Pakistan is not only India’s neighbour but also her sibling.
Though I have spent over a decade interviewing people for newspapers, websites and magazines, I am quite reluctant to play the role of the interviewee. A burnt child dreads the fire, you see. I have been misquoted a few times, and it is not the happiest feeling in the world.
When India Today approached me for an interview and a photo shoot, I requested that the questions be emailed to me not because I doubted the integrity of the journalist but because I feared that my words might end up getting misrepresented if they were not reproduced verbatim. The nature of my work is sensitive and subtle, and I want people to let me speak about it on my own terms when they invite me to share.
This is what the published piece looks like in the issue dated April 3, 2017, which has been out in the market since March 25 itself. As soon as I read it, I wished the publication had done some fact-checking with me before going to print. It mentions that 16 participants paid Rs. 6000 each to participate in my course aimed at using arts and culture to foster cross-border understanding and build peace. That is incorrect. The course had only 15 participants. More than half of the people who signed up for the course were admitted into the two-week programme on either partial or full scholarships.
I believe in the work of education for peace from the depth of my being, and my challenge is to continue doing it with a lot of love, and to also make it financially sustainable for myself. At the same time, I cannot imagine turning away a student because they are not able to afford the fee. I have benefited from the infinite kindness and generosity of the people inhabiting this universe, and I think it is important to pay that forward.
I had a wonderful interaction with Moeena Halim, the journalist who wrote that piece after participating in my course, and I strongly felt that her writerly voice seemed to have been messed with by some unimaginative person at the desk who had not cared enough to check simple facts. I realized much later that it was actor Akshay Kumar’s underwear advertisement that had usurped some of the space that had been reserved for the article. Such things happen, and I hope the magazine will soon publish — as promised to me — a corrigendum note acknowledging and rectifying their error.
Meanwhile, I reproduce below the full text of my email interview.That lovely photograph was one of over hundreds shot by the friendly Danesh Jassawala who works with India Today. The location was provided by Sitara Studio, Mumbai, thanks to my friend Shubhangi Swarup. The books in the photograph are Choose Peace: A Dialogue Between Johan Galtung and Daisaku Ikeda, Seeking the Beloved: The Poetry of Shah Abdul Latif, The Buddha and the Terrorist: The Story of Angulimala, and Boys Will Be Men: Raising Our Sons For Courage, Caring and Community. My kurta was a gift from Haroon Sheikh, and the ajrak from Rumana Husain.
Why do you think peace education is important? Not just at the school level but for adults as well?
I think that peace education is important because we need to learn how to live together without causing harm to each other. Diversity isn’t something that should make us cower in fear or grow spiteful just because other people didn’t grow up the same way we did, or because they eat something we don’t like to. It is possible for human beings to learn critical thinking, non-violent communication, and conflict transformation. We don’t have to be at the mercy of the stereotypes we were taught either at school, home, or on television. As people grow older, they tend to become more rigid in their thinking, and it crucial that they have the opportunity to revise their opinions based on new experiences and information.
How does a familiarity with contemporary Pakistan and its culture help foster peace?
Learning about contemporary Pakistan through the lens of arts and popular culture is also a way of learning about India. We have a shared heritage that goes back to the Indus Valley Civilization, and perhaps even before that, and it isn’t difficult to see how that rich legacy continues into our present. Pakistan is not only India’s neighbour but also her sibling. We may be cross with each other but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. People in both countries are curious to find out what is on the other side. Many yearn to visit but are unable to because of limited opportunities made available by the visa regime. Having facilitated numerous workshops with students and teachers in India, I have observed that many Indians are keen on learning more about Pakistani food, literature, monuments, films, visual art and theatre. They attribute their negative view of Pakistan to the fact that their knowledge is limited to the Pakistani terrorists, politicians and religious extremists they have read or heard about. They are willing to make a distinction between the Pakistani state and the common people. Making this distinction is crucial to building peace, and inviting more people to resist the temptation of waging war which benefits no one.
Why choose Facebook as a medium?
Facebook is a medium that is insanely popular among various age groups. It is used not only to keep in touch with friends and network with people having shared interests but also to articulate one’s thoughts on a variety of subjects. I wanted to use the power of this medium instead of dismissing it as a waste of time. I decided to use it as a forum to bring together people, share thoughtfully curated readings and resources, and moderate meaningful discussions so that participants could learn in a fun, stress-free manner without the formality that can creep into online learning environments as well. I wanted to seed the idea that Facebook can be used for a constructive purpose, not just to argue endlessly without caring to listen to what others have to say.
Have you faced any backlash to your course for its content/intent? Either from students (although I assume they’re mostly liberal-minded considering they signed up) or from friends on Facebook.
I have received tremendous encouragement from people who believe that this course is an innovative, non-preachy way of approaching education for peace, a goal that is not only part of the UNESCO’s mandate but also of the National Curriculum Framework of India published by the NCERT. Yes, I did hear criticism from one Indian journalist but it was constructive feedback, not mean-spirited.
You spoke to me about the connection between patriarchy and war/an absence of peace. Could you elaborate on that here?
I think war is deeply rooted in patriarchal culture, and toxic masculinity is closely connected to dominating, suppressing, competing and conquering — all of which are processes that instigate violence. My work as a peace educator focuses on building knowledge, strengthening skills and transforming attitudes. Dialogue, connection and reconciliation require inner work and hard, emotional labour. Unfortunately, patriarchy trains men to run away from such work, and seek refuge in unhealthy patterns of self-expression. In order to build peace, we need to offer equal respect to people of all genders, and ensure their full participation in peace processes.