When Indian students wrote letters to a Pakistani journalist

(I had written this blog post for Postcards for Peace on November 6, 2016. It was later published in the April 2017 issue of The Peace Journalist under the title ‘Indians, Pakistanis Write Postcards for Peace’. I am re-posting it here because this is an exercise that other educators could try out in their classes.)

When I told my Pakistani friend Ziyad Faisal the features editor of a newspaper called The Friday Times — that I was scheduled to visit Chandigarh and Ambala in northern India to conduct peace education workshops with high school students in both cities, he wrote a gorgeous letter addressed to all the students.

Thanks to Dikshant International School in Chandigarh and Mindtree School in Ambala, almost 60 students from grades 8 to 11 got to read it. Each one was invited to write a personal reply to Ziyad. They were most excited. One of them said, “Sir, please give us more time. I have never written to a Pakistani. I want to put my heart and soul into this.”

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Students at Mindtree School in Ambala

In most Indian schools, it is not often that students get to work on writing assignments that are addressed to someone other than their teacher. Even if the classroom task is to write a letter to a municipal commissioner, an author, or another kind of celebrity, it is hardly ever sent to that person. Students usually know that they are writing to please the teacher. When they heard that their letters would actually reach Ziyad, they were absolutely thrilled.

Here is Ziyad’s letter:

Hi everyone!

I work for a newspaper in Pakistan.

Have you ever wondered: how is it that the problems between India and Pakistan can drag on from 1947 to 2016? Have you ever wondered why we have to keep acting like enemies, even when we know that we can’t make the other country give up and go home? What stories do our governments tell us about each other, to make us want to fight?

Well, I can tell you this: a lot of the fault lies with the media on both sides! In both Pakistan and India, there are some very cowardly journalists, who think it is their responsibility to feed their people all the nonsense that the governments cook for them. Make a list of all the reasons you were ever given to hate Pakistanis. Trust me, the Pakistani students of your age have been taught a similar list by politicians, religious leaders and TV-channels waalay log. And trust me, this stuff is not important. What’s really important are the things you and I have in common — the movies we watch, the songs we like, the fun stuff!

If anyone ever told you that Pakistanis are terrorists and are jealous of India, I can promise you one thing. In Pakistan, the same story is told, but in that story, Indians are the ones creating terrorism in Pakistan. But these stories are not our stories — they are not mine and not yours. They are the stories someone else gives us! We don’t have to accept this stuff.

If you want to know the truth, here it is: our biggest enemies are behind our backs — in our own countries, not across the border. Our biggest enemies are the people who teach us hatred.

The truth is that some powerful people on both sides don’t want peace. They will have to retire if there is peace and friendship between the two countries. So friends, let’s send these people away! Bohat lambi innings ho gai inki, ab bus!

The governments of both countries have done many things to harm each other’s country from 1947 until today. The only people paying the price for this are ordinary people like you and me. Do you think that we really have to go on accepting this? Well, I don’t think so, and Chintanbhai does not think so. We work together to try and spread the message that Indians and Pakistanis don’t have to fight.

On both sides of the border — in India and in Pakistan — there are people who believe that a different way is possible. In fact, we believe that the path of peace and friendship is the only way. Won’t you join us?

When you go home today, please Google and read about the “Christmas Truce” from the First World War — when soldiers from both sides of a terrible war stopped fighting on Christmas day, 1914. They realized that on the other side, the “enemy” soldier is just a human like them, and sings Christmas carols like them, and likes chocolates, and has family like them! Generals and politicians on both sides of the war now had a problem — how to make them go back to fighting each other and killing each other, so the war could go on?

In the same spirit as those soldiers, let’s make a deal. As your friend, I promise you that no matter what happens, no matter what story someone tells me, I will never fight against you. Can you make the same promise to me?

Ziyad Faisal

It was fun to read the letters students penned in response. In order to protect the identities of students, their names are not being mentioned here but I cannot help sharing some excerpts with you. One of them wrote, “I was first only not in favour of war. According to my ideology, war is just a wastage of time, resources and moreover lives. But I think that it is the fault of the government, social media and moreover our textbooks. From the day we started school and grew up, we have been hearing about Pakistan and the people over there. Some people take it just for fun as there are many posts and jokes on social media. Everyone is like hating Pakistan. They want wars, matches of India versus Pakistan as entertainment. I would like to tell you to watch the movie War Chhod Na Yaar. You will feel good, and enjoy it.”

I wish adults in both countries were as reflective as this teenager, and could spot the source of their toxic conditioning. Another student wrote, “Here in India, people — especially Punjabis — take things to heart. They are filled with hatred for Pakistanis. The main reason for this was the Kargil War. I, myself, am a Punjabi. I was so angry because I lost my grandfather, like other Punjabis who lost their family members. You just go on YouTube, and search: Which is greater — Pakistan army or Indian army? Just read the comments. I mean, they abuse like anything. I am scared to visit it. I don’t know if I come there, I will be killed or not.”

And there were those who were completely floored by Ziyad’s words. One of them wrote, “I read your letter and trust me, I am personally influenced by it. In the beginning, Chintan asked if we would want to visit Pakistan, and I said I don’t know. But now, I really wanna go there and meet the people, especially you. I almost lost a relative of mine to the 26/11 attacks, so I understand exactly what it feels like. I’ve always really hated violence, even in the smallest of forms. I know that the people in your country are not bad. All of us want eternal peace, right? So I support your cause, and I will make sure I spread the word (and love). Good job, buddy!”

Some found in Ziyad’s letter, an articulation of their own thoughts. A student wrote, “It feels so good to know that people like you from Pakistan share the same perspective like that of the Indians. Many of us get confused — Is it the Muslims that we don’t like, or the Pakistanis? The answer is that it is the politicians that we hate. These bugs are the masterminds, or may I say chefs, who cook false stories. If these people are so fond of war, why don’t they pick up an AK-47? Why waste the precious life of a man (soldier, to be specific) who is the earning head of the family, whose wife beats her chest when she sees the dead body of her husband? Why? We, citizens of India, want to invite our brothers, our bhaijaans from Pakistan. We would feel happy to come to your place and eat biryani or chicken tikka.”

The opportunity to exchange their thoughts with a Pakistani was quite novel for them. Each letter shows that the students would love to have more such opportunities. I hope schools wake up to the possibilities that lie dormant. Can you imagine what would happen if millions of Indian and Pakistani children and teenagers decided to correspond with each other? It would be mind-blowing.

An 11th grader wrote, “I have wondered why we have to keep acting like enemies, and I agree with the fact that the fault lies on both sides of the border. I personally have always been very attached to Pakistan, and I don’t even know why. I just want to share an experience with you. Two years ago, I went to Amritsar, and visited the Wagah border. After the parade, there is something in which we were supposed to meet the Pakistani people. They way we actually interacted was amazing. We did not speak much but our eyes did. There were some very young children passing smiles, and those smiles made my day. I knew they were young, and thus did not have any hatred. But I also knew the fact that as soon as they grow up, so much hate will be put in their minds by the media and the politicians, and this fact saddens me. Why can’t we love each other and be friends? Why?”

Though all the students spoke of the need for cross-border friendships, some had specific political points to make. Want to hear the tough talk? Here you go. “Nawaz Sharif, the President of Pakistan, is not doing anything. Any decision made by him is not followed. I think he is a puppet of the terrorists,” wrote one of them. “If you guys want to fight, then don’t attack on our back. Come face to face and fight. If you will fight on our back while we are sleeping and stuff, it shows your cowardness,” wrote another. This letter by a seventh grader was perhaps the most intense. It said, “India didn’t attack Pakistan even after the Mumbai attack and so many other disputes but now we bore enough. It is time for you Pakistanis to pay back for all the destruction you have caused. I cannot promise that I won’t fight against you but I will try my best to control my anger.”

The overall mood, however, was one of tremendous hope and goodwill — something that a lot of adults in both countries need to find amidst their overarching cynicism. One of the students wrote, “It is good to know that not all Pakistanis are vengeful and cruel. We have read in school that media can be influenced but it was shocking that all the stuff I have seen or read was a cooked up masaledar (spicy) story for the sake of profit. I can promise that I will never fight against any Pakistani because now that I know that both of us experience same casualties, it will not only be biased but also evil to support such a bloodshed. We have the same cultures, our history before division is the same. If we were one before, we can be one now as well. We can be two peaceful neighbours who grow and progress together, who share and live forever in everlasting harmony.”

This hope should not be mistaken for naivete. Hope is born of the courage to imagine and create a different world. Cynicism is often just laziness wearing a mask.

One of the letters addressed Ziyad as “Ziyad bhai.” (‘bhai’ meaning ‘brother’) It went on to say, “The people who cook false stories about nationalism and India-Pakistan rivalry are the ones responsible for the mess in which we are today. I would love to visit Pakistan, and I wish that all the problems are solved without war because one act leads to another. Non-violence is a better way to ensure peace and true freedom. The day when this conflict and the virtual border between the mindsets of people ends, I will celebrate it as Independence from backward ideas.”

Another student wrote, “Even I think that all Pakistanis are not terrorists but many a times if I talk of this at home my mom says that I have gone mad. She believes that Pakistanis are not at all trustworthy. I think that such kind of a workshop should be there for adults like my mom even. I’ve tried my best and will keep trying. We all need to work as arbitrators and sit and resolve this matter. It is us, today’s generation, who can bring this change. Even the UN is doing nothing about it. Being frank, I would like to tell you something — I love Pakistanis. Their dressing sense and everything. Especially their language. I would surely like to visit Pakistan if it would have been safe. But as I told before, my mom would kill me if I would tell her about this dream of mine. I wish I could actually meet people like you who have the same opinions as me. The thing I could never speak up about — I have written all that here.”

I sincerely wish that every Indian and Pakistani, especially those who want war, would read the views of these young people who care about nurturing a future that transcends petty politics and old feuds. How can one gloss over the love and innocence contained in these lines? “I read your letter, and I think that we have similar views. The problem lies in the biased news that we, the younger generation, receive. Don’t you think we should do something about it? Because, if this continues, the young generation will learn to hate Pakistan too, and this war will never end. You are an editor, and you can do something. Maybe start up a newspaper in India that actually gives unbiased news on India-Pakistan controversies. Your views are great. You should certainly write such letters to all Indian and Pakistani kids. That will bring a change. I’ll do my part, telling my friends about this letter. I am little, and I can do little. But you can certainly do a lot. I’m glad journalists like you exist.”

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