Magazine article New Internationalist

Overcoming Fear of the Other [Meeting of Indian and Pakistani Students]

Magazine article New Internationalist

Overcoming Fear of the Other [Meeting of Indian and Pakistani Students]

Article excerpt

A group of young Pakistani students, all in their early twenties, sat across the room from me. Alongside them was a group of Indian students. Even up close it was difficult to tell the difference. Apart from the fact that they looked similar many of them had exchanged clothes, so there were no giveaways. They'd been through an exercise: a simulated dialogue as if between the two nations, talking about their common problems, including that most intractable of issues, Kashmir. They hadn't come up with any solutions, but they had agreed that it was important to keep the channels of communication open.

What struck me about these young people was that, despite the diet of hate and propaganda they'd all been fed at school and university about the 'other', the 'enemy' nation, they were remarkably free of prejudice and willing to believe the best of each other.

I was reminded of another occasion some months ago, this time in Pakistan. It was the 30th anniversary of the Pakistani army's invasion of Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) and the beginning of the process that led to the liberation of that country. In Lahore, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women held hands and swayed to the music of Pakistani singer Nayyara Noor and the stirring lyrics of Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

So many encounters, and we remain strangers still How many monsoons will it take to wash these bloodstains away...

When the music came to an end, the Pakistani women offered their Bangladeshi sisters an apology for the army action -- for the rape, the carnage and the looting -- something that the Pakistani state has yet to do. Looking at the two groups of women it would have been difficult to say who belonged where: and indeed, some had family in two countries and some even in three (Bangladesh, Pakistan and India).

The theme of the meeting between the Pakistani and Indian students was 'rehumanizing the other'. Why and how is it, they asked, that an individual, a community, a people, indeed a whole nation can be turned into the 'other'; and a myth of fear and hatred built around that 'othering'?

This cuts across religious lines. Pakistani Muslim men believe that Bangladeshi Muslim men are weak and emasculated; Indian Hindus believe that Muslims generally and Pakistani Muslim men in particular are strong, libidinous and virile, with an unbridled sexuality. By contrast, Muslim men see Hindus as effeminate and weak-kneed. These messages pass into our textbooks and permeate our media so that students reared on these stereotypes may grow up thinking there is little to be gained by trying to understand the 'other'. …

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