On a recent trip to Agra, it didn’t take long for a shopkeeper to recognise me as Pakistani. “I can tell from the way you speak Urdu,” he explained. On hearing I’m a Karachiite, he began reciting addresses — the homes where his grandfather&’s brother and cousins have lived since Partition. A few days later in Delhi, a rickshaw driver, after eyeing me suspiciously in his rear-view mirror, spontaneously shared memories of his one trip to Lahore as a young boy to visit family members who had relocated.
Ironically, the warmest reception came from the official at Agra&’s police reporting department. Insisting I join him for tea, he expressed glee at the reporting system, saying it gave him the opportunity to meet people from across the border. “My family and friends like to hear who is visiting, where they are from, and how they are enjoying the sights of Agra; these sites belong to all of us, they are our joint past.” This assessment was particularly welcome given attempts in recent years on both sides of the border to claim the Taj Mahal or ascribe it a contemporary nationality.
Each time I travel to India I’m struck by the rush of memories and the need to share them; flickering memories of bungalows in Lahore, school days in Lyallpur, fruit trees in Attock. The conversations proceed as if by rote — nostalgia; regret at the diminishing contact; expressions of affinity and kinship; a heartfelt wish to visit Pakistan in their lifetime.
Such exchanges were particularly resonant given the current state of bilateral relations. There seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement that the escalating political rhetoric has its own momentum and logic, and that, while the issues being raised are of import, they matter at the level of state and strategy and have little to do with society and shared histories.
The warm exchanges primarily occur with middle-aged or elderly Indians, people in their late 40s and older. For them, the memories of shared ties are immediate, or just a generation or two away. As such, they contrast greatly with the perceptions of younger Indians. Speaking to Indian youth — students, academics, aspiring civil servants, waiters, mobile shop wallahs — I was struck by the different tone of engagement. On realising my nationality, I was asked where in Pakistan I was from, our cities bearing little distinction for them. The slightly chattier ones would remark on the latest episode of Coke Studio or gush about Humsafar — a giddy mention of Fawad Khan would inevitably follow.
Of our politics, provincial dynamics, economic issues, urbanisation and demographic trends there was little information. Questions about the practice of Islam or the role of women betrayed levels of naiveté. With some I detected slight bewilderment at the realisation that there are universities, technology start-ups, and flyovers across the border too.
One cannot generalise from social exchanges during a short visit. But it is common sense to assume that, as we move further from the generation that experienced Partition, the level of knowledge and understanding on both sides of the border will decrease. Rather than memories, the hawkish rhetoric of politicians and strategists will inform perceptions and attitudes. The dialogue between the two countries will become increasingly one-dimensional and securitised.
This sets the stage for increasingly tense bilateral ties. Politicians are beholden to their constituencies, and constituencies with little knowledge of the other country beyond that — imparted by jingoistic and state-serving media — on both sides will have a declining appetite for dialogue.
Already the disconnect between generations is evident in the countries’ foreign policies towards each other. Commentator Sadanand Dhume&’s recent description of Narendra Modi&’s Pakistan policy as “[yo-yoing] wildly between giddy embrace and frigid standoffishness” can equally apply to the Pakistani side. This policy pendulum acknowledges the affinity and latent desire for greater engagement, but kowtows to the need to take a tough stand on thorny issues. As the former instinct declines with the passage of time, the latter will stoke greater volatility, perhaps even conflict.
The only way to avoid this eventuality is to move beyond the catchphrase and genuinely improve people-to-people ties. The efficacy of soft power is evident in the fact that, beyond terrorism, Pakistan is known by young Indians for its music and dramas. This cultural consumption must be supplemented by meaningful exchanges — academic, cultural, historical, and most importantly personal, in the form of cross-border travel opportunities. Having people on both sides of the border who can humanise the other will be key to ensuring stability in the region for decades to come. The exchanges over coffee cannot be left to Fawad Khan and Karan Johar alone — youth on both sides of the border deserve the same opportunity to connect.