Tweets of peace from Netistan: Where the real Indo-Pak dialogue happens

By Shivam Vij

A Lahori businessman who recently walked across the Wagah border crossing was asked in Amritsar, "How is the weather in Lahore?" The Lahori replied, "Are you mad?" Lahore and Amritsar are only 30 miles apart.

The iron curtain between the two countries has reduced the other for us to a place of the mind, of imagination, hearsay, stereotype and selective history. But while there’s no such thing as a tourist visa between the two countries in the real world, the borders are dissolving in the virtual one. We remain citizens of two different countries, Hindustan and Pakistan but also of the same country, Netistan.

I remember the first time I said hello to a Pakistani online. That was more than 10 years ago. "Are you Hindu?" asked the message on the chat window, from the Pakistani on the other side. "Never mind," he reassured me, "we can still be friends." Today such a conversation would never happen. We have come such a long way, we Indian and Pakistani netizens, there's no novelty to the encounter anymore.

Now we do talk more about the weather than high politics. "It's raining in Lahore," says one tweet. "Please send some rain to Delhi?" replies another.

I write Toba Tek Singh, Pakistan, as my hometown on Facebook. My reference was to the greatest short story ever written, but a friend from Islamabad punctured my attempt at profundity when he sent me a private message: “LMAO! (Laughing my ass off.) You are from Toba Tek Singh! Do you know TTS is full of painDoo (villager-like) Jutts who are the butt of all jokes?!”

When I write that publicly, a Pakistani who is actually from Toba Tek Singh took offence. Toba Tek Singh, he said, was full of Arains! He proceeded to give me an education on who the Arains were (a Punjabi Muslim peasant caste). Did you know General Zia-ul-Haq was an Arain? He was from Jalandhar but claimed to be from TTS!

 Tweets of peace from Netistan: Where the real Indo-Pak dialogue happens

Netistan isn’t just some candle-light peacenik lovefest where you share jokes. Getty Images

Netistan isn’t just some candle-light peacenik lovefest where you share jokes. In fact, jingoists are more obsessed with the other than anyone else. You see them flaming the comments sections of blog posts. But I felt I had seen everything there was to see when I saw a warmonger quote Faiz in his tweet.

What does not attract attention is the number of people reading, seeing, talking and listening to each other without exchanging expletives. It is a silent revolution in knowing the other by reading each other's newspapers and blogs, watching YouTube videos and sharing jokes on Twitter. We read each other’s newspaper columns and argue about it on Facebook but without invoking mothers, sisters and daughters. A smooth debate from one newspaper op-ed to another, carried on to-and-fro across the Radcliffe Line through undersea internet cables - who needs a Track II conference?

We have come to take such interaction so much for granted that we don't realise it was not possible before the Internet. Today's internet can bring you very close to a place and its contemporary life without actually visiting it. A girl in Lahore chats all day with a Sikh boy in Hoshiarpur. They hope to meet some day. Children of refugee families see images, maps and videos of their ancestral towns. They make Facebook friends with people from places which were once theirs, or which could have been home but for a quirk of history. Visiting his aunt in Kanpur the other day, a friend learnt from her that she had not met her sister in Karachi for 35 years. A few minutes later, he joined them via Skype. They had tears in their eyes. "You are older than me but you look younger now!" said the one in Karachi.

A young man in Amritsar has often heard his grandfather say how if they ever get to cross the border, there will be a crowd of his old friends waiting to greet him. The young man thought his grandfather is delusional, stuck in time. But today he has himself made so many Facebook friends in Lahore that he knows he will actually be greeted by a crowd.

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A campaign to have an octogenarian Pakistani prisoner released from prison in Ajmer on humanitarian grounds takes off online before it reaches the mainstream media. That was thanks to Aman ki Asha, which is a joint peace campaign by the Jang media group of Pakistan and The Times of India. But online, Aman ki Asha takes on a completely different, a completely un-corporate energy and power thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable Beena Sarwar.

Beena recently broke the story of a retired Pakistani airforce pilot who sent a condolence email to the daughter of an Indian pilot whose civilian aircraft he had shot down on the Indo-Pak border in Gujarat during the 1965 war. He wanted to apologise, saying the Pakistanis actually thought the Indian plane was on a reconnaissance mission. He had wanted to do this for a long time, but 46 years after the event, his friends managed to find out the Indian pilot's daughter's email address. The daughter's heartwarming reply also made news, becoming yet another internet-enabled effort in Indo-Pak reconciliation. The Internet is today a force behind India-Pakistan peace, though a hidden and unsung one.

A graph from Peace.Facebook.com

Facebook has a peace website, Peace.Facebook.com, that tracks Facebook interactions in conflict zones. According to its statistics, India-Pakistan friendships and interactions increased from 64,000 a day on 12 February this year to 2.6 lakhs on 30 July. They far outdo such interactions in Greece-Turkey, Israel-Palestine and Albania-Serbia. The numbers may yet seem small if you consider that 4.3 million Pakistanis and  28 million Indians are on Facebook, but they are large considering the iron curtain between the two countries.

No such numbers are available for Twitter, but because of its open, town-hall character Twitter sees far more India-Pakistan interactions. These tend to be more regular yet less intense. I have replied angrily to Salman Tasseer’s hateful anti-India tweets and gotten replies from him. Yet, I have felt sad when he was killed. Twitter lets Indians and Pakistanis in on to the internal conversations of the people of the other country, and thus helps us understand each other better.

The biggest success story of the Internet regarding Indo-Pak relations is Coke Studio. In Karachi it is the brainchild of Rohail Hyatt, shown on Pakistani channels that we don't see in India (though you can see them streamed live online). One of Coke Studio Pakistan’s singers has been Amanat Ali, a 23 year old from Faisalabad. Amanat debuted, at the age of 17,  on an Indian show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. In the semi-final of that show, he sang Tujhse Naraz Nahi Zindagi so beautifully that since the video was uploaded on YouTube a couple of years later, it has been seen over three lakh times, with comments from overwhelmed Indians and Pakistanis alike. It was through YouTube that Coke Studio became a household name in India, and Pakistan's biggest cultural export to India since the time of Bakra Qishton Pe and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan VHS tapes. There was even a Facebook page demanding Coke Studio in India.

However the recently-started Coke Studio India is such a spectacular flop, such a bad imitation, that when the Indian show debuted on MTV India, an Indian tweeted to a Pakistani, “Congratulations on the Coke Studio victory!”

Coke Studio Pakistan’s popularity in India is understandably a matter of pride for many Pakistanis, given that the flow of culture seemed to have become one way of late, with not only Bollywood films but also the saans-bahu soaps shown in Pakistan.

Of course no one can deny that public opinion in India and Pakistan largely remains hostile. According to the results a survey published in June by the Washington-based PEW Research Center, 75% Pakistanis and 65% Indians see each other’s countries in a “bad light”.

While those numbers are true, what’s also true are stories like this one from Netistan. After Pakistan entered the cricket world cup semi-final, Sana Kazmi and her friends in Karachi had the great urge to see the historic match with India. She had only five days to go. She started a Twitter hashtag, #getthegirlstomohali. It worked. When she returned from Mohali, she wrote, “It was a long shot, but if any of us didn’t believe in the kindness of strangers, we were about to change our minds by the end of this match. A sweetheart of a journalist in Delhi agreed to be our pretend-host and quickly scanned and sent us her ID minutes before another very resourceful and exceptionally kind stranger tweeted to say he could get us a booking in a (nice) hotel about two hours from the stadium. Another friend in Mohali emailed us a picture of his 3 VIP passes to the match, taken by what I’m sure was a camera-phone from the early noughties. We were officially all set with the visa application requirements – thanks to three Indians we had never met!”

As internet penetration increases in both countries, the unexpected kindness of online strangers is only going to increase and hopefully the visa wall will break, tweet by tweet. No one can stop an idea whose time has come.

Shivam Vij is a journalist in Delhi.

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Updated Date: Aug 19, 2011 22:20:06 IST