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The road from 11 to 21

Just days before 9/11 the UN had resolved that every September 21 would be observed as International Day of Peace. The distance from 9/11 to the International Day of Peace is best traversed by the kind of people-to-people contact made possible by international education, says Swarna Rajagopalan

International Day of Peace

I sit down to write this from a guest room at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, which occupies the beautiful English castle built to house the British Viceroy in Shimla. Rashtrapati Nivas, as it is now known, has been the venue between 1945-47 for the very important negotiations that preceded Partition and Independence. The agreement to partition India was signed in a small room across from the one in which our conference was held. Not far from here is the venue of the 1972 peace talks between India and Pakistan that resulted in the Simla Accord.

In this place, in this month that heralds the mellow season of autumn in the northern hemisphere, one cannot but think about war, peace and the ways and means of getting from the one to the other.

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September 7, 2001: Delegates in the shimmering UN Headquarters building in New York resolved (A/RES/55/282) that September 21 should be observed from 2002 onwards as International Day of Peace, a day designed to draw people’s attention to peace, inviting people and states to cease fire and observe non-violence for at least one day.

September 11, 2001: The unforgettable image of smoke bellowing out of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre remains the symbol of a beautiful, almost perfect late summer morning. People from all over the world watched, some live, as the second plane rammed into the towers. People from all over the world worked in those towers—as sales staff, as restaurant staff, as trainees, as executives—and most of them lost their lives that morning. 9/11 illustrated how intertwined our lives are and how divided our minds are. Nationals from 60 countries lost their lives, but the politics of its aftermath sharply divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

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In these beautiful, august surroundings, I find myself reflecting on the years since 9/11 and our own progress (or lack thereof) on the journey from 9/11 (representing conflict) to September 21 (representing peace).

In the aftermath of 9/11, amid the anger and shock, there were several voices that called for a calm, thoughtful response, but it was already clear by that very evening what the way ahead was going to be.1 The world heard the American President say that the US would hunt down those who had planned and organised this multi-pronged attack on US targets. Within a month, US forces had launched air-strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan and in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan campaign was waged by a coalition of states which contributed troops, equipment and other kinds of support to the US-led mission. Within three months, there was regime change in Afghanistan with the swearing-in of a new government led by Hamid Karzai. However, regime change did not mean an end to war. The air-raids continued, intended to ‘smoke’ Osama bin Laden and his associates out of the caves of the Hindukush where they were thought to be hiding—and which was the location where his occasional videotaped messages seemed to have been recorded. The fighting also continued as the Hamid Karzai government tried to consolidate its position vis-à-vis other political contenders, including the Taliban. In 2003, the US went to war against Iraq, claiming there was evidence that it had accumulated weapons of mass destruction.

Indian political thought lists four expedients that states might use in their relations with others: sama (conciliation); dana (gift); bheda (sowing dissension) and danda (punishment/ coercion). The dominant response to 9/11 has been ‘danda.’ What about the others?

The fall of the Afghan and Iraqi regimes ushered in what Lakhdar Brahimi described as a “feeding frenzy”. NGOs, INGOs, international agencies and hundreds of development, re-development and post-conflict consultants flooded Afghanistan in particular to be a part of what was termed ‘nation-building’. From rewriting a constitution in modern, liberal terms to rebuilding roads to reopening trade links, it seemed everyone had something to offer the battered Afghan people—some for free, some at a price. The power of exchange is what Kenneth Boulding called this, and in Indian tradition, it was called ‘dana’.

And in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the fall of one regime did not guarantee an unchallenged succession to another. Inevitable rivalries were fuelled by outside supporters. In Afghanistan, the accession of Hamid Karzai to the Presidency only sidelined the supporters of various Afghan groups temporarily. As the prospect of US and other Western troop withdrawal looms, so do alternative claimants to power re-emerge. The search for an exit strategy has also led yesterday’s interventionists to come up with potential negotiation partners like the ‘good Taliban’. This is a good example of the expedient ‘bheda’.

But the journey from 11 to 21 is complete only with reconciliation (sama), and while that can be facilitated by danda, bheda and dana, it remains incomplete without what the US army calls ‘winning hearts and minds’.

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When 9/11 happened, it was commonplace for people to remark that this was ‘blowback’ or a consequence of US policies that were shaped by the need to import petroleum and contain the influence of the Soviet Union. This included the regimes the US allied with, the groups they supported and armed and also the popular resentment in West and Southwest Asia with regard to both foreign interference and foreign support to unpopular regimes. Specific suggestions on diplomatic actions that could avoid war, as well as more general advice on dealing with anger and fear, poured forth at this time.2 But in retrospect, it is clear that investment in long-term processes could have held no appeal.

Insulated from the rest of the world by distance and affluence, what many Americans learned was that their country was very unpopular. They also learned how little they knew about the rest of the world, and this gave many universities the opportunity to press that point as well as to organise special programmes and courses in response to new interest. Those in government discovered the shortage of language and area experts—a function of shrinking support for university-level training in those areas. Even a very large number of international students and workers, plus immigrants, had not apparently reduced the insularity of many American communities. If anything, they seemed to have reinforced stereotypes and anxieties.

The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is most efficaciously effaced when people learn about each other, and better yet, come into contact with each other. The most obvious way this happens is through international education—people going abroad to study and inviting international students to their campuses. Travelling long distances to study is not new, particularly at advanced levels. Studying abroad has two important consequences for the student. First, she gets to visit and experience everyday life in a different culture, making everyday connections with people, seeing what makes them different and special and also seeing what makes them exactly like her in their life-experiences. Over a period of time, stereotypes are shattered and it is hard to generalise, to conflate state and people, to dismiss or most important, to criticise without at least a little introspection. And that is the second consequence: the experience of living and studying abroad also holds up a mirror to the student’s own life, identity and country of origin. Relocating for professional reasons or reasons like marriage does not have the same impact because in these circumstances, it is still possible for people to live with others like themselves. A student who has to attend classes and do assignments with people from the host country and other countries and whose instructors are from another background gets to make a harder and more rewarding journey.

Logically, there should have been renewed interest and investment in language and area studies, and study abroad, exchange and internship programmes in the decade after 9/11. In 2001, Open Doors—the annual report published by the Institute of International Education—stated that 143,590 American students went abroad to study in the 1999-2000 academic year. 3 The number registered a steady increase in the years that followed 9/11: 174,629 (2002-3); 191,321 (2003-4); 205,983 (2004-5); 223,534 (2005-6); 241,791 (2006-7); 262,416 (2007-8); 260,327 (2008-9). Through this time, the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Australia and lately China have drawn the most students. But this is still just one-third of the number of foreign students that come into the US every year: 690,923 (2008-9). And the top five countries of origin of foreign students in the US are China, India, South Korea, Canada and Japan. The US’ Fulbright programme has funded thousands of scholars and students over half a century to undertake research and teaching in every discipline possible; the programme sends Americans abroad and also funds academic sojourns by others on American campuses. In 2009-10, 1,564 American students and 1,110 American scholars travelled abroad. 4 But the economic recession has forced budget cuts, and in spite of the lessons of 9/11, they have affected funding for language scholarships and area studies, as well as for international exchanges. So where will the opportunities come for people outside the US to interact with Americans in non-official, everyday settings where they can learn about their commonalities and differences?

And in the absence of such opportunities, the burden of conciliation will fall on the same state whose foreign policies have led to ‘blowback’ and whose other agencies lead the military campaign. The journey from 11 to 21 still looks challenging; where a public diplomacy photo opportunity makes an impact for 24 hours, there is nothing in it that will create and sustain a climate of reconciliation and of peace.

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Now, let’s look at India. India’s neighbourhood is full of relationship challenges; bilateral differences persist between states while the subcontinent’s people have everything from ethnicity to weather to popular culture in common across borders. Some of those tensions and challenges are also at play within India’s borders. So how have we done creating the conditions for lasting reconciliation? Let’s look at the same dimension: international education.

Association of Indian Universities data documented on the Institute of International Education website says that while around 268,000 Indian students studied abroad in 2008, just about 21,000 international students were in India in the same year.5 They came mostly from Iran, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, Nepal and Afghanistan. The good news is that this number has actually tripled since 2004. The Government of India has a large battery of scholarships for students from around the world, and several focused on the South Asian region. But how much support and encouragement exists for South Asian studies—departments, exchange programmes or field research visits? After years in this field, I can name only a few departments—in fact, only JNU and Rajasthan come immediately to mind. The study of other South Asian states is confined largely to strategic affairs or politics. Given India’s size, cultural heritage, resources and ambitions, its outreach through educational exchange is really very small.  

The lessons of 9/11 apply as much to an India seeking a friendly neighbourhood and the transformation of its internal conflicts. Can we imagine student exchanges within this continental state of ours? Can we have college students in Kolkata and Kochi switch places for two weeks? Small investment, high yield! And not just for the individual students; host families and host institutions also learn to adjust and adapt. How about short-term language courses across this diverse state? What language learning does—or should do—is open up new worlds. Some life-experiences are universal—ambition, disappointment, love, grief, anger, wonder—and every language opens the door to new ways of expressing and understanding them. Can we bring more creativity and enthusiasm to the outreach work of our many Akademis and Samitis meant to promote Indian languages, literatures and cultural arts? The question is not just meant for the government; equally, this could be an important CSR activity for our private sector. Can we draw up schemes to subsidise internships and practical training experiences across the country, not just for business students and engineers but in other fields too?

International education also includes the traveling researcher—the user of archives, the ethnographer, the collector of pamphlets, the interviewer of elites and the paper presenter at research conferences. Most Indian researchers today cannot afford to do field research, which does not just include the cost of the journey, but finding a place to stay, being able to get around for long enough that you not just do scheduled interviews but can also experience informal interactions and off-the-record conversations, and leave open the possibility of your research design snowballing. But we also have an abysmal record with foreign researchers who seek to do research in India. Getting a research visa is complex, long-drawn-out and most likely to be unsuccessful. Every other year, there are news reports about visas taking so long to be processed that the researcher’s sabbatical is consumed in that time or the time-limit for use of the grant runs out. Who loses? The individual researcher, to be sure, but also India. If it gets ever-harder to do research in India, researchers will simply study other places, but India will have lost a chance to expand its circle of friends in the outside world.

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The distance from 9/11 to the International Day of Peace is best traversed by the kind of people-to-people contact made possible by education. The wonderful thing about education, however, is that it does not need to involve great additional costs. Small shifts in our present arrangements can also yield huge transformations. Two such areas that have been studied and discussed a great deal are curriculum and pedagogy.

In the 1990s, several scholars in South Asia looked at curricular content, especially in history textbooks, to read the socialisation intent of their states.6 For the most part, the books reflected essentialised visions of national identity, caricatured representations of minorities and sometimes factually incorrect statements about themselves and others. Since the 1990s, curricular reform and textbook revision in India has been an overtly political exercise, reflecting the worldview of those in power at that point. But it is not just in conflict or fraught political circumstances (or on related issues) that textbooks are problematic. A recent examination of textbooks in Tamil Nadu showed other flaws from gender stereotypes to the absence of contemporary role-models, but the study stated: “The design and structure of the learning setting directly affects the effectiveness of peace education. Therefore, it is important that pedagogical issues in the textbooks be addressed, as much as it is important to engage with the ‘lessons’ themselves.”7

The simplest and yet most challenging shift in opening up a mind to a world of learning may yet be in the pedagogy adopted by a classroom teacher: Can a student habituated to an absence of dialogue in the classroom learn to engage with others in the real world? Can a student who has not learned to resolve differences with classmates through negotiation learn to transform conflict? Can a student who has not been exposed to the wonderful diversity of the world—in nature and in people—adapt to the variety that real life will offer her? Can a student trained to obey unquestioningly come to question iniquitous social and political relationships?

The road from September 11 to 21, and the images of conflict and peace they represent, exists. It is covered by dust and debris, foliage and shrapnel, but it exists. There are a thousand ways to get across and the one that yields the most sustained returns is education. 

Endnotes

1.Some of these were compiled in a teaching resource I created for my students which is now accessible here: http://www.swarnar.com/whatnext911.htm#rester

2.John Paul Lederach, The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay, forwarded by email, 9-29-01, available at http://www.swarnar.com/lederach.htm.

3.Institute of International Education, Fast Facts: Open Doors Data, accessed at http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/Fast-Facts on October 1, 2011.

4.Links to data relating to the Fulbright programme are available in Ian Wilhelm, Fulbright Puts Money Where Problems Are, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24, 2010, accessed at http://chronicle.com/article/Fulbrights-Putting-Money/125053/, on October 1, 2011.

5.Institute of International Education, Project Atlas: India, accessed at http://www.iie.org/Services/India, on October 1, 2011.

6.Sasanka Perera and Regi Siriwardena in Sri Lanka; K.K. Aziz and Aftab Kazi in Pakistan; Krishna Kumar and this writer in India, and Navnita Chadha-Behera in the India-Pakistan context.

7.Priyadarshini Rajagopalan, From Agenda to Action: Interpreting and Implementing the NCF Peace Education Guidelines, Educational Policy Research Series, The Prajnya Trust, Volume I, Number 3, September 2009, accessed at http://www.prajnya.in/eprsI3.

Infochange News & Features, October 2011