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.
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.