If there is no radical change in India-Pakistan relations, a nuclear exchange in South Asia is only a matter of time.
When 24-year-old Aliya Harir left her home in Islamabad, Pakistan, for India on September 27, tensions between the neighbouring nuclear-armed countries were running high.
A little over a week earlier, 19 Indian soldiers had been killed in an attack in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir. India had accused Pakistan of being behind the attack, and social media platforms had become virtual battlegrounds as Indians and Pakistanis took to Facebook and Twitter to vent.
But Aliya, who heads a cross-border initiative called Aaghaz-e-Dosti (Beginning of Friendship) and was travelling with 18 other girls to a peace conference in the Indian city of Chandigarh, was unfazed.
“I assured them nothing would happen,” she says, referring to the concerned parents of the girls she was travelling with.
When, on September 29, India claimed to have carried out retaliatory attacks on the Pakistani side of the disputed Kashmir region, and talk of war escalated, Aliya remained confident.
“Every Indian I interacted with was friendly and warm despite [the] political tensions, divisions and constructed hatred,” she explained by phone from Islamabad, where she returned on October 3.
Worried about the safety of the Pakistani youth delegation, India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, had reached out to Harir on Twitter.
Aliya – I was concerned about your well being kyonki betiyan to sabki sanjhi hoti hain. https://t.co/9QyeMQfRwy
— Sushma Swaraj (@SushmaSwaraj) October 3, 2016
The tensions between the two countries have escalated as anti-India protests have taken place in Indian-administered Kashmir, where more than 90 people have been killed and thousands have been injured by the security forces over the past three months.
The two countries have fought three wars over Kashmir, which both claim in full but control in parts.
Countering the nationalistic shouting match
Amid the din of nationalistic rhetoric, those voices supporting peace seem to have been drowned out.
“I think the situation may be the worst since [the] 1999 Kargil war [which the two countries fought in Kashmir],” says Beena Sarwar, a US-based Pakistani peace advocate.
She has been leading Aman Ki Asha [meaning peace] – a joint India-Pakistan media campaign – since 2010. It aims to promote peace between the two countries but Beena Sarwar acknowledges that it can be a struggle.
“Most media houses tend to ignore the voices of peace. TV shows get the most jingoistic voices from both sides. It is like a shouting match,” she says. “[The] media needs to play a responsible role and present a more nuanced understanding of the people [of each country].”
Frustrated by the media coverage, some Pakistanis and Indians have taken to the internet to present an alternative narrative, with hastags such as #ProfileForPeace and #KillTerroristsNotTalks being used.
“When both governments have restricted visas, we are seeing a lot of online initiatives, people interacting on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media,” he explains, adding that many young people have joined the Friendship Across Borders (Aao Dosti Karein) initiative that he runs.
An online petition he started appealing against war has received nearly 5,000 signatures.
Girish has been to Pakistan as part of peace-building initiatives and believes there should be greater opportunities for young people from each country to visit the other.
In the meantime, however, he fears that politicians, the media and even school textbooks are fostering misconceptions. He has been trying to counter this by running workshops and giving lectures in schools and colleges.
“People do have desire to go beyond the state narrative,” he says. “Unfortunately, these people have not been very active in making their voices heard.”
The two nations have one of the strictest visa policies in the world, making it extremely difficult for nationals of one to visit the other.
Saeeda Diep, a veteran peace activist based in the Pakistani city of Lahore, has long fought to ease these visa restrictions.
“We think the number one step for governments in India and Pakistan is that people should be allowed to visit across the border,” she says. “This is a unique visa policy in the world. Even if you get a visa after so much effort you are restricted … [to only visiting] a given city.”
Diep, who runs the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies in Lahore, blames the media for promoting a “sentiment of war”. She arranged an anti-war rally to try to counter this.
“If you come to Lahore and speak to people on the street, they will tell you they don’t want war. In Pakistan, people are sick and tired of terrorism and extremism. More than 60,000 people have been killed in suicide bombings,” she says.
The battle of Bollywood
The tensions are also playing out on screens – big and small – in the two Southeast Asian nations as Pakistani artists have been banned from working in the Indian film industry and Bollywood films have received a similar fate in Pakistan.
When an Indian television network that had been aired Pakistani serials, which were hugely popular in India, announced that it was dropping them, Pakistan responded by introducing a complete ban on Indian content aired by local television and radio channels.
Then, on Tuesday, a leading Bollywood filmmaker, Karan Johar, said in a video message that he would no longer use Pakistani actors after far-right Hindu groups pledged to disrupt a screening of his next film, which features a Pakistani.
“Going forward, I will not engage with talent from the neighbouring country,” he said in the video.
“These bans are ridiculous,” says Beena Sarwar. “They mean nothing as people find ways to watch them. Even when there was a ban in the old days, Indian films used to be smuggled into Pakistan.”
Unity through art
Delhi-based activist Ansh Ranvir Vohra fears that “in the midst of all this tension, we are letting go of that one thing that reminded us of each other’s humanities”.
The producer of a documentary on the 1947 Partition and co-founder of an art collaboration project called Pind Collective continues: “We have heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for so many years and never looked at him as a Pakistani; we looked at him as a beautiful artist.”
Pind Collective unveiled its first cross-border art project in August. It included 10 works with home as their theme.
“We quickly realised that there was a strong overlap and in a lot of art work we could sense the root of that art coming basically from the same place,” he says.
The project has helped to address some of the stereotypes residents of each country have of the other.
“Usually we tend to look at Pakistan and also Pakistanis look at India as just a big cardboard cutout. It is just how the media and politicians would like to project the country,” Ansh reflects.
He says the collective hopes to start conversations. “The aim will always be to get one person from India to interact with another person from Pakistan. Get people to collaborate and have conversation[s] … [The] easing of tension and eventual peace that we hope for is a byproduct of that conversation.”
Beena believes that people on both sides of the border want peace.
“If officials and the security establishment in both countries have their say, there won’t be any ties,” she says. “[But] if people have their say, they will open the gates of their homes.”