Wednesday, August 17, 2011

People-to-people initiatives instrumental in reducing suspicion caused by terrorism between India-Pakistan

The verdict is out. A majority of people surveyed in India recently say that terrorism has no religion and belongs to no country. This majority opinion is important at a time when the world seems so volatile and the official relationship between India and Pakistan remains somewhat frail.

The constant reminder that both India and Pakistan are sitting on an arsenal of nuclear weapons does not help people to sleep soundly, not just in South Asia but around the world.

In a CNN-IBN-CNBC-TV18 State of the Nation Poll conducted in association with Forbes India soon after the terror attack in Mumbai on 13 July 2011, it is found that more people reject the notion that terror is somehow related to one religion, openly delinking acts of terror with Islam.

In this most recent survey a majority of those talked to categorically stated that a terrorist can come from anywhere and strike anyone. Previous opinion polls have shown that the populations of both India and Pakistan prefer increased trade, cultural exchanges and easy cross border travel within South Asia. The majority of the population has time and again demonstrated a demand for more dialogue, debate and many more people-to-people initiatives.

In India, women were more optimistic than men about the future of peace prospects between the two countries and agreed that rapport between people is helpful for a lasting peace in the region. These women spoke out in a 2010 opinion poll sponsored by Aman ki Asha, or hope for peace, to mark the first anniversary of the joint peace initiative by the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India.

This friendly attitude between the people is the greatest hope for forging new ways towards a more inclusive peace process, involving the design of a dream agenda that includes different sections of society, including women and members of the young population in both countries.

The greatest asset of both India and Pakistan today is its population of young people. It is said that 51% of India's population of 1.1 billion people is under 25 years of age and two-thirds is under 35 years of age. Experts also warn that this youth bulge can turn into a demographic disaster if the young are not gainfully engaged in education and employment activities.

In Pakistan 30 to 40 percent of the nation's males are between the age of 15 and 29. This large energetic yet untapped pool of young people on both sides of the border has the potential to play a huge and lasting role in contributing to peace and prosperity in the region. It must not be forgotten that half of this population is female, another section of society that is confident in its skills and capabilities and yet is little involved in contributing to peace initiatives. As the number of symposiums, think tanks and forums on global issues increase around the world, the absence of women from both global and local decision making bodies has become even more obvious.

The appointment of Pakistan's first female foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who is 35 years old, is a positive sign, bringing a woman into official peace talks between India and Pakistan.

Officials may compare the relationship between Indian and Pakistan to the treatment of two patients whose only disease is an allergy to each other, but ordinary citizens are far less cynical. The polls are proof that an overwhelming support for friendship is there. In India the perception that all terror attacks in the country are related to Pakistan is already down to 42% from a previous record of 75%. This significant change in the collective perception of a society comes from campaigns that encourage people-to-people contact and build social and cultural bridges. The polls reveal a high degree of optimism expressed by ordinary citizens about the possibility of an end to hostilities one day and they unanimously agree that the task of making peace is too important to be left only to the government. About 70% of Pakistanis and 74% of Indians said that they want peace and only a tiny minority of 17% in India and 8% in Pakistan are reluctant to let bygones be bygones.

The polls covered six Indian cities and eight cities in Pakistan including 36 villages. People-to-people contact is seen as an effective instrument to encourage peaceful coexistence by 81% of Pakistanis and Indians.

Now that a majority of Indians have denied past allegations that Muslims are responsible for all acts of terror it is time to come together and to look for new ways to move into the future.

This good news from the grassroots is a golden opportunity to talk of a more collaborative peace process, involving citizens from all walks of life, including women and youth leaders.

The optimism amongst the majority population is very precious and needs to be nourished before further political failures and terrorist attacks cement walls in the minds of the people that may prove to be far more difficult to tear down than geographical boundaries.

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