August 14, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Just Like Me

Deep-seated religious hatreds ... a cycle of violence, death, and retribution; irreconcilable differences over land and sovereignty.' Would it surprise you if I said that those words refer to India and Pakistan? How accurate a description is it of the dreary, blood-drenched war story our two countries have scripted together for 55 years?

'Speaking only for us Indians: after all, our differences with Pakistan over land and sovereignty have indeed eluded any solution. If they are not irreconcilable, they are pretty close. The cycle of violence, death, and retribution wheels on and on, and not just in Kashmir. I still shudder at the memory of the man I met last April in Dehlol, a village in Gujarat. The massacre of Muslims in his village and elsewhere in Gujarat, he told me through clenched paan-stained teeth, was nothing but a justified retaliation. Because "they" cause so much trouble for us, coming over as "they" do from Pakistan into Kashmir. And certainly the hatreds between religions are deep-seated. They are getting more deep-seated every day: my experience in Dehlol is just one example.'

Fit us pretty well, those words. Right? Only, they are from a recent editorial in England's The Observer, titled 'Peace Lessons from Ireland'. They comprise a short list of "parallels" between Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Nothing to do with India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, yet how familiar they seem. They could have been written about us.

In a climate like that, whether in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, or our subcontinent, how do you find peace? What would such a peace look like? (I'm not even asking the more fundamental question: do enough of us even want peace in the first place? I can only assume and hope so.)

Over three weeks in June and July, 36 13- and 14-year-olds from India and Pakistan (and many more from all over the Middle East) found themselves thinking about those questions. I write this to give you a flavour, as our two countries wallow in now middle-aged hostility and mistrust, of what they went through.

The kids met at a programme called Seeds of Peace. Since 1993, SoP has brought together Israeli and Palestinian kids every summer at a camp on a calm lake in rural Maine, USA. In this gorgeous spot, chosen for its seclusion and serenity, the kids play, talk, live, and eat together. In doing so over the three weeks of camp, they learn that those others from across the battle-lines have human faces: which is the first prerequisite for making peace, which is therefore the lesson that they are never able to learn at home.

But that recognition of humanity comes not just from playing and eating and then, having had a boatload of fun, declaring a joint belief in some universal, but chimerical, brotherhood. After all, humans come fully equipped with fears, hatreds, and prejudices -- just as much as their capacity to have boatloads of fun. So SoP deliberately pushes the kids to face up to and explore their differences, their prejudices. Because it's only when you have addressed these things in each other, and found ways to understand them, that you form real bonds. It's such bonds that give you a foundation to start exploring what real peace might look like.

The SoP idea is that by going through this experience, these kids will then become ambassadors in their home countries for the idea of peace. And in those violence-wracked spots, amid the hatreds and cynicism their elders feel that fuel the bloodshed, these kids might just be the only hope for peace.

India and Pakistan joined the SoP programme in 2001. This year, I was one of two adults who took an 18-member Indian delegation to the camp.

I'll admit: I was sceptical when we got there. Just observing all that goes on around me in my country, I have long grown cynical about such terms as "tolerance" and "religion" and even "peace". Few of us know what tolerance means. Religion is so perverted by the very people who claim it guides them that every religion nauseates me. And peace? When war, killing and hatred are honoured guests in too many drawing rooms, I'm not sure any more what peace is.

What was going to come of one set of kids meeting another in far-off Maine?

I arrived at camp bathed in this cynicism, but holding on nevertheless to a faint hope that the kids would erase some of it. Very selfishly, I was looking to these enthusiastic, articulate children to give me new meaning for those terms. That's what I wanted from this trip.

The amazing thing: I was not disappointed. But it took a while.

When the Indians and Pakistanis first met, they delighted in all they had in common, and quickly became friends. It was good they started that way, because there were some traumatic moments ahead. Soon enough, the kids got into the meat of their time at camp -- their "coexistence sessions" with the Pakistanis. At these, trained facilitators draw out the kids' differences, nudge them into airing their disagreements and stereotypes about each other.

And this produced outrage. There is no other word to describe the feelings of the Indians when we met them after their first two or three coexistence sessions. The first complaints we heard were that, in contrast to themselves, the Pakistanis were "over-patriotic" and "religious patriots", and how could they be that way at a camp like this? After that, every single belief they had about Kashmir and Pakistan -- about India, for that matter -- was suddenly challenged as never before. The way they regarded figures like Jinnah and Gandhi. Their ideas about events from our history. Their sense of being Indian. Their assumptions about everything to do with Kashmir. And of course, their up-close and personal encounter with that much-worn truth, that my terrorist is often your freedom-fighter. And vice-versa.

All this and more changed what had been unquestioned truths into a morass of hard, wrenching questions. Not that the Pakistanis were not similarly shell-shocked. They were, and a couple of them were even reduced to tears. And the facilitators told us that the kids on both sides had been equally eloquent and passionate about their own countries: neither had been particularly more or less "patriotic".

Yet it took only a few more sessions of coexistence for the outrage to mellow into a quiet thoughtfulness. If the Pakistanis have their own views and hold them every bit as strongly as we do, can it really be that we are wholly right and they are wrong? (What do right and wrong mean here anyway?) Do they have a right to their views as we do to ours? Is there some sense -- even if we disagree with it -- in what they believe? Should we be open to re-examining our views in the light of theirs? Are their fears and impressions about us any less real than ours about them? Can we understand those fears? Is it really un-Indian, unpatriotic, to even acknowledge the opinions Pakistanis have? Is it really Indian to believe that whatever happens, whatever they think, we are right? In fact, what does patriotism itself mean?

How do we build relationships, find peace, through all these questions? Through our differences? Can we dare to trust? Can we afford not to?

In all they learned, but especially by their introspection, the kids -- Indian and Pakistani alike -- taught me two lessons. One: peace is hard work, and these teenagers now realise that. Hatred and war are the easy options, which is why there are enough people in our countries demanding them. Two: yes, peace begins with an acknowledgement of humanity. The friendships the Pakistanis and Indians built in Maine are embodiments of that -- and most of all because they had not shied away from their differences, but examined them thoroughly.

They may not have found answers to all their questions, but at least the kids were thinking about them.

Akshaya Shankar, a 14-year-old seed from Goregaon in Mumbai, summed things up like this: "I think this patriotism hinders coexistence." That one line, if you think about it, might just be the story of our 55 years. But if seeds sprout and grow, perhaps it won't be the story of the next 55. Perhaps more of us will know what Lahore's Fahad Ali Kazmi now does: "The enemy," he said, "is just like me."

Dilip D'Souza

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