As a child, Salman Ahmad – now the lead guitarist of Junoon, Pakistan’s top rock band – would listen avidly to stories of India told by his maternal grandfather, a refugee from the other side of the subcontinental divide. As an adult, he has risked his career – even his life – to promote peace and sustainable development in the two countries.
‘India was always in my mind as a child,’ he says, ‘and the need for peace in the subcontinent has been part of me. I have always strongly felt the need to find a resolution to the conflict. India and Pakistan constitute one fifth of humanity and the conflict that we have continued to harbour over the last half century has stunted the growth of people.’
After training as a doctor, he took up music ‘as the most powerful expression of peace I could find’, and soon he and the fellow members of the band were putting their ideals into practice. Their fusion of Western rhythms and Eastern styles took off – they soon sold 20 million albums worldwide.
While touring India, in May 1998, they spoke out against the subcontinental nuclear arms race.
‘Would it not be better for India and Pakistan to try and inspire each other in the areas of education, health and economic development?’ said Ahmad. ‘In Pakistan, we don’t have clean water, health or employment. How can we afford a nuclear bomb?’
Junoon was promptly banned from Pakistani television and radio and the band members received death threats. But they stuck to their principles, and the next year were given an award by UNESCO for ‘outstanding achievements in music and peace’. In the same year the regime changed and they were able to operate freely again. President Musharraf has appeared with them at concerts.
Ahmad now says: ‘There is a gradual realization that South Asia cannot progress in economic and health terms if we don’t resolve our conflict. Both countries are nuclear armed and in the past six years there has been a flexing of the nuclear muscle – but it has not helped either country.
‘Poverty alleviation should be the number one priority. An emergency should be declared on literacy. Most people in India and Pakistan are living day to day with the problems facing their immediate families. I have tried to address that communality through music and whenever I get a chance to speak in either country.’
‘The people of both countries are way ahead of the governments as far as conflict resolution is concerned. It’s now up to both leaderships to listen to the loud voices for peace in the subcontinent and resolve all disputes.’
The group has also taken up environmental issues. ‘The worst thing you can do as a songwriter is to be didactic or try to be preachy, but we have tried through the music to make people more aware of their environment.’
In 2004 Ahmad was appointed as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador on HIV/AIDS, which he describes as ‘a gigantic problem – greater even than nuclear war, if you think about it’. He adds: ‘It is beginning to threaten the whole subcontinent, but is also a way of bringing into focus the common threat we face.
‘Goodwill Ambassador is a big, glorified term, but I am just a footsoldier. The role of people in my position is to keep shining a light on the problem and to try to get as many people on board to coordinate and cooperate as possible. The disease does not know any boundaries and the first step is to better coordinate our efforts in fighting it.’
And do their fans follow their message as well as their music? He says that their following is ‘very, very loyal’ and understands, after the band’s outspokenness on the nuclear tests, that ‘if we talk about something publicly it is not just to gain publicity.
‘I don’t know if there’s a measure of how many of them resonate as passionately as I do, but they do listen. And it’s the power of intention. If you are doing something from the heart it touches people – and if it touches only one person it will be worth it’.