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A Virtual Bridge for Peace between India and Pakistan

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    A Virtual Bridge for Peace between India and Pakistan

    A Virtual Bridge for Peace

    By Jaideep V.G., OJR Contributor

    Bangalore, India -- On June 25, at the height of the Pakistan-backed militarization in Kargil in the Kashmir Valley, the Indian government blocked all Internet access to Dawn, one of Pakistan's most liberal newspapers, by clamping down on the state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), the country's sole Internet Service Provider.

    Kashmir has been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan since partition 50 years ago. Three wars between India and Pakistan have been fought over and on its territory.

    On this occasion, the Indian government's attempt to plug possible anti-India propaganda on the Net backfired completely.

    Groups of Internet activists on both sides of the "line of control" (a border that both countries have agreed not to violate), angered by the government's attempts to throttle information flow across the Net, immediately put out instructions on how to get around the ban. They flooded the Net with protest e-mail and promptly resumed their daily electronic interactions: swapping recipes, exchanging cricket trivia, and so on.

    Sites like Chowk, the South Asia Citizens Web and scores of other informal channels of communication between Indians and Pakistanis speak volumes about the vital role the Net plays in the daily free flow of ideas, opinions, arguments, cricket trivia and recipes between two nations eternally at war.

    Though the Indian state issued no official statement on why Dawn was targeted, Pakistan watchers with the government here say the paper was singled out because it gave voice to a large section of the Pakistani populace. The fear was that the paper's message could reach and affect the minority Muslim population in India, turning it against the government at the height of Pakistani-backed conflict in Kargil and on the brink of the country's 13th General Elections.

    "The Internet is the sole means of the Dawn conveying its views to readers in India," says a Pakistan expert who works for the Indian government. "The largely Hindu-backed government could take no chances with a swing in the Muslim opinion of the way the intrusions in Kargil were handled. Anti-government sentiments could have hit an all time high and the Bharatiya Janata Party definitely did not want that."

    Dr. R.L.M. Patil, professor of political science at Bangalore University agrees. "I think [the Indian government] was justified in blocking access to the Dawn site on the Internet. Handling an internal uprising along with the war-like situation in Kargil would have been difficult to say the least. Any other country would have done the same thing. But it is commendable that the ban was temporary and was lifted on July 13," he says, noting that the ban does not reflect the Indian government's attitude toward information flow on the Net. "Kargil was a one-time thing, so was the blocking of the Dawn site."

    But Indian peace advocates who cohabit the Internet with their Pakistani counterparts feel the move to block the site portends an increasing control over non-formal communication channels by jingoistic political and military rulers.

    Strong protests from writers, filmmakers and activists on both sides of the border filled Web sites like the South Asia Citizens Web, which is dedicated to democratizing information flow and interactions between South Asians on the Internet.

    According to Harish Kapoor, an Indian Internet activist who was instrumental in setting up the South Asia Citizens Web, the communities in both countries, which are constantly at loggerheads along the borders, need a communication platform that is not controlled by governments.

    "In India, the state-backed Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited is the sole gateway to the Internet. This violates the ideology of access to information," he said in a recent interview with the Pakistani Internet magazine Spider. Kapoor and many others like him believe that the monopoly the VSNL has is about to recede with the increasing presence of private Internet service providers, such as Satyam Online and Mantra, in India.

    One of India's most influential and prolific documentary filmmakers, Anand Patwardhan, says e-mail has become another casualty of the war. "As war has given [the governments of India and Pakistan] the right to intercept communication on the Internet, all Pakistani peacenik voices have been shut down," he wrote in a letter to the Pakistani site Chowk.

    Dismissing claims made by both governments that peace is a possibility, he remarked, "Both [Indian Prime Minister] Vajpayee and [former Pakistan Prime Minister] Sharif are products of hate. They cannot themselves be the antidote of the poison that brought them to power." Patwardan echoed the widespread feeling among intellectuals here that the Net is a vital link for peace between the two countries.

    Amitav Kumar, who is a professor of English at the University of Florida and an Indian married to a Pakistani, concurs. At the time when artillery shells were booming in the Kashmir Valley and anti-aircraft guns were knocking down Indian aircraft from unfriendly skies, Mr Kumar circulated a letter titled "Love in the time of Kargil" on the Internet. The letter speaks of the first time he met his in-laws and how, during the wedding, a different sort of a war, one played between teams of 11 players with willow and leather, was far more talked about than anything else.

    Barring a few anomalies like Vishal Gondal's, which encouraged Indians to vent anger against Pakistanis by participating in a mock battle on the Internet (but has since been taken down), nearly all interactions between the 400,000 or so Indians and Pakistanis online have been prosaic, just the usual everyday banter.

    In fact, most community sites where Indians and Pakistanis share a platform are dominated by talk of cricket and food.
    Sites like Chowk, which loosely translated means a town square where people meet and exchange news, are dominated on the one hand by detailed analyses of why Shoaib Akhtar (the Pakistani fast bowler and cricket's latest enfant terrible) bowls the in-swinging Yorker, and on the other by instructions on how to cook the perfect rogan josh (tender morsels of lamb cooked in a rich, spicy gravy).

    Debates on the likelihood of war between India and Pakistan, which are on every news hawk's agenda on either side of the Wagah border, come a distant second to the pressing issue of which country is most likely to lift the World Cup.

    As an anonymous Pakistani summed up in a message posted on the South Asia Citizens Web: "[Let us] use the Net for grass roots activism against this madness… man must see reason."