Learning the ropes of peace activism

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by A H Cemendtaur

Friends of South Asia (FOSA), a California organisation working for peace between India and Pakistan, came into existence when, in December 2001, nine of us, the founding members, came to the chilling realisation that the place we call home was full of war cries and that South Asia was on the brink of a war.

In our frustration we came out on the streets - literally. We arranged peace vigils; attendance at those vigils varied depending on how bad the India-Pakistan situation was perceived to be, how high was the risk that the whole of South Asia would turn into radioactive rubble. We quickly learned a few lessons: a) people are too busy in their modern-day lives and they don't have time to go to the vigils; b) people were sceptical of the merit of the vigils and, worse of all; c) many didn't believe in peace: they believed in an all out war between the two South Asian rivals.

Engaging people

For us to drive home our ideas of peace, we need to engage people. And in order to attract more people - more everyday people who don't go to political rallies, and keep their biases and political persuasions tightly knotted in themselves - we showed films and invited speakers. We had more success with those events. Engaging people - people who consider themselves each other's enemy - is very important for us. We want to bring them under the same roof; we want to make them realise that peace is a possibility, an option full of hope.

Members of Friends of South Asia have held regular vigils on the streets of US towns since December 2001. PHOTO: COURTESY OF FOSA


Living in the US, we Indians and Pakistanis are in a uniquely advantageous position. We are blissfully away from the emotionally charged environment of our homelands. We can freely meet each other; we can calmly debate issues.

Our remote location gives us another benefit: of seeing things from a distance. We, the pacifists, hope that our fellow countrymen and women will start seeing the things as we see them; they will start sharing our frustration, our utter disbelief on seeing two neighbouring countries, that are so much alike, spending so much of their energies in fighting each other.

Seeing hope

Working for peace in poorer countries has its unique challenges. People living in the tiring economic situations are resigned to the worst scenario: war (how could war be any worse than the circumstances they are in?). We need to take them out of their pessimistic state of mind; we need to make them see hope. Peace groups must work to bring sanity into the lives of the common folk of our region. We need to work with the local organisations and adopt a holistic approach; understanding that peace, economic well-being and hope are all interrelated.

Our peace efforts in the last fifteen months have made us realise our limitations: we have come to understand that we can't change things overnight. It took 50 years for the India-Pakistan situation to get so bad; we can't undo the making of five decades. We would have to put our sweat in this; we would need to stick with peace for the long haul. We are ready.