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A New Generation, and Future, for South Asia

An Indian sees the end of 'Oz'

This year, as an Indian, I celebrate 50 years of my country's life and 30 years of my own. One of my earliest memories as a child was that of air raid sirens and blackouts in New Delhi during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. An equally early memory was of the first time that I watched "The Wizard of Oz." Looking back on these two events, I detect a striking commonality - there is an ephemeral, otherworldly quality to my memories of both. To me, the world of shrieking bombers and blacked-out cities appears as unreal as the fanciful world of Oz. That, perhaps, is the crucial generational change in South Asia.

To my parents' generation, who fought these wars, nationhood was defined by the trauma of 1947, in which India became everything that Pakistan was not. India was the land of freedom, of secular democracy, where people of all faiths lived in peace. The preceding generation clung to this notion with all they had, even if it meant oppressing Muslim Kashmiris to prove that they could live safely in India. It was crucial to that generation's identity to believe that Pakistanis lurked behind every banyan tree, ready to strike a blow against India's secular identity.

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They armed themselves to the teeth against these chimeras, and in the process almost bankrupted the country. They passed outrageous laws against imagined traitors and terrorists, and in the process created many more terrorists and almost destroyed the democracy by which they swore. Self-reinforcing paranoia became self-fulfilling prophecy as Pakistanis responded with equal dosages of enmity. In retrospect, the Wicked Witch of Pakistan might have been only a figment of a jingoistic imagination.

My own identity is not so insecure. I join many compatriots of my generation in asserting that Kashmir is not the critical issue. The place has little strategic or economic value for India. For all we care, the matter can be resolved tomorrow by making the "Line of Actual Control" the international boundary and by giving Kashmiris all the autonomy they can handle. Both countries can then get on with doing business together.

All this is not to say that I am not patriotic. I experienced intense national pride when, earlier this year, I visited Electronics City near Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley. I feel the same when I read about new laws that reserve a third of the membership of village councils for women, or about India's independent judiciary that guarantees everything from free elections to a clean environment.

I have also felt national shame, though not when India loses a cricket match to Pakistan, or when Pakistani F-18s carry better weapons than Indian Mig-27s. Because I am ashamed of our poverty, I see an untapped market for Indian business, and not an enemy, when I look at Pakistan.

As a single geographical unit, bounded by the same rivers and mountains, South Asia is a natural candidate for an integrated market. Creating this market might yet lift the rest of the region's population from poverty. Despite ongoing tensions, instances of cooperation between India and Pakistan on such issues as water-sharing, trade, and cultural exchanges far exceed instances of conflict since 1947.

My generation wants this cooperation to expand. This is a message I would take not just to the leaderships of India and Pakistan, but also to world leaders who wish to see peace in the region yet who focus only on the nuclear issue. The nuclear chimera is used by our leaders as bait to generate money and attention in the West. If world leaders wish to support peace in South Asia, a new constituency for peace - the generation that speaks the language of globalization and not global holocaust - deserves their support.

Last year, I became one of the few of my countrymen who has experienced the hospitality of my country's nemesis - the armed forces of Pakistan. For two days, I was driven around, escorted, and fed by the Pakistan Army. I spoke with senior Pakistani officers, went with them to the local market, and accompanied them on patrols. The location was Haiti. I was researching the UN's efforts to build lasting peace in that country. In some ways, the experience reminded me that things had come full circle.

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In South Asia, some courageous leaders who shared common experiences in pre-independence India are taking bold steps toward peace. Let us work together to make sure that this circle is fully joined. Let us emerge from Oz!

* Chetan Kumar is an associate at the International Peace Academy in New York.

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