Saturday, June 21, 2014

When "East" met "West" at Pondicherry

It was last year when I enrolled for a peace and conflict course being offered by a norweigian think tank in Pondicherry. Though I had quit the 3-months long course way too early, I managed to have some interesting experiences/encounters with my fellow coursemates who, except for 4 South Asians, were all from European countries.

As a person hailing from social science background, Edward Said's orientalism made me both apprehensive and interested to meet people from European countries. We all know about orientalism more popularly the East-West dichotomy. East and West are seen as complete opposites of each other. While east is definitely glorified and exoticised, it is also seen as backward and inferior to west. Even though this East-West was a colonial conception but even in this post-colonial world, it continues to exist. Our minds are still "colonised" and "colonising". People in western and former colonising countries equate India with yoga, culture, festivals and a "third world country" that comes with many underlying stereotypes. This entire conception or stereotyping of India is very problematic.

I must admit that I did think that I will have a hard time dealing with this stereotyping. I also had my own reservations about people from western countries because of the working of UN and the bias towards the third world and south asian countries. How we are reduced to being seen as helpless nations that require the patronage of western countries. How we were and are still seen as largely incapable of ruling ourselves and ofcourse, the drones.

I went with my own set of stereotypes and biases to Pondicherry, a former french colony. So what sort of "colonial" encounter did I have?

It was a two-way learning, a two-way process of breaking stereotypes. There were some important lessons that I learnt. While they were certainly the "expected" with people asking stereotypical questions, thinking that Indians are a homogenised population in terms of language, religion, customs and getting over-excited about anything "Indian", there were also those who did see things from our view, who did try to understand India and Indians. I remember asking someone from Denmark about the welfare state that exists in her country. She told me several things and then I asked her to share her experience about India. She said that it is the complete opposite. While scandinavian countries are about "order", here it is about "disorder". Before I could respond, another person from her country interrupted and said, "You know, that's our problem. Too much "order"".

In other instances, whenever I would ask them about India, they would say that they were amazed by diversity. I would then ask them about their country and they would not always put forth a very glamorised picture. They did share the existing problems in their country. Aa for diversity, it turned out that they were not simply fascinated by it. They admired it and moaned that they wish their country was also more tolerant of diversity.

I also met people who opposed the drones, who did find a problem with the way UN was working, who were aware of the bias that exists. I admit that I was deeply moved by it. That time I felt guilty of having stereotyped all of them.

As about those who had a stereotypical thinking, it was great to burst their stereotypes. I was happy to tell someone from Norway that we also celebrate Christmas. I shared with her my own childhood memories of christmas and she was visibly amazed but had also become very happy. She was happy to know about the multiculturalism that exists in India.

As for me, I had a lot to learn from them. I got to learn about welfare states of the scandinavian countries which our state must learn from. I got to learn their perspective on several issues like migration, multiculturalism, culture which is very important as in order to understand an issue, I feel that we must see it from different perspectives. Another important thing that  definitely learnt was that things are never black and white. While i detested the tendency to stereotype India, I had also stereotyped them. I learnt that not just the west but Europe itself is very diverse.

But most importantly, a lesson for me was that they are not different from us. They have a different lifestyle, dfferent values, cultural ethics but there are many things that goes beyond all these boundaries of difference. There are many values that appeal to all of us as human beings. We may be different but we are all the same. We all have our struggles. We may be different but cultures do not differ in terms of desire for peace and culture. They do not differ in terms of respect to humanity.

I am thankful that I did get this opportunity to interact, to know about what they think. Miscommunication and lack of communication is what breeds hatred and suspicion. So I was happy that I was given a chance to know them and to burst my myths, to change my thinking. The root of all problems is lack of communication. Communication binds people, it creates the platform for understanding. In this regard, I am very happy with the launch of Zindagi Channel that will be bring stories from Pakistan. I believe that miscommunication sustains the Indo-Pak conflict. People in both countries are under the misconception that the other hates them but this is not true. They have portrayed a negative and opposing picture of the "other" and there are less opportunities to challenge this conception. I hope that Zindagi channel will be able to become this opportunity and will be able to bridge this gap of miscommunication. It will be able to show the side of Pakistan that most Indians are yet to see. It will be able to make us realise that we people are just the same. Not just our language, our religion, our culture and values but even out thinking is just the same. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

This too is Pakistan

It is quite common for most of 'us', the non-Pakistanis and those who have known Pakistan mainly through our national or international media, to stereotype Pakistan with religious fundamentalists, the  Taliban, intolerance to religious minorities, men with moustache and topis, all women in burqa etc etc. Being an Indian, as my national media would tell me, I would also expect all Pakistanis to have venom against India and to be solely responsible for all military clashes. I would be taught to expect "Pakistan" to be of a certain type. So the Indian as well as International media would try its best to give us answers for "What is Pakistan". I, through this article, would try to tell "what is also Pakistan".

The basic conception about Pakistan pertains to the official religion i.e. Islam. Pakistan today is seen as being controlled by religious fanatics, the mullahs and their violent extreme - the Taliban. We hear about Malala, the ban on youtube, the persecution of religious minorities. There is no denial to this dismal reality. Yes, there is a lot of religious influence in several spheres. But what is equally important is the constant struggle by people of Pakistan against them. There is a section of the population who do not believe in them, who have rejected and struggle against their authority. Like in India and globally, people of Pakistan do not feel that their political and religious heads represent them. There are many civil society organisations and individuals who have constantly raised their voice and have protested against them. The virtual world - Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the counter-platforms. There are several pages on Facebook that criticize these acts and challenge the claim of representation. There are several alternatives to youtube. There are counter-voices and they represent Pakistan.

Protest after Peshawar church blast. Source: Express Tribune
The essence of Pakistan is not religious conservatism, it is religious tolerance. The white portion in the national flag of Pakistan represents the religious minorities. In the universities, there is also quota for religious minorities. The Constitution of Pakistan grants them the freedom to profess any religion. It is true that religious minorities have been subjected to atrocities but that is not the entire story. That is not Pakistan. The persecution has been condemned by people of Pakistan as well. They also protest against the persecutions and that is Pakistan. Recently, a virtual anti-terrorism campaign has emerged in Pakistan by the name of “Awaz Uthe gi”. It condemns the discrimination and violence meted out to the minorities.

Sikhs at Punj Sahib, Pakistan. Source: Express Tribune
It is widely-believed among Indians that Pakistan and people of Pakistan have a lot of venom for India and Indians. All they cite are the wars, the border clashes and acts of terrorism. It is not entirely their fault because this is all that they have been shown. It is always hatred that is cited. What is not cited are the instances of goodwill, peace and friendship that have been initiated by Pakistan. What they don't know or don't remember is that the school in which the present PM, Manmohan Singh, had studied had been renamed after him. What they don't know so widely that there has been a long-standing struggle for a "Bhagat Singh chowk" in Pakistan. They don't know that there is a samadhi for Sir Ganga Ram in Lahore. They are unaware that Pakistan allows hundreds of sikh pilgrims to Nankana Sahib every year. What they don't know is that the soldiers on wagah border exchange sweets on Holi, Diwali and Eid. What they don't remember is that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had sent a bouquet for Sonia Gandhi when she was ill.

Exchanging sweets at Wagah Border
As for gender, it has been quite easy to talk about women empowerment in an Islamic country. The parameters to judge it have mostly confined to the existence of burqa and hijab. While we must recognise that we fail to acknowledge the agency of those women who do not find it discriminating and may, on the other hand, find it liberating as it does not objectify their body, but even if that has to be taken, we must know that not all women in Pakistan do wear the burqa or hijab. There have been voices against it. Contrary to stereotypes, women in Pakistan also appear significantly in education, politics, army and other spheres. We must also acknowledge that we have failed to see the progress that Pakistan has been doing in terms of giving rights to LGBTQ community.

We have failed to see Pakistan. We have failed to see how it struggles like any other country. There is a lot more to be explored. Yes, there are problems with Pakistan but so do we. The people of Pakistan are struggling and challenging the existing evils like us. You may ask, why does it concern us? It concerns us because there is a war industry out there that operates on these weapons of miscommunication. There are people out there who will paint Pakistan as an evil and themselves as saints and 'saviours'. 

This article was published on The Alternative