Can Bollywood heal the India-Pakistan relationship?


NEW DELHI, India — Make peace, not war.

This is the message that two of the largest publications in India and Pakistan are sending their countries in recent weeks. Since the start of the new year, the two have engaged in a veritable orgy of peace, using their publications and their television channels to inspire Indo-Pak friendship.

The drama began in early January when readers of India’s most widely read English-language daily opened up its morning papers to a full-page advertisement under a bold banner, Love Pakistan. Since then, on the Indian side, the Times of India has dedicated big chunks of space to spreading that message, too.

Opinion-pieces, story features, musical collaborations, business conferences and literary festivals — all of these are part of "Aman ki Asha" or the Hope for Peace, an Indo-Pak peace project sponsored by the Times of India and the Jang Group of Publications in Pakistan, two mega media houses that also run popular television channels.

“I don’t know whether this campaign will bring peace but at least it may open things,” said Angelo Dias of Taproot India, the creative agency attached to the Times of India group. “At the moment it’s blasphemous to even think about peace, let alone suggest it. But maybe 15 or 20 years down the line," he trails off.

India and Pakistan fought three conventional wars — in 1948, 1965 and 1971 — and the Kargil War of 1999 in Kashmir. Despite this hostility, there has always been an active, albeit alternative, Indo-Pak peace bandwagon. But now, for the first time, the cause has been taken up by mainstream organizations.

“We’ve been exchanging ideas for a long time,” said Imran Aslam, president of Geo TV in Pakistan. “This is just an idea to create an enabling environment to try and address the issues as we go along.”

Aman ki Asha isn’t a small campaign. Since January there have been countless articles here advocating peaceful relations, stability in the region and shared cultural ties.

Already some class acts have put their weight behind the campaign. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, a nephew of the international Qawwali-star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Shankar Mahadevan, a singer and Bollywood composer, have also performed a combined national anthem for India and Pakistan.

Amitabh Bachan, Bollywood’s biggest star, has also recited a poem for peace. The video is being shown repeatedly in both India and Pakistan where Bachan is idolized as a god.

Of course, Aman ki Asha has its naysayers. Much of the heated exchanges between young hawks and doves is taking place in the blogosphere among Indian and Pakistani youth.

Moreover, the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, allegedly orchestrated from Pakistan and carried out by trained Pakistani militants, have been a major setback to peace. For many Indians, anger and mistrust has seeped into the public imagination of Pakistan and Pakistanis.

“There was an awareness that it could be misunderstood and it is actually being misunderstood,” said Dias. "It’s being misunderstood as us forgiving terror, fundamentalism and all those kind of things from across the world, and particularly from across the border.”

In a sense, this turnabout in attitudes typifies the ongoing instability of the Indo-Pak relationship.

So is this latest effort doomed to fail? Aslam, for one, says now is the time to change, maybe even heal, the Indo-Pak relationship.

“We have gone looking for each other's pasts in each other's country," the Geo TV president said. "It’s time to move on and look at each other's future.”

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