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Dialogue - Aman Ki Asha - a journey of peace.

Given the history of conflict between India and Pakistan and the benefits of peace, people in both countries must look for opportunities to build bridges of friendship and harmony. Aman ki Asha, a joint initiative launched by the Jang Group and the Times of India, is a serious effort in this direction. Shahrukh Hasan, Group Managing Director, Jang Group and Azhar Abbas, Managing Director, Geo News, spoke to Slogan on the first anniversary of the Aman ki Asha peace campaign - what it has achieved so far and the challenges ahead. AKA is committed to removing the gulf between India and Pakistan and promoting peace and friendship. What is the progress so far?

Shahrukh Hasan: I will start with the term you have used - "the gulf between the two countries." As conflicts go, the conflict between India and Pakistan is unique from this particular perspective. Whereas there is indeed a gulf between the governments of the two countries, there is no gulf between the people. The people harbor no ill will towards each other, are acutely aware of the cost and futility of conflict and desire peaceful relations. The relations between the governments on the other hand - whether due to the baggage of history they carry, or the burden of what they see as 'national interest' - are in stark contrast. Some intervention was needed. And this is why the Jang Group felt that if there is one thing we could do for Pakistan, it was to try and amicably and equitably resolve our problems with India.

This was not a movement that we could start only in Pakistan; it had to be mirrored by a similar sentiment and a similar commitment from India.The natural choice was The Times of India. They are our counterparts and are by far the largest media group in India. I shared the passion of the Jang group and readily saw the logic of the peace being to the mutual benefit of both countries.

Does Aman ki Asha intend to remove the contentious issues between India and Pakistan?

SH: Yes, but since disputes can only be resolved by governments, we see our role as facilitators. We would like to discuss all contentious issues - something that the government of Pakistan has long wanted to do - so that both points of view are clearly articulated and understood. Based on the understanding and convergence that hopefully develops, the governments may derive greater comfort and confidence in trading concessions that are needed to fairly and equitably resolve issues. So the role of Aman ki Asha is that of a facilitator.

How will you converge over the Kashmir issue, when you know that only the two governments can make the final decision and you also know that Indians and Pakistanis have different views on the subject?

SH: I think we must start by accepting that to every dispute there are so many different points of views; it is our intention to create awareness in India on Pakistan's point of view. As you know, India is the world's largest democracy and, by definition, this implies that the government of India must act in a manner that reflects the wishes of the Indian people. If we are able to create greater awareness of the merits of the Pakistani argument, then we are surely moving in the right direction. I think we have been successful in achieving that.

A survey conducted before the AKA campaign started, showed that there was only 4% awareness amongst the Indians of Pakistan's point of view relating to Kashmir. In December 2010, 12 months after the launch of the AKA campaign, this awareness has jumped 425% - from 4% to 17%. Similarly, perceptions about Pakistan on a whole range of issues have changed for the better. This, we were able to achieve without waging a war, without some huge diplomatic offensive, without spending millions of dollars on lobbying firms. We achieved this by appealing to the hearts and minds of the people of India through discussions, seminars, articles etc. These are the weapons of AKA. And how powerful and potent they have been!

Did the survey receive any other positive feedback?

SH: Absolutely. For example, the desire among the people of India for settling the Kashmir issue was even higher than in Pakistan. In this survey, 77% of Pakistanis and 87% of the people of India said that the issue of Kashmir must be resolved in order for Pakistan and India to have peace.

Azhar Abbas: I think there is consensus both in India and Pakistan and even in Kashmir that there is absolutely no military solution to the problem. So we have to come up with something else which the AKA platform is providing - like debates and dialogue, getting people together so they can actually find solutions other than the military option, which has been rejected by all and which obviously is not a solution.

How do you think you can make a difference in the backdrop of such films as Dastaan and Rang de Basanti which have a negative ring?

AA: There are not just the forces of change, there are always forces of status quo and in between there are people who still follow the old school of thought. I don't think a couple of movies can do much harm. There are other movies too which are on the positive side. I think they do have an impact and you feel there is a reduction in negativity as well. For instance, someone like Amitabh Bachan, who is generally regarded as hawkish and very anti-Pakistan, has advocated the benefits of India-Pakistan friendship. In fact he is an ambassador for peace for AKA. He's is in the promo of AKA and that's a huge change.

Amitabh Bachan has affiliations with Bal Thackeray. Don't you think AKA could be seen as a campaign that practices duality?

AA: No, not at all. Since he lives in Mumbai, he obviously has to deal with people like Bal Thackeray and others, and he may even have his own views of the politics of India and Pakistan and I am not going to defend his beliefs. But that makes his being an AKA ambassador even more meaningful and positive. Initiatives like AKA change minds, and Amitabh's appearing in the AKA promo has helped do that. Our survey proves that mindsets are actually changing and that is what we want.

SH: Also remember that we have a history of 63 years of conflict to contend with, and we are trying to change that mindset too. Change is a process and peace is a journey. AKA we believe is the first step in that journey.

What is the major outcome of conferences organized by AKA?

SH: I would say that the initial outcome is a greater understanding of each other's points of view. This hopefully should result in creating a greater mass of positive public opinion and that will find resonance with government and policy makers. If this discussion is carried on across diverse platforms, more people will be converted. For instance, in an Aman ki Asha economic conference in Delhi in May last year, some of the leading business tycoons of India, led by the Finance Minister, came together on one platform and said that the people of India and Pakistan are like brothers. Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister of India and literally the second in command in India, said, ''... the sky is the limit. If the Times of India and the Jang Group are able to bring the people of India and Pakistan together in terms of the economic cooperation and the benefits that will accrue, then the sky is the limit.''

Is AKA also working towards removing misunderstandings caused by distorted history textbooks on both sides?

SH: This is a huge problem in its own right. Not just in the context of our relationship with India, we would like to agitate the issue for improving the school syllabi and remove the distortions. As a media group we have commented on this in talk shows on TV and in our newspapers. It is something we are very concerned about.

A joint statement by the editors of Jang and the Times of India said: "The people of today must find their voice and force the rulers to listen." To what extent, do you think, you have voiced your cause?

SH: I think we've done that to a huge extent. Again, if you look at the survey (it was printed in The News on January 1), you will see the change in the perceptions that has taken place in India and Pakistan. This was the first time in the history of both countries that the two largest media groups printed a joint editorial on the front pages of all their editions. This in itself is a historical event.

The agency - Taproot India - which worked on AKA, reported, "It wasn't a safe and happy campaign." Can you tell us why they made this comment?

SH: The campaign itself won three of the top awards in Singapore. It was presented at Cannes where it was the best received campaign. It received the widest appreciation and kudos. How can it then be unhappy or unsafe?

AKA focuses not just on promoting cultural exchange but economic ties as well. What is the progress on this front?

SH: Mutuality of economic interest is the strongest driver of peace. We've held the biggest ever economic conference between India and Pakistan in Delhi in May last year. In collaboration with the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), we took with us some 63 CEOs and there were another 250 mainstream, top of the line CEOs from India. They identified six sectors - Agriculture, IT, Health, Education, Textile and Energy - as having the greatest potential for collaboration.

On the IT side, we have already had our first joint meeting while in textiles we are going to have a meeting in February. We are hopeful that this will assume a life of its own and will start moving and gathering momentum. That is how people and countries come together and disputes are resolved. This is something we are particularly happy and confident about.

Since AKA is a collaboration between two media groups, do you face any difficulties in getting coverage from other media outlets?

SH: There have been small segments of the press in Pakistan who are very critical of AKA but the majority of the media is strongly in favour of peace. There is a fringe element that is anti-peace and also anti-India and has levelled all kinds of atrocious allegations against the Jang Group and Geo. For instance, they have said that Indian companies have invested in the Jang Group and now they own us. They have also said that we are agents not just of RAW but of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, as well. Fortunately, these allegations have been so absurd and ludicrous that they have found no takers. Even commenting on them would be giving them some semblance of dignity. We held a conference on the role of the media, "Talking Peace" where we invited senior editors and anchors from India and Pakistan to cooperate in the process of capturing hearts and minds and the effort was greatly welcomed.

Ten years from now, AKA and Pakistan ... where do you see both?

SH: As far as our wish list is concerned, I hope there is a resolution of all our problems, hopefully in favour of Pakistan but certainly on equitable terms. I hope that both India and Pakistan benefit from economic and cultural cooperation and that our future generations are not hounded by the same demons as we were.
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Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 28, 2011
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