Punjabi kids kick for tolerance

Siri Gogelmann 23.10.2018
Never one to miss an opportunity for a kickaround, Clifton Grover, “Kick for Tolerance” founder, always has his gym bag with him. For him football isn’t just football. Since 2016, he has been helping Punjab communities on either side of the Pakistani-Indian border to promote peace among the younger generation. 

The conflict between India and Pakistan has existed since 1947, when the British colonial power withdrew from the region. For many, the conflict seems unsolvable. What can football do that politics hasn’t been able to achieve in the last 71 years?
Clifton Grover: I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of football. But for me it represents a universal language. The football field offers children a safe place for playful encounters. We need that to get something started. But, of course, just because I’m playing some football somewhere doesn’t mean something marvellous automatically happens. That’s why we use street football as an educational approach in “Kick for Tolerance”.
What exactly does that mean?
Grover: The method we use is called “football3”. Our project is all about encounter, diversity and dialogue. And about experiencing and recognising the value of difference. Fair play is more important than the number of goals scored. At the beginning of each match, the children negotiate common rules. For example, a classic fair play rule is that the first goal must be shot by a girl. In the heat of the moment this rule is often forgotten. But boys learn very quickly what matters if their goals don’t end up counting.
How did you come up with the idea of “Kick for Tolerance”?
Grover: My father was born in Lahore, in today’s Pakistan. Like many families, his family was expelled from their homeland for religious reasons when he was a child during the partition in 1947. The division of India and Pakistan was very bloody and traumatic. The effects are still felt today.
Because of my family roots, the conflict has always been an issue for me. But the decisive impetus for the project came to me in Poland. In 2012, I travelled for the “Kick for Life” Foundation, for which I was working full-time, to a street football festival of “Football for Hope”, a FIFA companion programme.
At the time, the European Championship was being held in Poland and Ukraine. At the festival in Wroclaw I met a team of Israeli and Palestinian children. They radiated incredible energy and friendship. It really made an impression on me. Since then, it’s been my dream to get Indian and Pakistani children playing street football together.
And then you founded the sponsoring association?
Grover: Yes, exactly. I thought if such a thing is possible in Israel and Palestine, then there’s no reason it shouldn’t be possible in India and Pakistan. Some people back then said: forget it; it won’t work. But I believed in the project. So in 2013 I travelled to India and Pakistan and looked for partners. Back in Germany, I founded a sponsoring association and then, in 2016, the project finally kicked off, thanks to pledges of support from ifa and the Robert Bosch Foundation.
The children you work with today are between 11 and 12 years old. What experiences and prejudices do they bring with them?
Grover: The kids in our project didn’t witness the last military conflict in 1999. Still, like all of us, they have been shaped by their surroundings and the experiences of their parents. If there are tensions, terrorist attacks or other clashes in the region today, the situation on the social networks soon heats up. In addition, historical categories are sometimes distorted or shaped by political motives.
That’s why we work with the younger generation and not with those directly involved in the conflict. We want the children to have their own experiences, to develop their own values. Using them as a basis, they can then examine what they perceive to be wrong or right and so find their own way.
Building a community: despite the border that separates the girls in Suhaliya, Pakistan from their “Kick for Tolerance” partners in Rurka Talan, street football has helped to forge ties. Tournaments take place simultaneously, with the children wearing the same jerseys. During cultural festivals they send each other video greetings, or, if tension in the region mounts, messages of peace
Where exactly does the project take place?
Grover: The project takes place in a rural district on the Indian-Pakistani border in Punjab, which straddles both countries. In Pakistan, two communities are participating: Suhaliya, with a girls’ school and Heer, with a boys’ school. In India we’re working with two schools in Rurka Kalan. The Punjab is a beautiful region: rather flat and at the foot of the Himalayas. Translated, “Punjab” means “land of the five rivers”. It is very fertile and, so to speak, the breadbasket of the region.
The three communities in which our project is taking place are virtually neighbouring communities. They are only about 200 kilometres apart, but they are separated by a virtually impassable border. It is really crazy: India and Pakistan have several thousand kilometres of land border, but there are no crossings. Wagah in Punjab is the only border crossing – when it’s open at all. It’s more or less between the communities. I once crossed the border there, on foot, because you can’t do it any other way.
Have the children from your project ever been across the border?
Grover: No, unfortunately not. They’ve never had the opportunity to play football together. Still, they see themselves as a community. We have gradually introduced more and more connecting elements. In the schools street football tournaments take place simultaneously, where the children wear the same jerseys. During cultural festivals they send each other video greetings, or, if tension in the region mounts, messages of peace.
Thanks to street football, they now have something in common that they identify with, because they’re all street footballers, regardless which country they live in. Like the staff of our local partner organisations, the children will probably meet for the first time outside India or Pakistan. We have seen the staff begin to grow together as a team; we’ve already attended joint workshops in Nepal and Germany. But at some point, I’m sure, our participants will be able to invite each other to meet on the spot. That will be a great day for all.
What is the current situation in the region?
Grover: We’re constantly monitoring the security situation on the ground. There are times when some children near the border don’t come to school for safety reasons. After four wars, the conflict is no longer military, but it continues and can escalate at any time. Unfortunately, there is always the danger of shots being fired or random attacks.
What hurdles did you have to surmount at the beginning of the project?
Grover: We have always proceeded with caution. It’s a sensitive environment. We see ourselves as an education and development initiative for children and young people. Politics and religion isn’t our subject and we don’t want to be co-opted by anyone for other purposes. When I asked large organisations in the beginning if they wanted to join in, they declined. They were afraid of problems.
The local partner organisations embarked on this new path with us and are now part of a shared journey. This is courageous and very worthy of recognition. Not least because I can think of virtually no examples of co-operation between Pakistani and Indian non-governmental organisations.
And how did the families of the children react?
Grover: That was really exciting, because all the families accepted the project with warm hearts and open minds. Many still have relatives on the other side. “These are our brothers and sisters,” some have said. Think of the division of Germany prior to 1989 – although I don’t believe that India and Pakistan could or should grow together again someday. It was also interesting how the staff of our partner organisations behaved at the beginning of the project.
In Punjab, people speak the same language, Punjabi, but in the beginning colleagues always asked me to call the other organisation to ask for something. They were visibly uncomfortable calling each other; this possibility simply didn’t exist in their minds. I then organised a conference call for all of us via Skype – dropping out eventually, because without me they could talk in their native language, while with me they always had to speak English.
When I think of sports in India and Pakistan, I think of cricket rather than football. Why didn’t you decide to do a cricket project?
Grover: You’re right of course: compared to football, cricket is much more important in India and Pakistan; it’s the national sport. But cricket is very emotionally charged. When India and Pakistan play cricket against each other, it’s always a huge “highlight” with a lot of national symbolism.
Clifton Grover, founder of “Kick for Tolerance”: “thanks to street football, they now have something in common that they identify with, because they’re all street footballers, regardless which country they live in”
Moreover, in the region cricket is a men’s sport, almost a macho sport. And the technical equipment is more complicated than in football, where you just have to throw a ball in the air and off you go. For all these reasons, cricket wouldn’t have been as good as football. Of course football also has negative associations: it has an equally commercialised market and releases a lot of energy that isn’t always positive.
Personally, I associate football with violent fans and emotions boiling over …
Grover: Yes and with winning and losing and defeating the opponent. For example, our children love imitating the winner pose. You don’t have to think that’s good.
How do you deal with such situations?
Grover: All this winning and being defeated, violence, national pride and macho behaviour has no place in street football, or is deliberately exposed and scrutinised there. On our approach, everyone is a winner in the end. Sounds boring to some? Well, it’s not – quite the contrary.