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Making Peace in South Asia: The Role of Citizens' Diplomacy

While the governments of India and Pakistan continue their arms race and aggression, residents of both countries are practicing citizens' diplomacy, reaching across borders to find common ground and pathways to peace.
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Wagah border-crossing, photo by Kamran Ali

At the Wagah border, the only road linking India and Pakistan, crowds gather each day at sunset to watch the border-closing ceremony, performed by members of the Indian and Pakistani militaries. The ceremony has become less aggressive in recent years.

Photo by Kamran Ali

Over the past three decades, as governments in India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons, pursued a ruinous arms race, fought wars, and fomented one crisis after another, activists in the two countries have mobilized to make the case for peace and cooperation. An amazing people-to-people dialogue has taken shape and is emerging as an important new social movement in India and Pakistan.

A central aspect of this citizens’ diplomacy movement is the direct, face-to-face encounter. Activists cross borders to meet and share ideas, hopes, dreams, experiences, insights, food, music, love, friendship, and the gifts of being human. This, they believe, can break down the walls that were created by the 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent into two states and strengthened by years of animosity, conflict, and periodic wars.

The journey across the India-Pakistan border is not easy. It is guarded by the two governments, which control visas, travel permissions, and transport links. Both are often only too eager to tell would-be travelers, “You shall not pass.” Even those who manage to cross are often limited to where they can go, and must register with the local police.

An amazing people-to-people dialogue has taken shape and is emerging as an important new social movement in India and Pakistan.

Nevertheless, citizen diplomats, who overcome these obstacles by meeting in third countries, working through email and the Internet, or traveling between the two countries when visa restrictions permit, have become significant players in the domestic politics of both nations. They have become the ambassadors of civil society, reflecting a growing popular aspiration for peace in the sub-continent.

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The South Asian citizens’ diplomacy movement now embraces thousands of activists, scholars, business people, and retired government officials. They work together to find common ground on issues ranging from national security, cross-border conflict, and economy and trade to development, education, ecology, the rights of women and minorities, and arts and culture. These efforts have been recorded on the South Asia Citizens Web.

One key group is the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, which began in 1994 as a group of 25 people from the two countries meeting together in Lahore, Pakistan. These days, its joint convention, held alternately in Pakistan and India, is the largest regular gathering of citizens of the two countries. The conventions bring together many hundreds of people from India and Pakistan to discuss ways to eliminate nuclear weapons and reduce military spending, settle the Kashmir dispute that has led the countries into three wars, tackle religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and prevent education systems from promoting a national identity based on hostility towards the neighbor across the border.

Organizations that unite both Indians and Pakistanis around single-issue goals are also growing. Prominent among these is South Asians for Human Rights, which seeks to foster the creation of regional instruments to support human rights and gender equality and justice, to strengthen regional economic and technological cooperation, and to resist predatory globalization.  Progressive journalists from the two countries have created a South Asian Free Media Association, which seeks to counter the voices of ultra-nationalist politicians and right-wing media in the two countries that demonize the other and wish to settle for nothing less than victory.

Porters at Wagah border-crossing, photo by Tony Anwas

Before 2006, cargo trucks were not permitted to cross the border between India and Pakistan. Porters were employed to carry goods through the crossing to trucks waiting on the other side.

Photo by Tony Anwas

The India-Pakistan Soldiers' Initiative for Peace, a group of retired military officers, has opened a dialogue across the border on national security. A Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia was established in Delhi and Lahore. Trade union organizers and labor rights activists have created a South Asian Labour Forum.

Has the citizens’ diplomacy movement made a real difference?

The achievements are remarkable. Perspectives and lives have been changed in dizzying ways for countless numbers of people; networks have been built that could not have been imagined only two decades ago. Political leaders, including presidents and prime ministers, now feel obliged to meet delegations of visiting citizens from the other country; government officials talk of the importance of people-to-people contact and the need to ease visa restrictions; new cross-border transport links have been established; trade is increasing; cross-border theater, film and music festivals are emerging; major mainstream media groups in the two countries have launched a joint campaign to promote peace through increased people-to people contact.

Real challenges remain. India and Pakistan continue their arms race. Tensions have been high since the 2008 terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai by Islamist militants with links to Pakistan. But, unlike previous crises, this time there has been little public demand for war. The path forward seems far easier than the journey so far.


Zia MianZia Mian wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Zia is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He has been active with the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy since it was founded. He is the co-editor, with Smitu Kothari, Kamla Bhasin, A. H. Nayyar, and Mohammad Tahseen, of Bridging Partition: People's Initiatives for Peace between India and Pakistan (Orient Blackswan, 2010). This essay is drawn from the book’s introduction.

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