A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

In this Sept. 1947, file photo, hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top of a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. (AP)
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Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.


Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

Updated 21 February 2020

Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

  • Country ranks sixth among those with greatest wealth inequality: Oxfam

JAKARTA: A senior Indonesian minister has suggested that poor people should marry someone of higher social status to reduce poverty.

Muhadjir Effendy, the coordinating minister for human development and cultural affairs, told a meeting on the national health program in Jakarta on Wednesday that he would ask Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi — who also attended the meeting — to issue an edict recommending the move.

Effendy said that the edict could prevent the emergence of “new poor households” and provide Indonesia’s majority Muslim community with a new interpretation of the principle that one should marry a person with a compatible socioeconomic background for the sake of equivalence (kaf’ah) between prospective spouses.

The principle, he said, makes poor people marry among themselves and “automatically give birth to a new poor household.”

The minister on Thursday clarified that his intention with the “intermezzo” statement was to kick-start a social movement to break the cycle of poverty in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s poverty rate declined to below 10 percent for the first time in the country’s history, in September 2019, according to the latest data available from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS).

The BPS sets the poverty line at $32.13 per person per month, or an average of $1.07 per day.

FASTFACT

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the anti-poverty programs and close the country’s income inequality gap.

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the implementation of poverty alleviation programs and close the country’s income inequality gap, which has widened over the past 20 years.

In September, the level of inequality in Indonesia measured by the Gini coefficient stood at 0.380, improving by 0.004 points from the previous year, according to the BPS. The index ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality.

An Oxfam report in 2017 showed that in the past two decades, the gap between the richest and the rest of the population in Indonesia had grown faster than in any other country in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is ranked sixth among the countries with greatest wealth inequality, according to the UK-based NGO.

Oxfam said that the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the poorest 100 million people. Inequality is slowing down poverty reduction, dampening economic growth and threatening social cohesion, it said.

However, economists said that suggesting the poor pursue a Cinderella story to graduate from their low-socioeconomic status was not the solution that Indonesia needed to reduce poverty and tackle income inequality.

“How would the state manage such domestic affairs? Even parents could not choose for their children,” Enny Sri Hartati, a senior researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), told Arab News on Thursday.

Indef Deputy Director Eko Listiyanto said that there was no guarantee that Effendy’s proposal, if approved, would be effective in tackling poverty. “There is no urgency for such an edict . . . the root of the problem lies with the issuance of economic policies that widen inequality as they only benefit a small group in the society,” he said.

Listiyanto said that the government was unable to drive upward mobility as the majority of its policies revolved around populism rather than empowerment. He called on the government to stop making regulations that served only oligarchs.

“It would be better to improve the national education system to prepare the next generation for their economic leap. That move would be far more sustainable compared with issuing the marriage edict,” he said.

Pieter Abdullah Redjalam, research director of the Center of Reform on Economics (CORE) Indonesia, said that Effendy’s idea of a cross-class marriage edict showed that he was out of touch with reality.

“He seems to forget that there is a very wide gap between the poor and the rich,” Redjalam said. “The poor are generally trapped in the poverty cycle. They cannot go to school, so they stay poor.”

Redjalam echoed Listiyanto’s recommendation of opening access to and improving the quality of Indonesia’s education system to reduce poverty in the long term. “It is a shame if the former education minister does not understand that,” he said, referring to Effendy.