For Maria Saifuddin Effendi, it began with a bar of chocolate. As a Pakistani, Maria's first experience of India was her Indian roommate at a South-Asia workshop: a roommate who greeted an irritable and jetlagged Maria with a warm smile and a bar of Cadburys' chocolate. The following year, a second workshop brought her to New Delhi, to another Indian roommate, another series of midnight conversations, and another set of Indian friends.
For B. Rajeshwari, it began with the bright kurtas and impeccable make-up sported by the Pakistani women with whom she attended a workshop appropriately titled "Envisioning Futures." While Rajeshwari had not expected the women to be burkha-clad, something about this delegation's dress and confidence challenged her stereotypes about women in the country across the border.
And for Nausheen Wasi, it began when she glanced around the room during the screening of a film about Kashmir and noticed the tears of a Hindu Pandit participant, who had not only suffered through the Kashmir violence, but was also struggling to continue helping Muslim women in Kashmir despite her Hindu in-laws' reservations. As Nausheen looked from the screen to this woman, years of television footage about brutalities in Kashmir – and all the debates about whether Kashmir was engulfed in an insurgency or a freedom struggle – faded. In the forefront, now, was one woman, her dreams, and her pain. While continuing to recognize the importance of national issues at stake, Nausheen began asking what peace meant to an individual, and therefore what it should mean to the state, rather than the other way round.
Since 2001, hundreds of young South Asians like Maria, Rajeshwari, and Nausheen have come together for a series of trust-building dialogues and conflict transformation workshops organized by WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management, and Peace), an initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, New Delhi. As a South Asian research and training institute, WISCOMP organizes annual Conflict Transformation workshops with the aim of empowering young women and men in the region with the motivation, skills, and expertise to participate in nonviolent change processes in conflict settings. By drawing in participants and resource persons from a variety of disciplines, such as the media, business, professional conflict resolution, educational institutions, and grassroots organizations, the workshops also work to address the conventional gap between policymakers and civil society actors. Further, many of the educational institutions represented by workshop alumni have gone on to engage with peace curricula. This peace-building work becomes especially important in a region that many believe to be the most probable frontier of a nuclear war, should such a war ever break out.
Most importantly, though, WISCOMP's workshops are founded on the premise that face-to-face dialogues with "the other," and the rebuilding of relationships torn apart by decades of conflict, are prerequisites for creating a sustainable peace. Many argue that conflict transformation is fundamentally about identities and relationships; in South Asia, it is particularly so. In a region divided by political, religious, and territorial disputes, but that also shares a millennia-long history and cultural heritage, these identities and relationships are complex. Many Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis who meet in Europe or the United States will, for example, tell stories of connection and camaraderie as "South Asians" or, simply, "desis"; back home, however, national identities are so polarized that something as simple as cheering for another country's cricket team can earn one the label of "anti-national"!
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that even as the workshop participants share stories about specific dialogues and skill-building sessions that left a deep impact on them, what they consider most important are the stories of friendship, the moments when prejudices were transformed, and the experiences of building professional, cross-border partnerships for peace. Even after they return to their home countries, these relationships remain integral to their work for peace; for example, after the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008, amidst the blame games and war mongering that engulfed much of the region, workshop alumni refused to allow a jingoistic media to influence their perceptions of those across the border; instead, they came together to take a joint position against violence. In this sense, the most important lesson that alumni carry home is simply an intimate knowledge of people they once only knew as members of an enemy nation.
Ultimately, when tensions in the subcontinent escalate, and when government propaganda starts demonizing the "other," these young women and men remember the stories and songs thatthey shared. They remember one another's chocolates and kurtas, dreams and tears, cups of tea and hours of midnight conversation. They remember that the "other" may be different from oneself but can still be a friend. And it is perhaps this knowledge that will play the biggest role in conflict-transformation in South Asia.