'Be friends, not enemies' - Message by 7-year-old Meghna of Heritage School, Gurgaon, India (Image Courtsey: Aao Dosti Karein) Photograph:( WION )
In June 2015, this correspondent was fresh out of college and working for a back-packers' hostel in Daryaganj in central Delhi. The job was to design walking tours of the city and arranging a rich cultural experience for guests from across the world. It was during this period that one got to know Chintan Girish Modi, the founder of an India-Pakistan friendship initiative, Aao Dosti Karein (Let's be friends) or Friendships Across Borders (FAB), that utilises the power of internet and technology to change minds.
On a summer afternoon, Chintan was busy chatting animatedly with a Pakistani couple in their 50s, who were on a tour of India. After a 30-minute chat, they discovered they had common friends. The couple looked out of place because they were the only people their age in a hostel full of young backpackers.
A talk with Chintan revealed that he worked to build friendships between Indians and Pakistanis. The so-called ‘broad-minded, modern, cosmopolitan Delhi-girl’ that one thought one was, the instinctive question on my mind was -- Is friendship even possible?
Chintan Girish Modi with his friend Aliya from Pakistan (left), Artwork (right) by Kirthi Jayakumar from Chennai to symbolise love, peace, unity, hope, and strength (Image Courtsey: Aao Dosti Karein) (WION)
Chintan related tales of his travels in Pakistan. He had visited Lahore. Was it even safe to go there, one wondered. The questions stayed with one. Ours is a generation increasingly connected by Internet. Many of us use it to stay in touch with our friends from across the border whom we may have met while studying or travelling abroad. WION decided to reach out young Indians and Pakistanis through and online survey:
'Indians and Pakistanis be friends?'
We reached out to 336 respondents between the ages of 18 years and 30 years of whom 193 are Pakistanis, while 143 are Indians. We sought responses from college students and professionals working for major corporate houses in cities of India and Pakistan like Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata in India and Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi in Pakistan.
From the responses, it appears that friendship is definitely possible. Of the Pakistanis we got responses from, 55 per cent seemed very fond of India. In India, 18 per cent said they had positive feelings to Pakistan, while 42 per cent said they had neutral feelings toward their neighbour.
55% people in Pakistan expressed positive feelings towards their neighbouring nation. (WION)
When asked what was the main reason they would want to befriend someone from across the border – the shared culture emerged as the main factor – 42 per cent Indians and 60 per cent Pakistanis felt it was the main thing that brought the two countries together.
“I love everything about India - it is absurd to base your perceptions on political differences. We are much more than that,” Raza Khan, a student of University of Karachi from Pakistan wrote as a part of his response.
Coke Studio, Lahore Fort, same as us, Sufi music, delicious food, Pakistani serials, cricket matches were the most instant answers to things the neighbours liked about each other.
“I visited Pakistan on an exchange programme and felt like I’m in some part of Old Delhi. I didn’t feel there was much difference between the two countries,” said Madhurima Chopra, an engineering student from Delhi.
The citizens of both the countries are also keen on visiting the other. About 45 per cent Indians said yes, while 26 per cent said may be. Pakistanis (75% ) also want to visit India someday. “I have heard a lot about the Lahore Fort. I’d love to see it someday,” says Arushi Chand, an architecture student from Delhi.
Around 75% people in Pakistan would want to visit India someday (WION)
These respondents are also hopeful that the differences between the two nations can be resolved -- 34.3 per cent Indians and about 75 per cent Pakistanis believe it can definitely happen. Some Indians (25%) and Pakistanis (23%) are unsure about that happening, but hope it happens. “The differences are only in our minds” said Syed Muhamed Qasim, working in an electronics MNC in Lahore.
A major share in both countries believe that their differences can be resolved (WION)
Most of them were open about having friends on the other side of the border. Fifty per cent Indians would like to have friends in Pakistan and 17 per cent already do. Fifty-one per cent of the Pakistanis respondents have friends in India and 40 per cent were interested in having one. “I have plenty of friends in India and they are no different from my friends here,” said Amira Khan, a student from Rawalpindi.
Both countries are willing to have friends on the other side of the border. (WION)
Separated by a border, virtually friends
Internet, the largest community in history, is a technology without borders. India and Pakistan -- separated by a decades-old animosity, can explore friendships that would otherwise never be.
Pakistan has been a part of Chintan’s imagination ever since he was a child.
“When I was a kid, adults asked me where I would like to go when I grew up? I would say Pakistan. For an Indian child to say this seems quite strange to people. But all I heard about Pakistan when I was growing up was that it was a dangerous place. That the people were mean. I would not come back alive if I went there. I was not convinced. How could a place be all bad? I was curious and wanted to check it out for myself.”
Modi got the opportunity to visit Pakistan during an exchange project. Friendships formed during this time showed him another way to think about Pakistan – quite different from the tone of most media, history textbooks, and news. “I had a growing urge to make these experiences and opportunities available to other people, to let them participate and interact with folks across the border. And so Aao Dosti Karein: Friendships Across Borders (FAB) was formed,” said Modi.
“I also visit schools in India to talk to students about my experiences in Pakistan. All our interactions are based on questions the children had. It was an enriching experience for me as well. I began thinking about combining social media and interactions with young people. That’s how FAB started. However, FAB owes tremendously to friends who have volunteered their time and support and organised speaking engagements.”
The project has contributors and volunteers of diverse backgrounds including a poet, a journalist, an arts manager, a historian, a filmmaker, and students from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
An inspiring story is the one of Devika from Delhi and Aliya from Islamabad.
Devika Mittal (right) from India and Aliya Harir (left) from Pakistan share an everlasting bond (Image Courtsey: Aao Dosti Karein) (WION)
Devika Mittal is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. (WION)
Aliya Harir has a Masters in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. (WION)
A part of the motivation for FAB is to show the different forms that peace can take, and provide alternatives to the powerlessness that people feel. “What you and I can do is make friends even if we can’t sign treaties.”
These are relationships that the internet enables and makes that much easier.
“Indians and Pakistanis can connect on online platforms even when the visa regime makes physical travel difficult.”
Students from India sent messages to Pakistan after the attack on the army school in Peshawar in solidarity and condolence to the families of the slain children. There is hope yet.
Messages from Indian students of Ecole Mondiale World School (Mumbai) and Heritage School (Gurgaon) to Pakistan after the attack on army school in Peshawar (Image Courtsey: Aao Dosti Karein) (WION)
"The only true borders lie between day and night, between life and death, between hope and loss" - Erin Hunter