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October 22, 1999
The Agents of Peace
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
Harinder Lamba from India and Naved Musharraf from Pakistan are convinced that a path to a peaceful, progressive south Asia starts from Chicago.
They believe that the organization they are involved in, the South Asia Group for Action and Reflection could not only bring south Asians in America together but also create better relations between countries in the region.
When this Chicago-based think-tank started in the early nineties, its interest was limited to India.
By 1993, it had broadened its agenda to include the neighboring countries and a core group of nine members was formed consisting of Indians and Pakistanis. Notable among its leaders is Dr Naved Musharraf, brother of the present Chief Executive of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf.
Naved Musharraf was introduced to SAGAR by one of his Indian friends, who knew that he was interested in getting together with like-minded Indians and Pakistanis in one organization.
"We have more in common than things that divide us," Musharraf says.
The man behind SAGAR, Dr Harinder Lamba, was the president of India Development Services, a Chicago-based center that has been funding rural-based projects in India since the seventies.
"We were spending too much time on fundraising and too little time critically thinking about the people we were helping and the issues we were dealing with," said Lamba.
Over the years, SAGAR's initiatives have tried to follow its core vision for spiritual and moral growth, quality and productivity of people, holistic development of knowledge and environmental harmony and rejuvenation.
The goals may seem too idealistic, especially when its members are sitting 10,000 miles away from south Asia.
"I agree to have a positive impact, you have to be there," said Lamba," but we are trying to initiate dialogue not only with the communities here but also with organizations in India, which can lead to action finally."
Good relations between India and Pakistan is on the top of SAGAR's agenda. It has organized two conferences on promoting peace and co-operation between India and Pakistan and participated in the May 1997 Asian-American Parade in Chicago with, for the very first time, a joint India-Pakistani float.
Advertisements were placed in local newspapers jointly congratulating India and Pakistan on their 50th independence anniversaries. Over 2,000 young men and women attended two workshops on 'Building Strength Through Diversity' and 'Environmentalism' organized by Lamba for a South Asian Alliance's conference last year.
In June 1997, a letter was sent to Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and I K Gujral, endorsing peaceful co-operation. It was signed by a hundred people of south Asian origin living in the USA. It pleaded that the countries look beyond Kashmir and get on with the business of building economic and cultural ties.
"We called for consensus-building measures. But we are realists, we understand that the Kashmir issue will not be settled overnight," said Dinesh Sampat, one SAGAR member.
In fact, since the letter was sent, Indo-Pak relations have reached an all-time low, the Lahore Agreement notwithstanding.
"Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong," says Lamba. The situation in Kashmir has worsened, interference in the internal affairs has increased, the conventional and nuclear arms race has exacerbated and exploitation of religion in socioeconomic affairs has increased.
But SAGAR keeps rolling on. The recent developments in Pakistan has made it decide to "wait and watch". The members are cautious about voicing fears of setbacks to Indo-Pakistan relations. They would like to continue pumping their energies into bringing the two communities together here.
"Our goal is to present facts to the people here and I think we've been fairly successful in bringing the two communities together," said another member, Naqi Akhter, a professor at DeVry Institute of Technology, Chicago campus.
Emotions run high in the two communities every time there is a confrontation between the two countries, and the Kargil situation and the nuclear tests before that did not make SAGAR's task easier.
"We did get frustrated with the India-Pakistan nuclear tests, because it meant going backwards. We definitely believe that the only solution is (creating better) understanding and trade," said Akhter.
The Kashmir crisis can be resolved only if Kashmir is left alone by both India and Pakistan. "I think the people of Kashmir too want a separate country. It should be allowed to happen," he said.
SAGAR has also had discussions with India-based organizations like the Citizens for Democracy headed by Kuldip Nayar and the Andhra-based Center for Democracy. Political, social and economic alternatives are strongly advocated by the organization.
"The current political process in India is part of the problem. It is not participatory and consensus-oriented enough. It also generates communal tensions," said Lamba.
"The alternative would be similar to what Jayprakash Narayan talked about, anticipatory democracy from the village level. Gram Swarjya is the only answer for India, otherwise we'll burst into a 1,000 smithereens."
He believes that seemingly chaotic political situation could lead to progress.
"Systems don't change until there is a crisis. Pakistan is perpetually in crisis. So there are always opportunities for change. In India, we have to take charge of defining our own problems and solutions, rather than get answers from the West," said Lamba.
For more information, write to SAGAR, 6921 Creekside Rd.Downers Grove, IL-60516; (630) 964-2258; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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