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Educating for peace

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

For peaceniks in the subcontinent to retain optimism in the face of decades of retrogressive policies on the part of both the Indian and Pakistani establishments is no mean feat. Every once in a while, however, there are mutual efforts at the highest levels of officialdom to at least start a process of normalising ties. The Kartarpur corridor ground-breaking ceremony earlier this week was one such attempt.
Any goodwill generated by the inauguration was promptly quashed by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj the following day. She insisted that there is no immediate prospect of bilateral ties being re-established, and delivered typically damning remarks about the Pakistani state’s alleged links with terrorist activities inside India. Of course Pakistani authorities issue incendiary comments about the other side often enough, so expect a retaliatory round of fire from this side of the border soon.
The question, as ever, is whether this infuriating inertia will ever give way to something different, if the peaceniks on both sides can ever hope to force a definitive break with status quo. The peace dividend that would accrue to the 1.6 billion people in both countries would be massive, not to mention the tremendous opportunities to recover a shared past and build a collective future.
Yet this otherwise extremely attractive imaginary simply does not appeal to a substantial section of Indian and Pakistani societies, and this is what must be confronted head-on. A big reason for this is the TV medias on both sides of the border who often seem to be trying to outdo each other in spewing hate against the other. Sensationalist medias — both corporate television as well as social media platforms — are playing an increasingly disproportionate role in the shaping of our opinions. Whereas until a couple of decades ago propaganda wars were waged only by state media outlets, we now have unlimited sources, and this, at least for the time being, means that the voices in favour of peace are increasingly drowned out.
But things could change.
In my understanding, serious dents can be made in the hawkish attitudes of officialdom and the media if education from the primary level serves the cause of peace. Yes it is true that both establishments are deeply entrenched and perceive peace as threatening to their interests, but the rest of us typically end up being more loyal than the king because we have been indoctrinated from a very young age and only imagine the other side as an ‘enemy’.
In Pakistan, the educational curricula is dotted with underhanded references to Hindus and Indians designed to inculcate within young people a deep mistrust of the ‘other’, and sometimes even a visceral hatred.
Much of the focus is on a mangling of history that simply ‘disappears’ thousands of years of communal living. There is also very little account of the British period and the fact that colonial statecraft created indelible divisions in society that had nothing to do with the fact of our religious affiliations, even if religion — and other identities — were politicised.
Unfortunately, the BJP government in power at present is going out of its way to undermine the modern Indian state’s secular credentials, and one of its prime targets appears to be the ‘Hinduisation’ of the educational curricula. I suspect Prime Minister Modi secretly admires what Gen Ziaul Haq accomplished during his tenure and wants to rewrite history in similar ways. I do not mean to suggest that young people on the other side of the border have always been taught very good things about Pakistan but that they have been fed less propaganda than our young people, at least since Zia’s project of Islamisation took off in the late 1970s.
Not for lack of trying, we in Pakistan have not been able to launch a counter-cultural movement to reverse the long-term effects of the Zia years. And this is exactly what is needed if things within our society, and indeed vis-à-vis our neighbours — India most of all — are to change. Peaceniks in India have their hands full dealing with the rampaging Hindu right-wing, so their task is no less intimidating than ours.
I do not believe that ordinary Indians and Pakistanis are condemned to hating one another for seventy more years. Millions who have migrated to different parts of the world in search of a better life end up befriending each other when they realise just how much they have in common. Much will change in the world — including in the field of politics — in decades to come as digital technology spreads and movements of people increase in unprecedented ways. Whether this means more of the same for the subcontinent or the unleashing of a peace dividend decades in waiting is, in more ways than we imagine, up to us.