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[A borderless Internet is bringing ordinary Indians and Pakistanis face to face]


"I am a FBI," he typed.

"FBI?" I asked.

"Full Blooded Indian," he shot back.

What makes this conversation exceptional is that our FBI is not really Indian. He is Pakistani. A Pathan from Lahore, settled in California, FBI was chatting with me in a Pakistani chat room at Yahoo! Chat. He is a self-confessed India fan. I am a self-confessed Pakistan watcher. So we hit it off on the Net and became good friends.

Internet chat rooms have become meeting grounds for Indians and Pakistanis the world over. Sometimes they meet to satisfy the curiosity of a single people separated by nationalities. Often they start a very real brawl in a virtual room.

Several chat rooms and message boards across the Internet have given a young generation on both sides of the border an unprecedented chance to 'meet' and 'see' each other. This kind of interaction has been almost impossible for decades after Partition. Will this opportunity bring these people closer? Or will it hopelessly drive them apart further? As of now, there is no indication either ways.

A lot of Indians lurk in Pakistani chat rooms. "What are YOU doing here!" an Indian yells at me in a Pakistani room. "You are an Indian, go to the Indian room!" Never mind the fact that he too is an Indian in a Pakistani room. To be frank, Pakistanis are more generous than him. At first, I did not dare to declare my presence in the room for fear of being chased away. When I asked if an Indian would be allowed in their room, it triggered a debate. "No, you cannot chat here," one Pakistani declared. "She can," others came to my rescue. "Why?" asked the first one. "Because she is like my sister," replied another Pakistani. And that was it. I became a regular in their rooms.

Sometimes when a war of words is about to break out between Pakistani and Indian chatters, both sides warn me: "Lady, it's time for you to leave because the language is going to be colourful now." And at such times I always wonder that no matter how different our languages are; the abuses are the same on both sides of the border. "Teri M** Ki ***" is spelt exactly the same way in Roman Hindi and Roman Urdu! And for once, both sides understand each other perfectly well.

Another chat room declaring itself to be "A meeting place of Pakistanis, Indians and desis the world over" is on a home page of Omar or Umar or Umaree or whatever you would like to call him. He is a Pakistani, now based in Toronto. His page gives an opportunity to the quarreling neighbours to fight some more on the Net. It also includes a message board where desis can express their opinion about each other's countries.

On the somber side there is India's Sulekha.com. It has a popular message board for Indians and Paksitanis to share views about each other. It takes itself rather seriously and gives people an opportunity to talk about important issues in both countries. It is nothing as colourful as the chat rooms but relevant and thought provoking. Right now, the Ayodhya issue is dominating the discussion forums there.

The creme de la creme of such sites is Chowk.com. Initially put up by expatriate Pakistanis in Silicon Valley and now having many Indians on board, the site has an opening page depicting a chowk, a crossroad, in Lahore. Here, a kite flies, a signboard flashes Habib Bank and people scurry across busily.

The Chowk is the most constructive hub of discussion about India and Pakistan. It has a message board where some sane voices can be heard above the noise of abusive and misplaced patriotism. The Pattern Of Hatred by Saima Shah is a recent essay posted on Chowk. It talks about the geographical divide that appears to extend to the Net too.

Perhaps the most remarkable among such sites is DialogNow.org. It is actually a scientific experiment to study these people in conflict.

DialogNow.org is a Web log for Indian and Pakistani people to express their views online so that it can be observed for psychological research. It is the brainchild of Rashmi Sinha who earned a PhD in experimental psychology from Brown University in 1998. After that she worked for a year in a neurophysiology lab at the University of California in Berkeley. Sinha is running an experiment between groups on the two sides of a conflict. She has chosen India and Pakistan to further her study and created the DialogNow Web log.

Sinha explains that the discussion forum is not restricted to Indians and Pakistanis but welcomes anyone who wants to say something about the relationship between the hostile neighbours. The posts on this site have in-depth messages. Even the discussion about the recent Godhra carnage and Gujarat riots has, despite strong undertones, valuable insights into the human psyche.

Despite all this activity on the Net, it is still early to say where all the interaction is leading too. For every peaceful initiative to understand each other, there are several abusive cyber warriors. Yet it is difficult to ignore the quantum change the Net has brought about for those who want to sincerely explore why one people and culture are such fierce political enemies.

I take encouragement in the words of an anonymous Indian chatter who was once heaping abuses in a Pakistani chat room. When I could take it no more and burst out at him, he disarmed me with "It is just harmless fun yaar, which they also enjoy as much as we do!"

Well, I hope it is just that: Harmless fun.

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