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Peace activist Dr Devika Mittal on encouraging dialogue between Indian and Pakistani youth

Peace activist Dr Devika Mittal of Aaghaz-e-Dosti is working to normalise relationships between the youth of India and Pakistan.

January 16, 2021 / 09:14 AM IST

As a schoolchild raised in Delhi, Devika Mittal always wondered why neighbours India and Pakistan continued to be enemies. Her grade-12 history textbook and its chapter on Partition made her aware of the human cost of the conflict, and how much people from both sides suffered immensely.

While doing her higher studies at Lady Shri Ram College and then South Asian University, she took up the cause of Indo-Pak peace and joined youth-led peace organisation Aaghaz-e-Dosti as its India convener.

Ahead of eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women where she is a panelist, we spoke to the 30-year-old assistant professor at University of Delhi about the initiative and what drives her to stand up for peace.

As a student, what memory stands out for you about Pakistan and the people of that country, and why did you decide to take up peace-building?

While in college, I attended the retreat ceremony at Wagah Border. I looked at the flag waving on the other side and my school textbook chapter on Partition came back to me. I wondered if the people sitting across the gate would wave back if I waved at them?

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Later, I chose to pursue my post-graduation in sociology from South Asian University. The idea of studying with students of other South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, had really fascinated me and the experience was great. I got valuable insight into South Asian politics.

Moreover, the discipline of sociology – which I had continued to pursue through an M.Phil degree and then PhD from Delhi School of Economics – helped me engage with issues, including the India-Pakistan conflict, with an objective and critical lens. What motivated me to enter this field of conflict resolution and peace-building was a sense of curiosity about the ‘other’ that combined with the critical training that I was able to receive.

Did your approach towards our nuclear-armed neighbour change later? What were the triggers?

In contrast to what the jingoists like to accuse peace activists of, I was never “fascinated” with Pakistan and never glorified it. From the beginning, we, as a group of peace-builders, have always tried to undo the effect of the politicised and biased media on both sides.

We have tried to shatter popular misconceptions about the other side and highlighted how we need to look at the people across the border as a complex and heterogeneous group, just like we are. In both countries, the ‘other’ is used as a reference point when it comes to justifying or glossing over rising religious extremism and hyper-nationalism.

In India, we are constantly told about how Pakistani Hindus are subjected to atrocities and the same happens in Pakistan for the case of Indian Muslims. Both countries refuse to acknowledge the discrimination and systematic violence that their own fellow patriots are subjected to.

What was the first thing about the people of Pakistan that you met that struck you?

The first time I met Pakistanis was during my post-graduation. They were the ones with whom I could talk in Hindi or Urdu while I was conversing with everyone else in English. It was surprising how smooth the conversation was; we just had so much to talk about. It felt like catching up with someone after a long time.

On both sides, we have always been told that we are different and opposite, so the discovery that we have similarities comes off as very surprising. Back then and even now, whenever I meet any Pakistani, the conversation is like, “Oh! You people also say/do this?”

How deep do you think are our cultural and social values and affinities, and can these be used for peace-building?

The two countries have linguistic and cultural similarities; spoken Hindi and spoken Urdu are similar. In Lahore and Islamabad, I was assumed to be a Karachi-ite because I apparently spoke “Urdu”. Punjabi is also a great connect. The popularity of Punjabi songs and movies knows no borders. Sindhi language and culture and, to a lesser degree, Gujarati are also important connectors.

Linguistic and cultural connections work as an ice-breaker and they also shatter the stereotype of a different and opposing ‘other’. In one of the peace education activities by Aaghaz-e-Dosti, in which Indian and Pakistani students interact with each other virtually, the session is usually conducted in Hindi or Urdu and we often have students expressing their absolute amazement on discovering this connect and cherishing this. In one video-conferencing session, the Indian and Pakistani coordinators both spoke in Gujarati.

We also have similarities in our popular culture. Both Indians and Pakistanis share a love for Bollywood movies and both would also confess watching never-ending Indian television dramas. I have many Pakistani friends who have a sound command over Sanskritised Hindi. This emanates from the popularity of Indian television serials and cartoons across the border.

As for what draws the Indian side, music definitely tops the chart. It is said that the one place where Indians and Pakistanis do not fight is in the comments section of YouTube videos of Coke Studio Pakistan.

Are there any people in Pakistan that you look up to as cultural icons?

I find the powerful words of revolutionary poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, Fahmida Riaz and Khalid Javed Jan inspiring.

Do you think peace talks and the end of hostilities between the two countries will bring in greater prosperity in the subcontinent?

Peace is a prerequisite for development. This arms race and war industry has been a major impediment to development in our respective countries. Both India and Pakistan rank much lower in Human Development Index yet both are in top ranks on the list of importers of weapons. The priority needs to be changed.

Just a year ago or so, India and Pakistan had engaged in a new battle: that of mounting a taller flag on the Wagah border. The amount of money that is spent on such jingoistic stunts would be better spent on providing the masses with basic amenities.

The conflict is also being used to divert attention from significant issues. Unemployment is a persisting issue in both countries but media reports focus on how the situation is grimmer across the border. The Indian media is more concerned about Pakistan’s GDP and vice versa.

What do you think are the primary steps that the leaders of both countries need to take to evolve a mechanism to establish peace?

India and Pakistan need to resolve their conflicts and, for this, bilateral talks are important. Bilateral talks and meetings on different issues need to be organised more frequently. Both India and Pakistan dispel talks by reducing it to talk around terrorism and Kashmir, respectively. While these issues need to be addressed, they are just being used as excuses to not engage in any constructive peace talks on a range of issues. A culture of dialogue needs to be established. There has to be more interaction between the two countries, both at the level of state and the people.

Pakistan as well as India accuses each other of having a deep state in each other’s countries. Although the political leadership is much weaker in Pakistan compared with its military establishment, how do you see changes happening?

With Imran Khan coming to power, people believe that democracy is becoming stronger. But this is a myth. The problems in Pakistan remain what they were. The deep state in Pakistan is as strong as it was. The enforced disappearances of activists have not stopped.

While Khan has taken some good steps, the forced abduction and conversion of minorities has not stopped. Khan does not pose any danger to the deep state in Pakistan and this is also why he is projected as a good leader.

In both India and Pakistan, people are living in an illusion that their political leader is good and progressive, and that all the problems are emanating from the other side. People of both countries need to be critical of their political leadership and hold them accountable.

Do you think secular schooling is a concept that can easily be implemented in Pakistan?

Pakistan is a theocratic state and their approach to public life and culture is informed by an ideology that is religious and also majoritarian. The Pakistani school textbooks are known to harbour stereotypical and biased notions about religious minorities.

There are, however, many private schooling systems in Pakistan as well that are trying to imbibe progressive values. But a school does not stand in isolation from society at large, so there will always be limits to what a school can do.

What role do you think business houses in both countries can play to foster goodwill?

The commerce and trade activities between the two countries are limited and much restricted. Corporations need to lobby for changes in the current policy that may help them reach out to an audience across the border. Given the similarities in our culture and lifestyle, it will not just help their business but also open newer ways of interaction and peace-building.

For Westerners, whether you are Indian or Pakistani, you look almost the same. Was that a revelation of sorts for you?

It’s true. I have come across several stories of Indians and Pakistanis being best friends or starting or owning a business together in a third country. Outside the subcontinent, there are many Indo-Pak restaurants. When we are in a third country, we are not seen as Indians or Pakistanis but as South Asians. We also accept and bond over this identity.

What led you to join Aaghaz-e-Dosti? How has this experience changed you? What are the initiatives you have undertaken and what has been the outcome?

Aaghaz-e-Dosti, which literally means beginning of friendship, was started in 2012 and I have been one of the founding members. We started it to dispel stereotypes and initiate dialogue among the people of both countries. We work through peace education activities in schools and colleges.

We have been organising art-based programs in the form of an annual Indo-Pak peace calendar, which is made of paintings of Indian and Pakistani school students, peace-building workshops, greeting card and letter exchange programmes, virtual interactive sessions, film screenings and discussions in educational institutions and public spaces in different cities across India and Pakistan. We have also organised peace programmes in other countries.

In terms of the outcome, I would say that the objective of these activities has been to disturb the idea that the knowledge we have is complete and unbiased. The Indian students have actively used the interactive sessions to critically engage with their views about Pakistanis and also about religious minorities within the country.

The initiatives have given them a space to connect with their peers across the border without reducing them to their political and social identity. In one virtual session, students bonded over concerns like. “Does your teacher give you a lot of homework too?” and “Do you like maths?” In a letter-exchange program, some students pondered over the human cost of conflict.

Hear Dr Devika Mittal speak at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women on January 16. Schedule and registration here.

First published in eShe’s January 2021 issue
Aekta Kapoor
first published: Jan 16, 2021 09:14 am

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