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ND profs journey to Kashmir to promote, study peace

Andrew Thagard | Monday, March 1, 2004

Two Notre Dame professors and members of the Kroc Institute are traveling to Kashmir Tuesday to promote and study the peacemaking process in the volatile region. Dan Philpott, director of undergraduate studies at the Kroc and assistant professor of political science, is traveling on behalf of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. Cynthia Mahmood, director of graduate studies at the Kroc and an associate professor of anthropology, will travel as an observer for the Institute.The trip is centered around a three-day seminar on reconciliation in Islamabad on the Pakistani side of Kashmir but will also include meetings with politicians, militants and religious leaders. Their visit comes at a crucial time for the war-torn region, which is controlled partly by India and Pakistan. Leaders from the two nuclear powers have announced plans to host the most significant peace talks since escalating violence broke out in 1989. Control of the region has been a contentious and often bloody issue since the two nations gained independence from Britain in 1947.While smaller in scope when compared to the work of governments and high-profile international negotiators, the mission of ICRD is no less ambitious.”We’re talking about something much more than a peace settlement,” Philpott said. “Our goal is to build up a movement of reconciliation in Kashmiri society.”Indeed, Philpott and Mahmood said true peace can only be achieved when the ordinary Kashmiri citizen changes his perception of the situation and opens his heart. The seminar, the sixth in a series led by senior ICRD vice president Brian Cox, includes 10 lectures each followed by group discussions. The event culminates in a reconciliation service.”Its purpose is to impart a moral vision of reconciliation [on] the participants that will occur through a transformation of hearts and rebuilding of broken relationships,” Philpott said. “Ultimately the seminar challenges the participants to look at the suffering of their community and [decide if] they want to speak words of encouragement.”While this seminar is geared to a mostly Muslim crowd, previous ones have included Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist participants. To date, 350 people have attended the seminars and 100 graduates have continued to discuss reconciliation within “cell groups.” The seminars and other works have led to the formation of core groups dedicated to promoting peace on both sides of the line of control that separates the Indian and Pakistani parts of the region. These cell groups are what Mahmood calls “a cadre of foot soldiers for peace.”The events also have sometimes had dramatic effects on the participants. During a seminar held in June 2001 on the Indian side of Kashmir, a Muslim man had a life-changing experience. Eight years earlier, the man had witnessed the assassination of his father and later his brother and was himself shot repeatedly and left to die. “He survived the shootings through nine surgeries [but] for eight years he was on a vendetta to find and kill the gunmen,” Philpott said. “At the seminar he had a transforming experience and … he stood up and forgave the slayers from his heart and renounced his vendetta.”The man, Philpott said, has gone on to become an active core group member and initiate aid programs that help victims of violence, particularly widows and orphans.While the results of its work are generally less visible, ICRD has found a great degree of success in a movement with elite and grass roots elements. By meeting with regional politicians, militants and religious leaders, Philpott said he hopes to further develop relationships of trust and create important networks. The trip is of interest to Mahmood in part because it complements her work focusing on war and peace and conflict resolution. Although the two praised the potential benefits of the trip, they also acknowledged the possibility of danger in traveling to the region despite the group not encountering problems in the past.”We’ve all accepted that a certain degree of risk taking is inherent to this work,” Mahmood said.Despite the dangerous area and tension between the countries, the group has the consent of India and Pakistan. “All of the work we’ve done over there has been done with the knowledge and approval of both governments,” Philpott said.