayan,

At the end of Ramazan, sending good wishes to you and your fellow citizens in India from Pakistan.

With elections in your country over and Narendra Modi firmly back in the driving seat, will relations between our countries return to normalcy? Normal as in, relations between normal neighbours, say Canada and the US (as envisaged by our founding father). Not the current dysfunctional relationship fed by violence in the name of religion and nationalism.

Injecting religion into politics is a bad idea. Pakistan found out the hard way. Now India is going that route, with mobs lynching Muslims and Dalits in the name of ‘cow protection’. Like our ‘blasphemy’ laws on the pretext of which nearly 70 people have been killed merely after being accused of this crime.

Relations between our countries must improve, for the sake of the people. We may have nuclear arms, but India and Pakistan can’t feed, clothe and educate millions of their citizens. Tensions between us hinder development in the entire South Asia region. And yes, Pakistan is part of South Asia, not the Middle East.

Embracing our multiple identities and pluralism is a way forward, to move beyond the Hindu-Muslim binaries (or any religion).

Also read: Sister Act: Women Warriors for Peace Rap With Punjabi Poetry

The year has felt like a roller coaster so far. The Pulwama suicide attack on your side of Kashmir on February 14 speaks to the situation there. Rather than gifting roses on Valentine’s Day, a teenaged Kashmiri chose to kill himself while targeting Indian security forces. In the video released on social media, he said he would be rewarded in heaven.

Those who carry out violent acts are pawns in the hands of sectarian masterminds, to quote the late great human rights lawyer and peace activist Asma Jahangir. She said this about the young men who attacked her house in Lahore more than 20 years ago, but the pattern continues. She forgave them and withdrew charges because she said they were not the ones responsible.

Why are youth so susceptible to the hate narrative? “Give them all jobs, and no one will go for violence,” says Aruna Roy, one of your many inspirational activists. Unemployment combined with humiliation can be a powerful trigger.

But you know all that. The Voice of America radio roundtable discussion we participated in after Pulwama wouldn’t have brought in ratings because we agree on too much. Like the need for introspection about human rights abuses at home.

For instance, India must stop human rights abuses in Kashmir, one of the world’s most heavily militarised regions, and withdraw troops from Kashmir that many Kashmiris see as occupation. Soldiers are victims too. They don’t choose where to be deployed. As you’ve noted, more soldiers have been killed in Kashmir in the last five years than the previous 15 combined.

Also, Pakistan must give more autonomy to the part of Kashmir under its control, and act against violence in the name of religion. The ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ policy must go. Not because India or anyone else demands it, but for our own sakes.

Things in Pakistan were calming down after our elections last year – the second peaceful transfer of power in the country. As elections in India approached there were fears that something would happen to neutralise the opposition. That’s what happened with the Pulwama attack that India blamed Pakistan for.

There is much wrong with Pakistan, but it is also a convenient scapegoat. Surrounded by hostile powers, it has always been insecure. The military dictator in the 1980s nurtured militants in the first Afghan war against the ‘godless Communists’ at the behest of the US and Saudi Arabia. The ‘mujahideen’ of those years morphed into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other groups.

When the brakes are pulled on a pro-militant, anti-India train going full throttle since the 1980s, it takes time to stop and change direction. Meanwhile, militants have killed over 70,000 Pakistani civilian and 10,000 security personnel since 2001 when the next military dictator tried half-heartedly to reverse earlier policies.

Politicians like Modi know that the 24/7 media beast thrives on conflict and will amplify war cries. Are India’s nuclear weapons firecrackers to be kept for a religious festival, he asked. “Boys with toys” (yes, there are women war-cheerleaders too). Reminds me of the US president. And the cartoon I did with Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit after the nuclear tests of 1998 – ‘Who will pee furthest in South Asia’.

Also read: Leading Thinkers in India, Pakistan Are Trying to Build a Bridge to Peace

Seriously though, why can’t we fight over who will first eradicate poverty and illiteracy? Or violence against women, so-called ‘honour’ killings? Isn’t that a challenge that your prime minister threw out after he was elected last time?

The Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) we have been a part of articulated a critical paradigm shift at its first convention: India and Pakistan must see Kashmir not as a territorial dispute but as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the people, who must be involved in any dialogue about their future.

But it’s the land that India’s dominant narrative focuses on. The Kashmiris can go to hell. Or Pakistan. Same thing, scoff right-wing Indians. They and their brethren across the border have long branded people like us “anti-national”. I say #TraitorsOfTheWorldUnite.

Now they have another tool, social media, to target us with. The hype, amplified by media and social media, gives the impression that everyone in India wants to attack Pakistan. And vice versa. We know that’s not true.

I loved the video you put together last year, with two little girls from India and Pakistan singing each other’s national anthems for our Independence Days in August. That doesn’t bring the ratings though. Or make headlines. The children are lucky they weren’t charged with treason.

It made no headlines when on a few days’ notice, hundreds joined the Global StandOut for Peace in South Asia demonstrations against the war hype between India and Pakistan in the first week of March, in some 20 cities from Kolkatta to Karachi, London and Oslo to San Francisco and LA, you in Delhi, me in Boston. It would have gone viral if participants had turned violent.

The din of sensationalism drowns out voices for peace. But if historical enemies France and Germany can join a European Union, why can’t India and Pakistan be part of a South Asian Union? Why can’t we have a visa-free region? Let people meet, trade and travel.

For that we’ll have to set aside egos and outdated notions of “honour”. Stop human rights abuses, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Stop letting extremists radicalise the youth, Muslim or Hindu.

It’s a long war. We’ll just have to “keep on keepin’ on”, as the peace activist Joe Gerson in Boston says.

I’ll end with Eid Mubarak. Take care and hope to see better times soon.


Beena Sarwar is a senior Pakistani journalist.