To find out more about the Indo-Pak Youth Forum for Peace (IPYFP), I decided to approach the person running the project for the past six years, the inspirational Rana Bilal Ahmad, who is committed to the goal of peace between India and Pakistan through initiatives for youth: “Natives of the Indian subcontinent have lived together for centuries but suddenly became arch rivals in 1947 after separation and independence of both Pakistan and India. This unjustified and baseless rivalry between both countries has become a nuclear flashpoint in South Asia, and in fact that fear of being wiped out from the map of the world became my biggest motivation to work for peace”. Bilal also told me about the work of another of his initiatives, the Youth Alliance for Human Rights (YAHR).
The IPYFP came from an idea generated by delegates from India and Pakistan at the World Youth Peace Summit in Bangkok in February 2004. The delegates realised that there is a common perception around the world that young people in South Asia are being drawn into radical extremist movements that promote violence, and unfortunately there are no definite, comprehensive mechanisms for young people to discuss each other’s culture and religion. Therefore the IPYFP committed to work with young people to promote peace between India and Pakistan. Since 2005, the IPYFP has run exchange programmes in an attempt to bridge the cultural and religious divides that constrain the peace process. They have taken three youth delegations of over 20 people to India, including young people from four provinces of Pakistan, representing various sectors such as NGOs, academia, law and business groups.
Bilal explained that it is important to engage with the youth of Pakistan because Pakistan has a relatively young population; there have been fears expressed about how Pakistan can deal with these demographic changes. Bilal however is more optimistic: “We have an opportunity to turn our very young people into a productive asset that could contribute significantly to the peace building within country and beyond”.
The IPYFP is aware that some young people in Pakistan are engaged in terrorism. Therefore, Bilal believes that “both the government and society must work hand in hand for our nation-building task and concentrate on protecting the emotional and physical health of the youth, their skill-based education, and provision of recreational facilities, employment, and above all incorporation of self-confidence, motivation and courage to move forward”.
For this reason, in 1997 Bilal founded the Youth Alliance for Human Rights (YAHR) with a group of other dynamic youth leaders. It was initially an informal youth network, and was restructured in 2002 when the organization became a victim of brain-drain, as most of the founding members either left the country or got involved in commercial ventures. Bilal claims now that the YAHR is one of the largest not-for-profit youth organizations targeting youth in Pakistan. The IYPFP secretariat is based at the offices of the Youth Alliance for Human Rights (YAHR).
All of YAHR's programmes focus on empowering youth to initiate, advocate, and cultivate change within their own communities. According to Bilal, “The Youth Alliance for Human Rights is not a typical NGO working on various donor-driven projects. The basic mission of Youth Alliance For Human Rights is to provide powerful, motivational, educational human rights programming to youth, empowering them with internal drive and a tenacious attitude to triumph over any challenge or obstacle in making their respective communities human rights friendly. The YAHR has more than 1650 members from all over of the country, with a major focus in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP) provinces of Pakistan”.
Few people in Pakistan understand that young people are growing up without opportunities, information and services they need to reach their full potential. There is mounting evidence to prove that such lack of investment ultimately results in increasing frustration among young people. As a social entrepreneur, Bilal strongly emphasises that young people should be on the priority development agenda of the government and international developmental players, so that youth potential can be best harnessed to uplift communities from the grassroots. In this regard, both IPYFP and YAFHR are crucial in ensuring the participation of young people in peacebuilding, human rights and democracy.
I asked Bilal: there are already many organisations working on the issues of peacebuilding between India and Pakistan; what is the need for IPYFP? “ We really value their work and efforts but we felt that young people are not very active in all such initiatives, their participation is very tokenistic, so we established this platform as truly youth-led and youth-focused. I believe that young people, as we often say, can be the real agents of change and IPYFP is the best available platform for that purpose”.
In his concluding thoughts, Bilal shared the following thought-provoking and action-oriented remarks:
“Youth both in India and Pakistan have lost their identity and importance. We need to enable our youth to rediscover their identity which they have lost over the last 62 years due to the injected viruses of this enmity. There must be remedial measures at government, social and individual levels to restore the confidence of the youth in their potential qualities. The most important step to be taken by civil society and government in this regard is to aspire to make young people free from frustration, parochialism and other evils which make the mindset of enmity between both countries. We have to prepare our youth to face the challenges of the time with unshakable courage and youthful confidence. There should be regular youth exchange programs between the colleges/universities students and society stakeholders to understand each others’ common heritage and culture, and to identify common social values, as both peoples now cannot afford to have another war”.