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'Let people meet': Beena Sarwar on the case for a visa-free South Asia

US-based Indo-Pak peace activist and filmmaker Beena Sarwar recently hosted a virtual peace conference to announce the launch of the South Asia Peace Action Network.

April 14, 2021 / 07:31 PM IST

When it comes to solutions for peace and collaboration in South Asia, the first step of all is to “let people meet”, says Beena Sarwar, US-based peace activist, journalist and filmmaker, who recently organised a global virtual conference titled ‘Pakistan India: Peace in South Asia Beyond Ideological Barriers’. Held late last month, the inaugural meeting connected over 80 Indian and Pakistani “peacemongers” across generations, locations and occupations. It aimed to place India-Pakistan in the South Asia context and to take forward the vision of a South Asian Union or Federation.

Participants included individuals and representatives of groups with a long history of working on these issues. After a long brainstorming session about the way forward for the peace movement, and how to invigorate it by involving more allies, younger people and expatriates, the participants decided to float a South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN) to bring peace-loving groups and individuals across the region under one umbrella to urge governments to reduce hostility, enable people-to-people contact by easing the visa regime, and cut down on military expenditure.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen is on board as an adviser to SAPAN, along with well-wishers like Salima Hashmi, Lalita and Ramu Ramdas, Rita Manchanda, Tapan Bose, Dr Syeda Hameed, Urvashi Butalia, Kanak Dixit, Karamat Ali, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Rubina Saigol, Jatin Desai, and others.

Also read: 'There’s a direct link between peace and democratic freedoms': South Asian peace advocate Rita Manchanda

“The people of India and Pakistan want to be able to trade and travel. Instead of diverting our trade via the Middle East, why not allow trade directly across the border? That would ensure peace and prosperity. Let there be a visa-free South Asia. Let people meet. What are they so afraid of?” says Sarwar, who is a visiting professor of journalism at Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts.

Born and raised in Karachi in a secular and progressive household of intellectuals, Sarwar spent over a decade living at Regal Chowk in the centre of Lahore, where she happened to live in the same apartment building – Lakshmi Mansion – that iconic writer Saadat Hasan Manto had lived in decades earlier. Inspired by the work of peaceniks like Dr Mubashir Hasan, Asma Jahangir, Kuldip Nayar and Nikhil Chakravarty among others, Sarwar took up journalism as a career, and joined the Women’s Action Forum to fight against Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation of laws in Pakistan.

She was a young journalist in the mid-1990s when she attended the first joint meeting of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), the region’s largest and oldest people-to-people group.

“That was when I learnt of PIPFPD’s approach about the Kashmir issue – that it must be seen as a matter of the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people; and that Kashmiris should be taken on board for any dialogue about their future. That was a very profound and enduring formulation that is now seeping into public discourse,” says Sarwar, who is also the editor of Aman Ki Asha, a platform launched in 2010 by two major media groups in India and Pakistan.

After some years working in television, Sarwar studied at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship, and moved permanently to the US in 2011. “Peace is just not the absence of war but also the presence of justice, human rights, and right to livelihood, education, housing and dignity,” says Sarwar, who believes the huge commonalities between the people of India and Pakistan far outweigh the differences.

“Cutting off diplomatic relations cannot be a solution to conflict. Dialogue aketa-logo-south-asia-union2-258x258must be uninterrupted and uninterruptible. If China and America can continue to have economic and social ties despite political tensions, why can’t India and Pakistan?” asks Sarwar, who was the only Pakistani writer invited to write an essay in the 2016 book Making Sense of Modi’s India, in which she had argued that both India and Pakistan could draw lessons from the other’s past and present.

“Pakistan has a lot to learn about the importance of the democratic political process from India. And what India can learn from Pakistan is what happens when you inject religion into politics. We saw that in the Zia-ul-Haq years and we are still suffering the consequences 30 years later. Unfortunately, despite its democratic process, India seems headed the same way,” she says, adding that she hopes human rights and justice will triumph eventually on both sides.

Sarwar talks about the need for peace activists to “just keep on” using whatever means possible – social media, digital communications – to help normalise ties between the two nations. “Those who propagate animosity are driven by hate, while those of us who want peace are driven by a sense of our shared humanity. I would quote Gandhi here: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Other speakers at the March 28 conference echoed her optimism. With the recent announcement of a ceasefire by both armies and the meeting of the Indus Water Commissioners in late March, they hoped for a thaw between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours. “Things are moving ahead. It is a very important moment and we must take advantage of it,” said Jatin Desai, former general secretary, PIPFPD.

There was also discussion about the role of the media in fuelling tensions. “There is ‘conflict reporting’, but we haven’t placed enough emphasis on ‘peace journalism’,” said Raza Rumi, editor of Pakistan’s Naya Daur. “We need to broaden the peace constituency by bringing people together, learning from each other on issues that affect us and that have the potential to change our future,” said Ravi Nitesh, co-founder of the cross-border youth group Aaghaz-e-Dosti.

There was also poetry – one of the greatest tools in a peacenik’s arsenal. Sarwar quotes the words of German playwright Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will be singing.

About the dark times.

“We will use whatever it takes – singing, poetry, literature, art, love,” Sarwar says. “We will keep taking forward our fight for peace. I don’t think giving up is an option.”

Aekta Kapoor is the founder of eShe magazine and the peacebuilding initiative South Asia Union.