Nepal is a travel destination that is hugely popular among Indians because of the pilgrimage and trekking options it has on offer, the absence of visa requirements, and a favourable currency exchange rate. However, what makes the country special for me is the fact that it is one of those rare spaces in South Asia that are hospitable to Indians as well as Pakistanis.
During my participation in Vermont-based SIT Graduate Institute’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (CONTACT) program in Kathmandu in the first half of December 2013, I learnt to appreciate the value of Nepal as a space for Pakistanis and Indians to be able to meet in a neutral space, without fear of hostility and the bureaucratic hurdles that characterize the process of getting a visa; without neither Indians nor Pakistanis needing to worry about the other’s security concerns or feeling any compulsion to be gracious hosts.
Delhi-based poet and educator Aditi Rao, who is Program Leader of the Gandhi Fellowship Design Team at Kaivalya Education Foundation, was one of the participants in the CONTACT program, which brought together people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the United States of America. She shares, “I had decided to stay in Kathmandu for a couple of nights after the official end of our program, and at the last minute, my friend Sadiqa (from Quetta in the Balochistan province of Pakistan) decided to join me for a night in the hostel I had booked in downtown Kathmandu; I called the hostel and added an extra person to my reservation. When we checked in, the receptionist looked up my booking, smiled and said, ‘You are from India?’ I nodded and gave him my passport, and Sadiqa handed him her passport saying ‘And I am from Pakistan.’ He smiled, and I wondered if he was wondering what these two women from opposing sides of such a contentious border were doing checking into a hostel together.”
She adds, “The next morning, when I was looking for Sadiqa at breakfast, one of the American women staying in the hostel asked me, ‘Are you looking for the Pakistani woman who checked in yesterday?’ and it took me a minute before I said yes. I realized then I had never thought of Sadiqa as a ‘Pakistani woman’, only as a dear friend with whom I had stayed up talking till 2 or 3 AM on multiple occasions, sharing the deepest and most intimate parts of our lives and stories.
“Later, as she left for the airport, and we hugged goodbye, we told each other how much we hoped to see each other again soon, how much we wished our countries would relax visa norms and make those reunions easier. And then we laughed and said ‘Chalo, aur kahin nahin, toh vaapis Kathmandu mein milenge.’ (Well, if nowhere else, we will meet again in Kathmandu.)”
A fortnight of studying and living together had given birth to many wonderful friendships, and as people wished each other well and hoped to meet up again, there was also a sense of disappointment. The Indians wondered if the Pakistanis would get a visa to travel to India, and the Pakistanis wondered about the same in relation to their Indian friends. Some maximized their time together by staying up very late to chat with each other, and even began to plan solidarity walks in different parts of South Asia to collaboratively campaign for a relaxed visa regime.
Danish Farid Khan, another participant in the CONTACT program, who teaches in Mansehra and is also the Chief Minister (leader of the house) of the Youth Provincial Assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says, “I’ve been brought up with perceptions of traditional rivalry for Indians, as most Pakistanis. Kathmandu gave me chance to look at our relations from a totally different perspective. For the first time, I came to know that people from India could be loving sisters and brothers. Had I not been there, I would have to live my rest of life with stereotypical thoughts. We have so much common among us but we never knew until we got a chance to sit together, to learn together, to eat together and share rooms. In my personal view, it was Kathmandu that helped me shun those prejudices I carried with me. If it had been in India or Pakistan, I would have never helped myself remove that haze of prejudices. The openness, frankness, acceptance and welcome atmosphere of Kathmandu provided such a beautiful environment for our friendships. The way we discussed our conflicts and sorted out some suggestions for solutions was in itself possible only in Kathmandu.”
He was my roommate in the hotel we were staying at, and that brought us a chance to talk about issues that we may not have discussed in formal settings. Sitting and talking across the table or attending the same classes is different from living together. It was heartwarming to experience his honesty in saying things as they seem to him, without any effort at putting up a diplomatic front. Paying lip service at podiums is easy but real interactions do involve talking about difficult things. However, these are the conversations that really matter.
Mirpur-based Saqib Javed Raja, another participant in the CONTACT program, who works with the Youth Parliament of Pakistan and is also the Executive Director of Youth and Women for Peace and Dialogue, says, “My visit of Nepal really gave me an opportunity to connect with the disconnected people in my region. I met with young people from almost all of South Asia. It was a really wonderful experience for me to meet people from India and especially the people of Indian Administered Kashmir. I learned many new things from the people whom I was thinking are my enemies. I believe Nepal is a country that is friendly towards both India and Pakistan, and offers a great place to initiate peace talks between people from our countries.”
Mirpur is located in what is referred to as Azad Kashmir or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Pakistan Administered Kashmir, depending on who is making the reference. Despite the difficulties posed by not just nomenclature but a very messy and painful history, the participants were able to listen to each other and reach out across the dividing lines.
Bhavana Mahajan, M.Phil. student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who also participated in the CONTACT Southasia program: “Peace at its very core is about collapsing binaries and boundaries. Unfortunately, in the case of India and Pakistan, the scars of our history continue to wound us to date making it difficult for peace-seekers on both sides to converge physically as well. Thus while we may be able to get some of them in, and they some of us, they remain “they” and it continues to remain a story of too little too late. In histories of such dichotomies, a neutral physical space can go a long way to ensure we walk together…The road to peace between Delhi and Islamabad thus, goes through a place like Kathmandu.”
Thank you, Nepal.