Sunday, August 14, 2016

Indo-Pak Context: bias, conflict and the way forward

By Anam Zakaria

   “There’s nothing special about India. It’s our enemy!” yelled one child. “It’s full of those Hindus. They aren’t good people,” added another. The rest of the children either laughed along and slapped each other on the back or were too busy cracking jokes and gossiping with friends to care about this so called ‘enemy state.’ This was 2011, and we were sitting in an upper-middle class school in Lahore, the heart of Punjab.

     A couple of years later, as I spoke to students of a similar age-group, seated in a school in Mumbai, I asked them to tell me about the first thought that came to their mind when I said Pakistan. A hush fell on the class. Students looked from one side to the other, presumably wondering how much they could share. To put them at ease, I told them to share openly. I told them I wouldn’t be offended. One of them hesitatingly said “war.” Taking the lead, another responded, “some people say you should never trust a Pakistani, they always betray you.” “Yes, we have heard it’s a place full of terrorists,” added a student at the back. When I asked the children how many of them had ever interacted with a Pakistani or Indian (depending on which country they belonged to), hardly one or two hands were raised. Yet the opinions they seemed to hold about the ‘other’ seemed firm, rooted, almost like an intrinsic belief.

    I was not surprised. Since 2010, I have been involved in student exchange programs and initiatives between India and Pakistan, trying to bring the stereotypes held against the ‘other’ to the forefront and help students challenge them through greater access to each other. The India-Pakistan narrative in both countries, and the understanding of the ‘other,’ is marred with suspicion, biases and mistrust. And this only seems to get worse with time. The more and more Indians and Pakistanis move away from the bloody divide of 1947, the more entrenched the prejudices tend to become.

    In a country like Pakistan where most Pakistanis spend an entire lifetime without ever coming across a Hindu or Sikh, the ‘other’ then becomes a figment of the imagination, an imagination fuelled by filtered oral histories, biased textbooks and media propaganda. In the following paragraphs, I hope to analyze the impact of each of these on perceptions and mindsets about the ‘other.’

      The first is the role that oral histories play in sustaining a collective memory of the past, one that is often impacted by macro level narratives and prejudices. In Pakistan, especially in Punjab, the Two-Nation theory is overtly and tacitly propagated at all levels. This means that over and over again, the State reinforces the need for the creation of Pakistan and the need for separation from the ‘infidel other.’ In order to do this, stories of bloodshed and of Muslims being killed at the hands of the ‘other’ religion, a religion that ‘we’ could not co-exist with, are constantly put forward. This reinforcement at the macro level has an impact on private, personal memories. The traumatic images of blood-strewn trains, massacred bodies, displaced refugees and bewildered children become etched in the minds Partition survivors. Earlier memories of co-existence, of friendship, of joint festivities like Diwali, Baisakhi and Eid, seemed to become absorbed by these more tragic and violent memories. Often, I found in my interviews with Partition survivors that even if one had not lost a single family member, they had come to internalize other people’s stories of trauma and loss and continued to see the past through that lens. Urvashi Butalia sums this up best when she states, “Partition refugees often personalize stories of general violence and trauma, telling and feeling them to be their own, and marking the shifts in political climate, location, as felt, personal things.”[1]

     As a result, the oral histories received by many of the children I worked with had also been coloured by these bloody memories. The stories these children heard were of the violence, the divide and the brutality. Softer memories, fonder episodes of cordial co-existence and harmony seemed to have no place amidst the linear, black and white master narratives. It is not like Partition survivors had forgotten the less tragic memories. Whenever, probed, whenever asked a different set of questions, which moved beyond the narrow framework of recording Partition atrocities, many Partition survivors would unfold a magnitude of other stories. They would speak for hours about their neighbours, about childhood games, school events and festivities, and many would tell me that they were in fact rescued by people from the ‘other’ religion. In these moments, this ‘other’ would transform from a brutal savage monster into a mere human being. Political psychologist Ashis Nandy’s work further corroborates these accounts. Out of 1500 interviews with Partition survivors, he found that “40 per cent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through the orgy of blood and death by somebody from the other side.”[2] 

However, in the majority of the cases that I witnessed, such stories had not trickled down into the youth. Instead, the filtered oral histories they received were only exacerbated by the bloody news about Kashmir conflict, Indo-Pak wars and terrorism. What this meant was that for many of them, the ‘other’ had transformed into a looming monster, waiting for them beyond the border. What point was there then to travel across, or to even want to write a simple letter to this villain? Most children refused to do any such thing as part of the exchange programs I was associated with. An intergenerational shift had taken place, which instead of softening opinions was only hardening them. In Nandy’s words, “those who had actually faced the violence, those who are direct victims, the first generation of victims, those who have been subject to the violence, those who have seen it first-hand, mostly were those who had lesser prejudice and lesser bitterness about their experience than their own children and their grandchildren because they lived in communities where the other side was the majority…they have lived with them and they have very warm memories of that experience. Many of them have said that those were the best days of their lives, whereas the children have a packaged view mostly of those violent days and how the family survived…so they carry more bitterness, more hostility.”[3]

    This situation is only compounded by the mainstream propaganda in society. Not only do many media reports promote a slanted and misinformed opinion of the ‘other,’ labeling all Pakistanis as terrorists and all Indians as treacherous infidels wanting to destabilize Pakistan, state textbooks only worsen this issue. Textbooks in Pakistan blatantly call Hindus enemies and claim that they can never be friends. Tariq Rahman, an established Pakistani professor and researcher writes, “Pakistani textbooks cannot mention Hindus without calling them cunning, scheming, deceptive or something equally insulting.”[4] Meanwhile, textbooks in India have often referred to all Muslims as barbarians and depicted them as savage forces. Teachers, who study from the same textbooks, only exacerbate the issue with prejudiced teaching practices, further spewing hatred. Though Indian textbooks have been revised over the years, they too face several issues. Books, published by the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT, India), have been reformed to eliminate hate sentiment but a closer look reveals several loopholes. There are jumps between different historical events, for instance between the Quit India movement and Partition itself, keeping important information away from children, which could help them understand how Partition and other significant events unfolded. Information about Kashmir, 1965 and 1971 war are also missing from the mainstream textbooks until Class X. While it is a relief to not read about violent and prejudiced narratives, these omissions only confuse children further and encourage them to learn about historical events through other sources. With social media being available in every household, most children end up learning from uninformed blog posts and subjective, often biased commentary. And since the majority of children never come across a Pakistani or Indian in their respective countries, such texts and words became the truth, a truth that shapes their opinions and to which they cling onto as fact through out their adulthood. It is then perhaps no wonder that while most children in India have asked me whether I hang out with Hafiz Saeed or if I know Ajmal Kasab, children in Pakistan seem to blame every bomb blast on the ‘Hindu infidel’ from across the border. In such a bleak scenario, is there any way to move forward?

    Exchange programmes between young children and dialogue between all age-groups has been seen as a vital component in bridging gaps. For most children, especially those below the age group of 17-18 years, opinions are yet not hardline. They are curious, keen to learn, and merely require the platform to ask questions. As part of my work with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a local non-profit organization dedicated to historic and cultural preservation, I was leading the Exchange-for-Change (EFC) program between 2010-2013. The program connected thousands of children through a series of letters, postcards, oral histories and a final physical exchange. Through the 12-month lifeline of the project, I witnessed student opinions drastically alter. One child approached me a month into the project and said, “But these Indians are just like us!” The pleasant surprise on her face was mirrored by many other children across different income-brackets. Later as I took a delegation of students with me to India, one of them commented upon our return, “In my class 5 book, I had read about Sikhs slaughtering little Muslim children. When we crossed the Wagah Border and entered Amritsar, I half expected them to be holding daggers. But when I saw they were holding garlands to welcome me instead, that image shattered in front of my eyes.”  

   My experience with children in India both for the EFC program and otherwise was no different. In 2012, while visiting a school in Mumbai, I was surrounded by young children who held up my visitors tag and tried to guess where I was from. When no one in the audience could guess correctly, I finally told them I was from Pakistan. While many of the children began to squeal, inquiring why I wasn’t wearing a burqa, whether Pakistan had ATMs and if I had ever eaten Pizza, a young child of no more than six years of age began to run away. When I asked him why he was running, he told me he was afraid of Ajmal Kasab. He continued to run away until I called after him and said, “I’m scared of him too!” He stopped in his tracks and slowly began to walk back. A couple of years later, in 2016, I held a Skype talk with a school in Mumbai. After an hour worth of conversation, one of the children remarked, “now I know all Pakistanis are not murderers, now I can think of going to Pakistan too.” That is what an hour worth of conversation between Indians and Pakistanis can do, that is the power of dialogue, of connection.

      If such dialogue is allowed, the mainstream narratives and discourse in society will also begin to change. Media channels will be keener on programs like Aman ki Asha- also headed by two of the largest media groups of India and Pakistan- and conspiracy theories and propaganda will begin to lose their audience. However, in order for the media to alter its approach, structural changes are important in society. Peace needs to become a priority. Textbooks need to be revised, hate sentiment challenged. Pakistan and India are also both at the verge of losing their Partition generation. It is most important that archives are set up and oral histories are recorded. For though many in this generation remember and retell stories of bloodshed, they are the only ones who have witnessed a society when the ‘other’ was not the ‘other,’ when co-dependence was a reality and violence and brutality was not the only marker of people from another religion. These narratives will prove to be essential in countering the prejudices prevalent in India and Pakistan today and will be a crucial way forward in building peace in the region.

Ashis Nandy, Pakistan’s latent ‘potentialities, Radio Open Source. Web: http:/ /
National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). Education Vs Fanatic Literacy, Sanjh Publications, March 2013
Sanhati, A Psychological Study of India’s Partition,
Urvashi Butalia, Memory, Lived and Forgotten, The Financial Express, 2007

[1] Butalia, Urvashi (2007), ‘Memory, Lived and Forgotten,’ The Financial Express.
[2] Nandy, Ashis, Pakistan’s latent ‘potentialities’, Radio Open Source. Web: http:/ / (Last accessed: 24 November 2014).  
[3] A Psychological Study of India’s Partition’, Sanhati, 21 March 2009,
[4] National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP). Education Vs Fanatic Literacy. (Sanjh Publications, March 2013), p.7.

Anam Zakaria is an author, development professional and educationist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Her first book, The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians, was published by HarperCollins in 2015. Anam has previously worked with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) heading their Oral History project and Exchange-for-Change project, collecting narratives of the first and second generation of Pakistanis and opening communication channels between school children in India and Pakistan. She currently works for the Association for the Development of Pakistan (ADP), heading their education sector. Anam is also a teacher of Development Studies and a student of Psychotherapy, with a special interest in trauma and healing in conflict zones.