“While we have these restrictive national borders, who really benefits from them?”

One of the most vocal advocates for India-Pakistan peace, Beena Sarwar shares her thoughts on bridging divisions and her vision for a visa-free South Asia.

By Pragya Narang

Beena Sarwar is one of the most well-known and active names in the domain of India-Pakistan peace, thanks to the peace initiative Aman ki Asha (“hope for peace”) that she manages, a platform for regional peace started by the largest media groups of Pakistan and India, the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India. She has now expanded the scope of her peacebuilding with the new coalition South Asia Peace Action Network, or Sapan, launched earlier this year.

Based in Boston, US, Beena is an editor, writer, lecturer, media consultant and documentary filmmaker with over 20 years of experience in the field, in Pakistan and internationally. Her focus is on human rights, including inter-related issues like media, gender, culture, environment, and peace.

Besides training and mentoring countless journalists at work, she has taught journalism classes at Harvard University, Brown University, and Princeton University. She was also a fellow of the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. She currently teaches journalism at Emerson College, Boston.

She is an advisor at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, and will be speaking on October 3, 2021, at a panel titled ‘Doctrine of Oppression: The Gendered Cost of Religious Extremism’ to be broadcast live on social media.

We caught up with her before the virtual summit — where over 45 accomplished women are slated to speak — and asked her about her vision.

Tell us about your journey from Aman ki Asha to Sapan. Aman ki Asha was going quite strong, so what sprouted the need for another peace initiative?

Sapan actually comes from my work with India Pakistan since the mid 1990s, starting with the PIPFPD (Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy), and Aman ki Asha which began in 2010. I have also been involved in various South Asian initiatives — both media and regional initiatives. It just seemed like it was a good time to bring all these three initiatives together, to tie the loose threads. 

To be honest, Aman ki Asha peaked around 2014 and then certain political compulsions in both India and Pakistan led to a slowdown. So while the website is still active and so is the Facebook page and group, I am not working on it full-time anymore since 2014. 

To put India and Pakistan in the South Asian context seemed necessary to move the needle and was just one more step in that direction. It was time to remind India and Pakistan that they are not two countries in a vacuum but are also members of the larger South Asia family, and their behaviour impacts the larger region and vice versa. 

I wrote a paper some years back on women building peace between India and Pakistan in which I talked about the different initiatives for peace and how people are doing different things in different places with different strategies, and they are all like tributaries flowing into one river that then goes into the sea of peacebuilding. 

That’s the goal of Sapan too. We all come together and do our bits in our own individual ways on causes that are closest to us. 

Beena Sarwar (Photo: Aun Dohadwala)

What are the kinds of monthly events you have held so far and what are plans for the next few months?

So far we have had sessions on healthcare for all as a basic human right; sports women in the region, their challenges and wins; and we have talked about the importance of regionalism — a session which was graced by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. 

We have also highlighted the rights of the incarcerated in South Asia, and created a resolution for the release of prisoners who are detained for non-serious crimes, keeping in mind the Covid-19 pandemic.

This month we are gearing up to discuss “20 years after 9/11: Impact on South Asia and South Asians”. Upcoming months shall have sessions on climate change — a crisis to which South Asia is quite vulnerable — as well as another on gender-based violence as a public-health issue in November. Also, human rights in general shall be covered in December to coincide with International Human Rights day.

We also lend our support to South Asian initiatives by other organisations when they align with our overall goals and give them a platform — as we are doing for eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women

We have a very proactive team that plans events months in advance and South Asian countries are fertile regions for many varied topics to discuss.

What are some of the new tools that Sapan is using to reach out to Gen Z and involve them in the peace processes?

We use social media to connect. We have a lively presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. (We are also active on LinkedIn even though Gen Z doesn’t use LinkedIn as much, millennials are more our target audiences there.) 

These outreach programmes were not initiated by me, rather by young people working with us. We involve youngsters in our team in the organisational planning, as well as in the leadership aspect of peacebuilding. We let them lead, holding their hands, sharing resources when necessary, so that we can learn and benefit from the fresh ideas. The diversity of the team also helps us understand what the next generation is like, and what their aspirations, dreams, and goals are like.

You have worked for peace and justice and human rights for almost all your life and led some powerful campaigns. Can you share your perspective on how activists can make peace movements more sustainable, more bottom-up than top-down? 

This is a great question — and in my experience it requires a collaborative approach involving people from different backgrounds, personal networking, getting them to know each other, and building relationships. In fact, what has sustained the peace movement so far, is the personal relationships, and that we are now able to help people who cannot physically meet to develop those personal relationships. 

So for peace to become a people’s movement, one needs to identify with the person across the border or in another nation. We facilitate that recognition of similarities through our activities as there is much scope for finding common ground, and people take over because once they are able to see these similarities, they cannot unsee it.

A screenshot from Sapan’s most recent event “Rights of the incarcerated in South Asia” on 29 August, 2021

What does your ideal South Asia look like? Help us imagine it.

I have to confess here that the late Dr Mubashir Hasan, who was one of my mentors, gave me this idea — I had never thought of it before. He had mentioned his vision of South Asia probably 10 years ago in a conversation. He had a vision of a South Asian Union or a South Asian Federation, akin to the EU, with freedom of movement, and freedom of trade and travel. Countries keep the sanctity of national borders and boundaries, but allow people to move around freely. 

I’m quoting something here that a journalist in Nagpur said to me, who has no connection with Pakistan or the Pakistani side as he was from south India. He said, “I would love to go work in Lahore for six months. Why can’t we have those kinds of exchange programmes? For example, if a doctor wants to come and work in India, why can’t they do that?”

This is a point we all need to deliberate upon. While we have these restrictive national borders, who really benefits from them?

Peacebuilding can be draining and can even come at great risk to one’s own life especially if the political environment is difficult and hostile. Any suggestions to peace activists?

Peacebuilding, just like any other kind of activism, is draining. And what I tell not just peace activists I mentor, but also my journalism students, and reporters working with me as well: “Do what they say on the plane –  put your own oxygen mask first, and then help others.”

Similarly, we need to look after ourselves, we need to take care of ourselves, be mindful of our own physical and mental health, our own safety as well as safety of our loved ones.

Of course, there are dangers associated with peace activism. For Pakistani activists, March 2014 was a turning point, after the murderous attack on Hamid Mir of the Jang Group following which the entire media outlet came under attack, including its Aman Ki Asha project.

Basically, anyone working for peace with India is periodically accused of treason. One activist, not even affiliated with Aman Ki Asha except peripherally, forcibly disappeared. Recovered after seven months, he has since taken asylum in Sweden with his wife.

On both sides of the border, ‘peacemongers’ are frequently referred to as agents of the other. The people who attack us have entire armies to disrupt the narrative. These dangers often distract us, as we end up focusing our energies on trying to save ourselves. We are up against a lot, yet we need to continue our work, taking baby steps.

As one of my friends, Sabeen Mahmud, used to say, “chhoti chhoti khushiyan” — take pleasure in the little things since everything is so overwhelming. We need to ensure that we do not get bogged down with the big picture, and the big overwhelmingness of things but to take peace, happiness, relief, and joy wherever and whenever we receive it.

Join Beena Sarwar and 45 other eminent speakers at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women (October 2 and 3, 2021), which will be broadcast live on eShe’s FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn and Twitter. Participation welcome.

Lead image courtesy: Maha Sarwar Shahid

1 comment on ““While we have these restrictive national borders, who really benefits from them?”

  1. Pingback: South Asia Union Summit Led by Women (October 2-3, 2021) – South Asia Union

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