Last week, I was in Lahore, Pakistan at a forum on environmental peace-building in South Asia. Organized by a group of “Young Global Leaders” under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, this was a unique gathering of professionals and politicians. For the first time we had a delegation of three Indian members of parliament Manish Tewari (Congerss), Chandan Mitra (BJP) and Bajyanath Jay Panda (BJD) cross over to the Pakistani side along with notable TV anchor Barkha Dutt to have a public debate on Indo-Pak cooperation potential. There was even a televised talk show with a public audience, hosted by Pakistani TV host Munizae Jehangir, in which a member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party as well as a member of the Jamaat-e-Islaami participated. The conversations were heated and bold, but ultimately civil.
As I was thinking of recapping these memorable moments in an article, my pen was preempted by the tragic news from Mumbai. An article which was to be about reconciliation will now have to contextualize peace-building within the confines of investigations into this tragedy. Was Pakistan involved? What signals should India send across the border regarding the upcoming meeting between the foreign secretaries at the end of July? Would there be pressure from within India to punish Pakistan for complicity in creating a jihad culture even if it was domestic Indian terrorists that were involved? All these imponderable questions will be addressed in coming weeks but this uncertainty should not detract us from celebrating the accomplishments of ongoing peace-building efforts between the people of India and Pakistan.
Malini Mehra, of the Center for Social Markets in India, who originated the idea for the forum on climate change and disaster management visited Pakistan for the first time. One could sense her emotional connection with the city of Lahore since her ancestors had once resided there and migrated to the India after the 1947 Partition. Another Indian participant, Aslam Perwaiz from the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre was thrilled to be in the city of Allama Iqbal – a poet he had admired since his youth and in whose daughter’s home we held the forum’s banquet.
Beaconhouse Group CEO, Kasim Kasuri, who was also one of the organizers provided examples of how education can transcend borders. In a unique program, the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore has a scholarship program endowed by an Indian philanthropist that provides free tuition to students from all member countries of the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Such efforts that focus on need beyond nationalism are heartening and must be further developed.
The organizers noted how challenging it was to get visas for the participants to cross borders but the forum also exemplified the triumph of technology in overcoming such barriers. Two Indian presenters were brought in live via Skype conference call from New Delhi and email communication freely continues across borders after the event. Even visas are not insurmountable and technology has helped in that regard. The flurry of emails and twitter requests between participants and decision-makers (including Pakistani Interior Minister, Senator Rehman Malik, an avid twitter user) helped to procure the visas in time for many of the participants.
Yet beyond these important social interactions and anecdotes, there is also an ecological necessity that must be considered by both India and Pakistan. As downstream countries of the great Himalayan riparian system they are collectively vulnerable to extreme weather events and climatic change. While presenters such as Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, reminded us of India’s dominant power as the upstream riparian, there was also an exploration of how Pakistan could still have some room to bargain with regard to energy supplies to India.
One of the key take-home lessons of the Lahore forum was that cooperation does not need to wait for federal governments to sign a deal. There could be cooperation between provinces / states and between villages or between individuals. Incrementally all such acts will indeed transform the narrative from conflict to concord.
Students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) that hosted the forum under the direction of Dr. Umar Saif pledged to continue in their own capacities to work towards peace with their Indian counterparts. The new vice chancellor of LUMS, Dr. Adil Najam who is himself and distinguished environmental scientist, also assured participants of his commitment. The human contact between Indians and Pakistanis is essential to move forward with reconciliation and to dispense with negative stereotypes.
A follow-up effort that was highlighted by the organizers, given the venue in Lahore, was a collaboration between East and West Punjab. Developing a partnership on shared waters between communities across the border in terms of collective learning of best practices could be a practical next step. A follow-up meeting is planned for Chandigarh in September and the World Economic Forum’s regional summit for India in November – to be held in Mumbai – will also have a session on this initiative. Having a peace forum in Mumbai within a few months after another spate of tragic attacks may seem fanciful but would in fact be the best antidote to extremism. The momentum for cooperation must not be halted for that will only embolden destructive forces on either side.
Saleem H. Ali, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont, is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.