Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Looking to a future without fear on Indian and Pakistani Independence Days

Last weekend both India and Pakistan celebrated Independence Day on 14 August and 15 August respectively. In the midst of joy it was also reiterated by some that it was a tragedy to divide South Asia, first into Pakistan on 14 August in 1947, and later into Bangladesh as well in 1971.

However more and more people want to move beyond the painful memories of divided families and material loss. Six decades after partition there is a desire now to reverse the relationship between India and Pakistan from mutual suspicion to mutual benefit, particularly amongst the young.

“We are poised to be the fifth most populous country in the world in a few years. With 60 percent of Pakistan’s 187 million-strong population below the age of 24, the youth of Pakistan form a potentially powerful force for change. We must be nation builders. It is our greatest responsibility and burden,” wrote Shehrbano Taseer, the Lahore based journalist on the eve of Independence Day celebrations in Pakistan.

“In 1947, Pakistan may have got its independence from the British Raj but 64 years later, with a moth-eaten country, we are still waiting for a new dawn...Crimes against women must also be stopped. A society cannot progress unless and until women are treated equally,” writes Mehmal Sarfaraz, the youthful editor of Pakistan's Daily Times.

Marvi Sirmed is an Islamabad-based student of international relations and counter terrorism. She has nicknamed herself “a Pakistani with a bindi” (the red dot on the forehead that Hindu women wear) and her thoughts on independence are focused on the future. Sirmed is a firm believer in cultural roots rather than oneness through religion and is convinced that the solution of Pakistan's current problem is to be a secular state whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan endorsed it or not.

“Being a secular state is to Pakistan’s best benefit. What Jinnah said or did not say more than half a century ago is hardly relevant to the solution of Pakistan’s current problems,” says Sirmed.

Salman Latif, a Pakistani blogger said that Pakistan's best hope is the youth. He feels that 64 years are sufficient to attempt a discourse over whether or not a nation should have been founded. “It’s about time we moved on and talked of something more constructive. We are the future of this nation and it’s up to us to shape this future,” Salman says.

In Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English language newspaper analyst Adnan Rehmat writes, “We have tried India as an enemy and it has cost us dearly. It’s time to try India as a friend because the cost of being a friend is far, far less than the cost of being an enemy.”

For Indians, improved relations with Pakistan will also mean diverting a little from precious resources away from security matters into programs that will provide the majority population a little more freedom from poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality.

In her Independence Day address Pratibha Devisingh Patil regretted on 15 August that there is a decline in the gender ratio in the 0 to 6 age group. “It has touched a low level of 914 girls as compared to 1000 boys. It reflects the continuing preference for boys in our society and the bias against the girl child. We need to fight social prejudices which have resulted in this situation, and also work to eradicate the practices of dowry, child marriage and female foeticide, which we continue to battle even in the 21st century,” said the president. Clearly the call is to fight social evils and not neighbors.

India's first female president lauded the success of the movement of self help groups in the country, 80 percent of which are all-women groups. They operate at the lower rung of the economic strata and carry out activities on a limited scale. These groups have provided women not only with possibilities of income generating activity, but have given them confidence and a sense of self-esteem.

In his message to his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh on Independence Day, Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was filled with hope that dialogue between India and Pakistan will help to take bilateral issues forward. Gilani expressed his desire to see friendly relations restored between the two countries in the interest of peace in the region, socioeconomic progress and prosperity for the people.

Members of civil society held a candlelight vigil at the Wagha border in the Indian city of Amritsar. Led by Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar and film-maker Mahesh Bhatt the vigil was joined by local people who marched in candlelight to the border with Pakistan where prominent Indian and Pakistani artists met each other and staged performances. With so much goodwill amongst the people, can peace be far behind?

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