Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Building peace across borders

Anam Zakaria
A young peacebuilder who works hard to deal with the challenges of bias, mutual demonization and distrust between India and Pakistan, Anam Zakaria has an inspiring story. Here’s all that she has to share, in her own words.

In all honesty, I cannot recall a particular moment that got me engaged in my work. I was 12 when I first volunteered at an orphanage. I suppose I had gone in with a sense of privilege, of wanting to help the underprivileged. I don't think I was really able to help as a 12 year old but I remember coming back and thinking "I want to do this again, and again." My concept of privilege and of wanting to 'help' had been challenged. The children did not need to be helped; they were full of energy, full of curiosity, full of love and warmth. If anything, I came back helped by their outlook on life, by their positive and upbeat way of being. That experience was followed by several more internship and volunteering experiences, among different communities and groups across Lahore. By the time I was making my decision to go to university, I knew my studies had to do something with bringing meaningful change, and that too in the lives of children; for it is children who are most impressionable, who soak in what is taught, who are so full of kindness and without any trace of discrimination and intolerance.
At the India-Pakistan-Kashmir Conference organised by
Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace in Delhi
Image (c) Anam Zakaria

It was when I returned to Pakistan after my studies and joined the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) - a local organization aimed towards cultural and historic preservation- that my interests began to crystalize. I remember it was as I launched CAP's Exchange-for-Change project, which was meant to connect thousands of school children in India and Pakistan through letters, pictures and recorded oral histories, that for the first time I became a first-hand witness to the animosity that was breeding among the youth. This was not only towards India but non-Muslims in general and was present among many institutional heads and faculty members as well.  It was extremely disquieting to see that children as young as 10 and 11 were beginning to form rigid mindsets about the ‘other,’ that biased curriculum and filtered information sharing was molding opinions. I think that was the realization point that something had to change, for without this I could foresee a myopic future, with hardline beliefs and prejudice plaguing the generations to come.

When I was heading the Exchange-for-Change project as CAP’s Director Lahore & Islamabad, we faced several challenges. From courier companies refusing to carry bulk e-mail to the “enemy territory,” to schools refusing to partake in a project that had anything to do with India. Fortunately, however, there were many people who came out in support of the program and it has now become a huge success.

In terms of my independent research on Partition for my upcoming book, there have been a few hurdles. One of the most common ones is the hostile reaction to my interest in cross-border relationships. I’ve been accused more than once of challenging the Two Nation Theory and conducting anti-state activity by suggesting there is anything similar between India and Pakistan and have been harassed by intelligence officials on my ‘purpose’ of visits across the border multiple times.

At the India-Pakistan-Kashmir Conference organised by
Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace in Delhi
Image (c) Anam Zakaria
Another challenge is the mainstream discourse in society and the official educational curriculum across the board. By the time I have conversations with students to challenge conventional understanding of the ‘other,’ many of them have already spent hours memorizing the hate curriculum that helps them graduate from school. Providing a counter-narrative is challenging in this context but overtime, seeing change in students is more gratifying than anything else.

I spent three years with CAP, conducting oral history interviews with the first and second generations of Pakistan and using the narratives to inculcate tolerance and critical thinking among school and college children. Currently, I am heading education sector projects at the Association for the Development of Pakistan (ADP)- a philanthropy organization that funds grassroots level initiatives run by local NGOs- helping construct schools and improving the quality of education in remoter areas of the country. I am also teaching Development Studies to high school students in Islamabad, which includes varying topics like gender equality, human rights and poverty.

I have recently completed writing a book exploring the changing narrative of Partition and the ‘other’ in Pakistan. The book, titled Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Indians and Pakistanis, is being published by HarperCollins, India and will be released in 2015.  Simultaneously, I’m enrolled in a diploma program in counseling, with a special interest in trauma and healing. I hope to eventually inculcate this into my community work in Pakistan.

There is so much I wish for when it comes to India and Pakistan and their future, but perhaps two most important goals for me are a better understanding of our shared past and increased, easier and open travel & communication. I want to see the day when I’m able to drive to Amritsar in my car, eat delicious vegetarian food for lunch and be back in Lahore before evening without months of planning, visa processing and rigorous background checks!

One of the biggest impediments I faced while researching for my book were visa and travel restrictions between India and Pakistan. The police reporting, the extensive paperwork, limited city visas and the delays in visa processing are so frustrating. It prevented me from conducting extensive research in India, from being able to travel to different cities and collecting diverse narratives. The suspicion and mistrust are great obstacles to the work that can be done between the two countries. As one of my interviewees said, “These laws and policies are made for people with evil intentions. Why is that they often get away and it is instead ordinary people that are caught in between?”

Sharing positive stories and connecting school children and school teachers with each other is a way people can help the cause. I believe that one of the best ways to learn about the ‘other’ is through the ‘other’ itself and I feel that micro-level initiatives can be instrumental in bringing change. If people can continue collecting and sharing stories of the past and present that bridge the disconnect between India and Pakistan and between the Partition survivors and the youth which is removed by decades from the event, we can bring meaningful change. If you have stories, please share, and if you work in schools or colleges, get in touch so we can connect more and more Indians and Pakistanis, dispel stereotypes and allow informed opinion making.