The human interest stories that surround public events are as revealing as official communiqués, and in an age when leaders and those around them tweet as they go, they take surprising turns. The swearing in ceremony of the new government, for instance, was already a foreign policy event with the attendance of seven SAARC leaders. Amid all the official statements and press communiqués, the news that caught my eye was the warm exchange of notes on filial piety between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers. They shared with each other their attachment to their mothers, how frequently they visited, and have since exchanged gifts for each other’s mothers. It’s really quite sweet or would be, except that you register a little note of surprise somewhere in all this reporting – surprise, that really is unwarranted.
Until a few decades ago, when people still wrote letters, young people were sometimes encouraged to find penfriends. There were penfriendship columns in newspapers and magazines or clubs that you could join by subscription. Innocently, children wrote to strangers, asking about their hobbies, their siblings and their schools. We did not worry about predators and impostors; and they were, in any case, at least 10-15 days away from us on other continents. There were few images exchanged; the photos you sent someone were chosen from the few you had, and most of us could barely send one a year. One hobby, one birthday card, one long letter at a time, we bridged distances we could barely fathom at our age. Decades later, when no shared hobbies remain and life experiences could not be more different, a bond of affection keeps penfriends together, now over Facebook or WhatsApp and email.
Having a penfriend who liked to read the same books or who liked the same colours, or who also lived near the sea, made it impossible to generalise about others. One’s own penfriend was so special and so unique that one had to admit the possibility that others in their country were special and unique as well. At the same time, there were likely others who liked the same books, the same fruit and who shared a birthday with you. The process of interacting regularly with your penfriend made everyone in their country a little more human to you.
Ironically, in the age of instant messaging and social networks, we are so aware of the dangers that lurk that we would (and should) hesitate to let our children make friends with strangers. Their cross-cultural learning comes rather from television and the internet. In some ways, they know more than we ever did, but in others, without the small personal details and the sense of another person’s everyday life, what they have is just information, not necessarily understanding.
On a more formal scale, this is what international education accomplishes. People elect to go abroad to study either because of the quality of research in a given subject, or because a foreign degree is considered more marketable, or because it is actually harder to get into an Indian college. But if you ask those who work in the area of international education, they will tell you that studying abroad is an intrinsic good. You are transformed, usually for the better, by your interaction with people from a different culture. You also learn a great deal about yourself, through the interaction.
Studying abroad has become easier in our time, but it is also now possible to study abroad in such a way that you never encounter another culture. With hundreds of thousands of Indian students abroad, you could arrive, be met by Indian students, room with them, eat your own food and enjoy the same celebrations you could at home. The difference is simply in the classroom, the laboratory and workshop, and in public spaces. What is different is the absence of everyday interactions with random strangers in the other country, the learning about each other’s food, the sharing in other celebrations and finally, the sharing of lives that welds together people who might never have met.
This is, in my view, the true purpose of non-official diplomacy. The idea behind multi-track diplomacy is that unfettered by official postures and positions, those outside government can take conversations about conflict further. Over the last two decades, multi-track diplomacy schema extends from four tracks to almost ten. Having been a part of several such initiatives, I think their real success lies in the interpersonal connections made on the sidelines. Sometimes these are professional connections, resulting in all sorts of collaborations. More often than not, they are personal connections and the friendships that they forge outlast the vicissitudes of diplomatic relations.
The connections are simple—a shared love of certain songs; an admiration for handwork and embroidery; sports rivalry, which is topped only by the shared enjoyment of watching a match together; siblings the same age or the care of older relatives, and a similar perspective stemming from grassroots work or living in a peripheral town—but in the bad moments, when it is tempting to rail and outrage against perceived slights, they are very hard to forget, and rein in our worst impulses.
The same process is multiplied manifold when visa and information regimes ease. Being able to travel freely to each other’s countries; to be familiar with each other’s products—from Sunrise Coffee to Bareeze or Barefoot Designs to movies; to become so familiar as to be almost-local—can there be a better preventive for conflict than everyday contact? It is an old story in the Indian and Pakistani context, the stock human interest story that goes along with any open interaction—“I crossed the border, people were so welcoming, they hosted me with open hearts and gave me great discounts. They also helped me locate the family home/my old school-teacher/my old college.” There are also economic advantages, of course, when people travel freely and spend money in each others’ countries. There are even greater advantages when they can trade with each other. But the most important thing, to my mind, is that with greater interaction, they stop demonizing each other. It is hard to hate a person you actually have met or know.
As penfriends, as students, as participants in dialogue processes and as tourists, we build something that is actually not easily destroyed—a sense of belonging and of trust, an understanding of each other as human beings. The warmth of actual human interaction releases in our hearts the ability to have compassion for each other. The things we learn about each other become the building blocks of how we see each other’s countries and societies. Warmth and compassion are surprisingly resilient. Peace scholar Kenneth Boulding wrote about integrative power, or the power of love or persuasion, more effective in the long run than threat or exchange. In this very age when ideas like the power of love elicit the most mockery, we know of more and more people who have experienced this warmth, the compassion of strangers in a strange land and the magic of discovering other cultures and ideas.
Surrounded by information, our ignorance about each other remains astounding. We know many things that don’t matter—how many people showed up at X’s rally; how many quintals of wheat were shipped where; exactly how many seconds a handshake lasted. But the flow of this information—just points of data—has not diminished the barriers we have placed between us—visas, censorship and not least, prejudice. In so doing, we deprive ourselves of one of the most wonderful possibilities in today’s world—friendship across borders.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist based in Chennai and the founder of Prajnya. She is also the beneficiary of every one of the experiences described in this article.