Aman ki Asha: Now Why Didn’t We Think of That!

The Dil se Dil and Aman ki Asha Logos

Sometimes an idea just takes a while to germinate. Sometimes the big guys simply need to feel that the brainchild was all theirs before they’ll really run with it. Whatever the reason, it seems that the time has finally come for a serious effort at an Indo-Pak peace initiative based on simple people-to-people interactions and cultural exchange.

The proponents of this undertaking are two of South Asia’s largest media outlets, the Times of India and the Jang Group in Pakistan. In the garbled, half-literate language of the writers at the TOI: “Starting with a series of cross-border cultural interactions, business seminars, music & literary festivals and citizens meet that will give the bonds of humanity a chance to survive outside the battlefields of politics, terrorism and fundamentalism.”

The project is being called “Aman ki Asha”, Hope for Peace. Shiv Sena suck-up Amitabh Bachchan, no less, is promoting the as-yet vaguely defined bridge-building. The one program they have articulated is a concert (or series of concerts) featuring both Indian and Pakistani pop musicians.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it appears to be based on our lovely Friends Without Borders project and its not-quite-successful sequel, Dil se Dil, both the brainchildren of service wizard John Silliphant.

Friends Without Borders was a four-month blitz through India in 2006 to collect friendship letters from tens of thousands of Indian school children and deliver them to kids in Pakistan. Major events were held in around the country, television commercials played on major networks for two solid months, and the project was lauded by the Prime Minister of India and featured in newspapers, magazines (here and here), online media, and television.

The Dil se Dil project was even more ambitious. On the night of 14-15 August 2007, we had planned a special celebration to celebrate the shared 60th anniversary of India and Pakistan and an unprecedented event designed to bring the people of these countries closer together: a concert of Indian and Pakistani superstars, right at the famous Attari/Wagah border. A coming-together of midnight’s grandchildren, as it were.

At the heart of both projects was a belief that peaceful, productive coexistence is profoundly wished by ordinary people on both sides of the border, whereas intransigence, antagonism, and recrimination are the domain of politicians and a minority of hardliners. We found tremendous resonance with these ideas during both projects.

Our print-media partners for that undertaking were, of course, the Times of India and the Jang Group. If there is any doubt about the origin of the genesis of the projects, take a look at the TOI article that announced the program. The photo was taken by a TOI photographer at our Friends Without Borders event at Wankhede Stadium in Bombay on 6 February 2006. Even the Aman ki Asha logo looks a bit derivative of the Dil se Dil logo.

The Dil se Dil and Aman ki Asha Logos

Of course, the FWB team is given no credit or kudos for the idea – but that’s just fine. Our objective has always been to create positive change. We are open source. If you can take our ideas and do more with them than we can, more power to you! In fact, we’ll be glad to assist you.

True, the appropriation of the concept, without attribution and for purposes that appear principally publicity-seeking and commercial, and only secondarily public-spirited, is a bit shady. But then, what do you expect from TOI, the most disreputable, sleazy, ethically challenged media outlet in a country not exactly famous for journalistic integrity?

Still, we are delighted to see these important ideas taken forward.

***

This revival of Dil se Dil prompts me to tell a more detailed story of the crushing disappointment surrounding the eleventh-hour cancellation of our border concert. There were a number of factors censoring my commentary during the course of the project. Chief among these were close monitoring by the Indian Home Ministry at a time when I was in the country on a tourist visa and the fact that our brilliant partners at the NGO Routes 2 Roots were heroically negotiating the permissions with two distrustful governments that did not want to see anything in the media before the deal was done. Even my online announcement of the cancellation was truncated by the judgment that details of the fiasco would only serve to antagonize, when our objective was to sooth.

The concert project had its grand opportunities and major challenges. A.R. Rahman had personally agreed to be our headliner; but his manager, Deepak Gattani, turned-out to be one of the most venal, corrupt, slimy human beings on the face of the earth. The border was a fabulous location; but we had to obtain permission from both governments (never before given) and work out security and logistics with both armies. The United Nations Millennium Campaign agreed to be a partner; but dealing with the UN-anything is an almost guaranteed fuck-up. Hundreds of thousands of people were expected to show-up; but we could only accommodate a few thousand within the secure area of the concert venue and there was no way to turn-back impromptu celebrants from the general area. Nokia signed-on as our major sponsor; but they had done so in such a soulless and shamelessly exploitative way as to completely miss the spirit of what we were attempting to achieve. We had a team of extremely creative, articulate American volunteers; but, fearing al Qaeda targeting of the event, the Home Ministry forbid any overt signs of American involvement, effectively handicapping our PR machinery.

Two weeks from show-time, our partner, the brilliant NGO Routes 2 Roots, was called before the Home Ministry to be advised that security threats from al Qaeda and other, non-disclosed antagonists were running extremely high. Border Security Forces and police from around Punjab, which would have been detailed to our event, would be reassigned to the protection of Delhi. The Government of India would not tell us not to have the concert – it would lose tremendous face in light of Pakistan’s go-ahead, were it to do so – but the warning was clear.

Six days from the concert, the musical line-up of A.R. Rahman, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Asmat, Shafqat Amanat Ali was ready to go, as were the MCs Shah Ruhk Khan, Julia Chawla, Wasim Akhram and Shaiyanne Malik. The show had been scripted and we were working with the fabulous CNN-IBN team on the taping of special content. The concert was to be broadcast through India and Pakistan by major networks, and beamed around the world to satellite affiliates. Television advertisements were already in the air and newspapers were beginning to print stories. The stages, lighting, and television installations were under construction at the border. And all hell broke loose.

It began with anonymous telephone threats to one of the directors of Routes 2 Roots, which the Indian Intelligence Bureau was able to trace to “an off-shore satellite source somewhere in the Indian Ocean.” These call were followed with calls to the Routes 2 Roots office, traced to a pay-phone in Delhi. Routes 2 Roots were once again summoned to the Home Ministry and this time the message was clear: the Government of India would not be able to guaranty the safety of those attending the event and was considering withdrawing its No Objection Certificate – government-speak for the permission we had arduously obtained to be able to hold the concert. The Intelligence Bureau believed the threats were al Qaeda related.

We had no choice but to cancel the concert.

The extent of this fiasco apparently had repercussions well beyond our shattered volunteer team, collaborators, sponsors, and supporters. Although President Pervez Musharraf was up-to-his-ass in a constitutional crisis, thanks to ongoing conscientious protest in the judiciary, his office took the time to telephone Routes 2 Roots to insist that the show must go on. But we could not allow that to happen in the circumstances; and by then it was too late anyway.

The Aman ki Asha agenda is substantially less ambitious and backed by two media powerhouses. This bodes well for success. We wish it well.

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15 Responses to “Aman ki Asha: Now Why Didn’t We Think of That!”


  1. 1 Moulee 8 January 2010 at 3:51 pm

    I never got the idea of Aman ki asha or I am plain stupid to understand it. When it is clear that both the govt doesnt want to make any positive moves to improve relationship and the media in India which constantly project Pak as villain and vice versa, I am not sure if the common man needs a bridge or the media and the govt that needs a program to get closer.
    It is true that the majority of the people on either side want a peaceful life. Also I believe that there is not much cultural difference between Northern India and Pakistan, it is more of political difference.

  2. 2 mbjesq 8 January 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Moulee:

    In fairness to you, TOI and the Jang Group haven’t done much to clearly define the scope of their project. They are dancing around the edges of a good idea, though.

    I’m not sure “the common man” you speak-of doesn’t need the cultural bridge offered by poeple-to-people initiatives. It’s one thing to pragmatically desire normalized relations, and quite another to understand the commonalities on a visceral level. Moreover, the objective is not merely to teach or inspire empathy; it is also to harness the power of that goodwill to influence public policy. The visibility of these projects and the massive support they can engender matters.

    This, of course, is also the risk of TOI’s poorly-conceived approach. It might not motivate broad public support and capture the imagination in the way our children’s letter-writing and Independence Day concert projects did.

    MBJ

  3. 3 js 8 January 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Great summary, Mark!

    I think we’re all pretty excited to watch our hard, hard, I mean really hard work come to fruition.

    I think it’s unfortunate that Times of India didn’t include us because I think we could probably have helped them to navigate through the immensity of what they have just stirred up.

    In working with TOI in the past, I really believe the intentions of those writing the copy have been mostly very pure, but the copy is also unknowingly biased with a distinctively Indian perspective, which is largely uninformed of Pakistani perspectives, and thus sometimes insensitive.

    This, unfortunately, can become tinder for the outbreak of ideological forest fires.

    I really hope that they can find a consultant or proof-reader (perhaps from the Jang group) who is tuned into various perspectives so as to tamper any ideological collisions that will be there no matter what. Even the comments from our innocuous and uplifting kid-to-kid video on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY7A39jwlxM – is littered with ignorant back-and-forth banter.

    I think one strength that we had was that we were very sensitive and worked very hard to communicate from a non-ideological place — i.e. from the heart, but in an attuned way.

    It also helped that our primary focus was on building friendships between kids. We never focused on peace. Just friendships. Because of this, we probably came across as softer and non-threatening. Who’s going to argue with kids or anyone becoming friends? For such a big campaign, there was very little backlash to our efforts.

    It also probably helped that we were foreigners. Though some people were occasionally suspicious of our motivations — why the hell would a group of outsiders work so hard toward improving Indian and Pakistani relations — our neutrality likely helped. The collaborative union between TOI and Jang was very smart. But still, many will distrust the motivations of TOI, where they might be a little more trusting of some naive do-gooders on vacation. :)

    I hope very much this goes well. So much love and care has gone into it. This is huge. It’s historic. The January 1st front page of Times of India is unlike anything I’ve every seen or heard of before. I mean, wow! I wish them so much luck and I hope that this can serve as a model for others in the future… if, if, if they are able to navigate it with care.

  4. 4 mbjesq 8 January 2010 at 4:23 pm

    For those of you who haven’t deciphered it, js is the brilliant and wacky John Silliphant — one of the most creative avatars of service ever to tread the earth.

    Let me tell a story on John, from which we can all take inspiration as we move through our daily paces. The genesis of the FWB children’s friendship letter project was John’s need to temporarily depart India to renew his visa. Pakistan was the nearest border. Most of us would have pondered the logistics of the trip; John thought further. He wondered to himself: how fun would it be to arrive in Pakistan carrying a handful of friendship letters from Indian kids, to hand-out randomly to Pakistani kids on the streets! Fortunately for all of us, John doesn’t simply dream-up wonderful stuff, he acts on it as well.

    FWB snowballed from there.

    MBJ

  5. 5 js 8 January 2010 at 5:09 pm

    For those of you who don’t know – and I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear this – let me share with you a surefire recipe for success. Add one part Mark Jacobs, one part Yoo-mi Lee. Stand back and watch them cook!

    To have this power duo on your team is a blessing I couldn’t even dream up.

  6. 6 Abhyaan 10 January 2010 at 9:41 pm

    @ js,

    ‘Great summary, Mark!

    I think we’re all pretty excited to watch our hard, hard, I mean really hard work come to fruition.

    I think it’s unfortunate that Times of India didn’t include us because I think we could probably have helped them to navigate through the immensity of what they have just stirred up.”

    john, why don’t you contact the Times of India if they’ve missed including you? I might be missing something here, and forgive me if I am, but I’m sure they would love to have a non-Indian journalist/NGO director on board – for wider publicity for their initiative if nothing else.

    I think they’d be warm to your proposal.

    I’d suggest their head office at: Shivaji Marg, Najafgarh Road, New Delhi 110015.

    Or alternatively, their phone number, without the int’l code, @ 25465345.

    Put them on the spot with a telephone call and make for an appointment. Then get there, and sell them your pitch.

    FWB is pretty well-heard of in India. Heck! even I’ve heard of it!

    Peace and good luck!

    AY

  7. 7 Abhyaan 10 January 2010 at 9:54 pm

    @ mbjesq,

    I failed to see why the language of the ToI is “garbled and half-literate”.

    Particularly, this:

    “Starting with a series of cross-border cultural interactions, business seminars, music & literary festivals and citizens meet that will give the bonds of humanity a chance to survive outside the battlefields of politics, terrorism and fundamentalism.”

    The ToI may be tabloid-ish, but their print edition is not shabby by a long shot. It is regrettable that they’ve taken the concept of ‘Aman ki Ashaa’ from FWB if they have, without attribution, truly regrettable. But that is in dissonance with your statement: that it is “as-yet vaguely defined bridge-building”. A logical fallacy perhaps? Or perhaps you refer specifically to the component of letter-exchanging. But the idea of letter-exchanging between India and Pakistani students is not new, certainly not pioneering by FWB: One occurred as far back as 2001 between students in Bihar, India and Karachi, Pakistan under Project ‘WE ARE THE WORLD” organized by Indian writer and author of Passport Photos, Amitava Kumar. He has also done some work for the ‘Times of India’.

  8. 8 mbjesq 11 January 2010 at 9:54 am

    Abhyaan:

    Read the TOI passage again.

    First, it is not a proper sentence. It has no subject. Second, it uses an ampersand within the text to stand in place of the word “and”. Third, it employs the ampersand in the same list as the word “and”, creating a crazy run-on. Fourth the introductory clause is not set-off with a comma. Fifth, “citizens” looks to be possessive; so it needs an apostrophe after the S. Sixth, although the word “meet” is standard diction in Indian English in place of the word “meeting”, which would be used in British or American English, here it is deployed without proper grammatical inflection. Is the writer referring to one meeting or many? Seventh, “bonds of humanity” is a pretty barfsome and hackneyed phrase. Eighth, “survive” is not a carefully chosen word. The project is designed to nurture connections among Indians and Pakistanis, not to preserve them. Ninth, “battlefields” is a poor metaphor to be used simultaneously with politics, terrorism, and fundamentalism. The first two might be said to take place on a metaphorical battlefield, but fundamentalism does not necessarily imply conflict. It might be said to occur in a metaphorical insane-asylum, but not on a metaphorical battlefield.

    There may be other disasters in the passage; these are the ones that immediately catch my eye. Maybe other readers can point-out additional shortcomings.

    There may be worse sentences printed by commercial publications since Johannes Gutenburg introduced movable type printing in 1450; but I challenge you to find them. I was being generous in labeling this sentence “half-literate”. I gave the TOI partial points because the sentence used words, mostly.

    MBJ

  9. 9 Abhyaan 22 January 2010 at 6:53 pm

    @ mbjesq,

    You’re right. Now that I look at that introductory paragraph again, I find it of the most eccentric and farcical quality. That journalist should’ve been hung from a bracket and flogged! However, I hasten to caution you that I am no journalist- far from it- which is why something like that could’ve escaped my attention so easily.

    ToI – atleast its online edition- is widely considered among the few hundred million educated Indians that read web papers to be quite “tabloid-ish”, to reiterate a word I attributed to it earlier. In the list of ‘serious’ newspapers or ‘epapers’ I would recommend, it would probably figure last. Some of the more decent, in my opinion, are: the Hindu, The Telegraph, the Deccan Chronicle, the Asian Age and Hindustan Times ol. Most always verify against these and consider these to be credible.

    Good luck bloggin’!
    A

  10. 11 mbjesq 18 February 2010 at 2:33 am

    Ever notice that those leaving hateful, brainless messages almost always leave them anonymously, like Ms. FUCKIT, above? I suggest this is a promising sign, one that should give us faith in the essential goodness of human nature and hope about moral perfectibility.

    The anonymity reveals a modicum of self-awareness and shame one would not necessarily expect in a person so vile. They appear to know full-well they are repulsive, mean-spirited, ethically bankrupt, and plain-old, flat-assed wrong. They have no desire to have their disgrace revealed, even as they cannot stem their malicious compulsion to spew hatred. Sure, the commentary is evil and the delivery gutless; but let’s take some solace in this evidence of a small vestige of conscience.

    MBJ

    p.s. I have no special insight into FUCKIT’s gender. Either my designation above is correct (by chance) or I’m adopting the fall-back position outlined in my essay Man Up!

  11. 12 Kaffir 20 February 2010 at 6:54 pm

    You got your answer on Feb 14 at the German Bakery in Pune. Einstein’s words about the definition of insanity (regarding this half-cooked and misguided Aman Ki Asha) come to mind. What have the infidels in India ever done to bother the Pure People? Why not go into the Taliban heartland and preach your message of peace? Or are you being too much of a pussy, to borrow a phrase from your other post? ;)

    At least we agree on your analysis of ToI.

  12. 13 mbjesq 24 February 2010 at 1:04 am

    Kaffir:

    I’ve been to Pakistan (with FWB, no less); and I am presently trying to obtain a position to serve in Afghanistan. As always with your lame efforts to slander me — the one constant theme in your comments — you jump to conclusions about my life that are flat-assed wrong. I’m a pussy, alright; but not as much of a pussy as you would like to think I am.

    Tell me, Mr. Hero, what courageous things you’ve done to make the world a better place?

    MBJ

  13. 14 Diana/Aridhi 17 March 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Aman ki Asha totally reminded me of FWB and Dil se dil when I first heard about it.

    I remember looking forward to the concert and I remember lighting a candle on the Dil se dil website. I was really sorry it didn’t work out then.

  14. 15 sihi 14 September 2010 at 6:10 am

    Indian govt is hypocrite for the reason that it says we have unity in diversity but it is openly trying to destroy the diversity. I totally support its attempt to bring peace between India and Pakistan but I dont appreciate the ways it is using.
    For example in the article you mentioned they organized a concert between Indian and Pakistani pop artists. Thats a great concept for peace between two countries only if they had organized the concert with all the Indian artists irrespective of their state, language or movie industry.

    I am sure 99% of the world population think of Indian movie industry as bollywood alone and Indian language as Hindi alone where as India has multiple movie industries like Bengali movie/bengali songs/bengali artists, Kannada movie/kannada songs/kannada artists, Tamil movie/tamil songs/tamil artists, Malayalam movie/malayalam songs/malayalam artists, telugu movie/telugu songs/telugu artists to name important few. Where are all these people and all these songs in TOI concert between India and Pakistan?
    Where are these languages in common wealth games inagural function this year?
    Even iTimes which is times of Indias blog has option for transliteration only in Hindi. Why did they name their organization times of india if they cant provide transliteration for all major indian languages? they should have names it times of hindi or something.

    First India should represent itself in the world by giving equal chance to all diverse states and not just hindi and hindi artists. Then we can think about indo-pak relationships.


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