Today's Front Page
Try our latest crossword
Read our Earth Day special issue

Indo-Pak rivalry ignores deep cultural similarities

On a gentle hilltop at the Press Club in Lahore, the din of the early Saturday evening traffic wafted in gently through the trees like the last lazy rays of sunlight. I listened enraptured, as a dozen of the city's veteran journalists gathered around a bonfire, to unwind after a long week, mixing good-natured repartees with passionate rhetoric — in English, Urdu and Punjabi — about democracy, development and the common future of our subcontinent. I was an Indian in Pakistan, and this was the enemy.

Indians rarely go to Pakistan. I traveled there on a thesis research trip for the last two and a half weeks of January to test whether the idea of a liberal-democratic peace (à la Immanuel Kant and more recently resurrected by Professor Michael Doyle from the Center for International Studies) holds any water in the India-Pakistan case. Pakistanis, so we are taught since we are born, are a rabble of crazed, militant, Islamist secessionists who should be feared and never trusted because they are out to destroy mother India at every given opportunity. The propaganda is as overwhelming as a jet thrust, comparable only to U.S. perceptions of the Soviets during the worst days of the Cold War.


For someone raised on that nationalist venom, going to Pakistan was like confronting the Evil Empire. It's a bit like the feeling — partially real, largely imagined — one gets when driving through shady parts of Trenton or any other inner city: the fear, the mistrust, the sense that one doesn't belong. During my two-and-a-half weeks, I had that feeling often. And yet, I was prepared for that. What I did not expect was the warmth, the passion, the fighting spirit of those I met. I encountered journalists who had gone into hiding, been jailed, threatened, harassed, abducted and had persevered. I met people who exemplified that rare commodity in American political culture: courage.

Returning to Princeton, I find it difficult to talk about my Pakistan trip to Americans, for whom it is a remote, exotic place. In Pakistan, I saw people with whom I shared a history, culture, language and cuisine. I felt not remoteness but the passions (both of love and fear) of intimacy. The Western media portrays the Indo-Pak rift as a fault line between "Hindu" India and "Islamic" Pakistan — two "civilizations" at nuclear loggerheads. It is a joke. We are enemies, yet we are the same people.

"We should not be friends," Aziz Mazhar, a veteran Urdu journalist and president of the Indo-Pak Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy, told me at the Lahore Press Club one day. "We should be brothers."

Until 50 years ago, we lived together in the same empires, kingdoms, principalities and later the same colonial Raj. Freud would have called it the "narcissism of minor differences," that we hate each other not because we know we are different but because we know we are the same. After 52 years of tensions, four wars and an intractible territorial dispute, the one thing experts on both sides can agree on is that interstate relations today are at one of the lowest points in the subcontinent's history. Within the last year and a half, both sides have declared themselves nuclear powers, fought a conventional war and continue to ratchet up the heated rhetoric. There is a "kill the pig, slit its throat" hysteria among Indians who feel betrayed by Pakistan's advances over the summer. Talk of limited war is bandied about with chilling nonchalance on both sides of this impoverished, nuclearized subcontinent.

The voices of reason, thoughtfulness and basic decency are being drowned out on both sides. Indian and Pakistani scholars abroad, like Princeton's Dr. Zia Mian in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Dr. M. V. Ramana — who work together on nuclear non-proliferation in the region — are trying to close the wound and forge a common regional destiny. But on both sides, even in the South Asian immigrant community in the United States, the voices informed by nationalist myths, fueled by fear, driven by hatred, ring louder. If they win, there most certainly will be a war we can all ill-afford.

The threat of war is real. The absence of courage — to speak for peace and our shared destiny — among most South Asian elites at home and abroad is frighteningly dangerous. I began this thesis with Kant, sanitized neo-liberal theories and wonkish seminar sessions in Corwin discussing theoretic scenarios in a nuclear standoff. Nowadays, my patience wears thin in abstract academic discussions. I have become emotionally involved. Matters between brothers often tend to get that way. Kushanava Choudhury is a politics major from Highland Park, N.J. He can be reached at