Two years ago, Tulika Bathija, a teacher at Mumbai’s Ecole Mondiale World School, asked her 11-year-old students to write letters to prospective pen pals in Pakistan. They were supposed to write about their life, reading habits, favourite movies, cricketers and actors.

“I remember the day the responses came from the students in Islamabad,” said Bathija. “They were so excited. They came running up to me when they saw the bundle in my hand and after the letters were handed out, there was complete silence as they read their letters.”

According to Bathija, children from both countries had plenty in common: a mutual love for The Hunger Games series and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, followed by Bollywood and cricket.

“They were a little surprised [to find out that they shared common interests],” she said. “Dominant narratives in the media and in textbooks always project Pakistan as the enemy, and a nation that is very different from ours.” Many of Bathija’s students have remained in touch with the students from Islamabad, and continue to interact over email and Skype.

Bathija conducted the letter-writing programme in association with Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an organisation that encourages cross-border friendships to improve relations between India and Pakistan. Recently, Aaghaz-e-Dosti made news after its co-convener (Pakistan chapter) Aliya Harir thanked Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj in a tweet for ensuring that she and a delegation of young Pakistani women made it back home safe from India. Harir and her team had been stuck in Delhi, unable to return home owing to the increasing tensions along the Line of Control.

Amid worsening cross-border relations, following the Uri attack, the incident received a lot appreciation on social media from both countries.

“The atmosphere in Pakistan has been tense since [the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani] on July 8,” said Harir. “Pakistan has suffered a lot in the war against terrorism. Uri attack is a terror attack and Pakistanis condemn it. It hurts us – the common citizens – when civilians die or suffer in the cycle of violence, whether Kashmiris or army men die. Both are human beings.”

Like several other peer-to-peer relationship building efforts carried out by like-minded people in both countries, Aaghaz-e-Dosti is suffering as a result of cross-border tensions. At stake are the futures of both countries: their children.

Cross-classroom conflicts

The Jaipur chapter of the Delhi-based non-profit organisation Pravah recently attempted a Skype chat with university students from Karachi’s Habib University on October 3. The name of the initiative was Samjho Toh Express (a play on the Samjhauta Express which loosely translates as Please Understand Express).

“After the recent attacks, we saw aggressive messages of hate being passed around on Facebook and WhatsApp by young people,” said Amreen Ahmed Pushkarna of Pravah Jaipur. “With the help of our friend in Karachi, we managed to set up a call because we felt if the Indian volunteers actually see and talk to their peers in Pakistan, they might understand that it is the two national identities that are at war, not the nation’s people.”

As a result of poor connectivity, that call was never finally made. But Pushkarna said it had begun a conversation among volunteers, around the idea of nations, notions of enmity, peace and the effect of chaos on the psyche of the young.

According to writer and educator Chintan Girish Modi, biased history textbooks are usually seen as one of the four impediments to peace, the other three being the national media, politicians and violent extremists.

At a workshop that he conducted at BD Somani School in South Mumbai as part of Aao Dosti Karein, Modi took with him little trinkets, a shawl, and a children’s book that he had bought in Pakistan. He has conducted workshops with school, college and university students in Mumbai, Islamabad, Lahore, Vadodara, Hyderabad and other cities.

“At these workshops, there are those who ask me questions like ‘were you scared to go to Pakistan?’, ‘how did you come back alive?’, ‘what was the food like?’ ‘what do they think about us?’. Slightly older ones ask me my opinion on India-Pakistan politics and the Kashmir conflict, or share stories of grandparents who migrated at the time of Partition.”

After the militant attack in Uri, India’s surgical strikes and the Baramulla attack, Bathija told that she had begun to see a rising negativity towards Pakistan among some of her students.

“Their only source of news and information is the Indian media,” she said. “Considering the skewed way in which news is delivered by most channels, they are forming incredibly negative notions towards Pakistan.”

Modi does not think this is a malady born of poor education: “You have educated people spreading messages of hate. The popular discourse out there is that common people, people like you and me, don’t want peace.”

Modi has been trying to combat the narrative of enmity between the two nations for a while now. On Valentine’s Day 2014, he launched Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an initiative that used the power of the internet to forge friendships between India and Pakistan.

Chintan Girish Modi conducting a workshop. Credit: Facebook/AaoDostiKarein

“You don’t need a visa to interact over email or Facebook,” said Modi. “I have been inviting people to visit the Aao Dosti Karein Facebook page and write little notes of peace and love for all to read about and hear. There are those who might post hate messages, but we underestimate how many people want peace.”

Efforts for peace

After the surgical strikes, Modi has started a petition on addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, urging them to “come up with creative diplomatic solutions instead of engaging in a violent display of military might that threatens to destroy precious human life and natural resources”.

The petition has received around 4,300 signatures thus far.

At Ecole Mondiale, Bathija is also planning a workshop for students to expose them to multiple sources for news, to help them recognise differing perspectives on the same piece of news.

In the past, the students of Ecole Mondiale had sent cards with words of support and solidarity after the bomb blast in Lahore on March 27, when almost 75 children were killed at the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park. Heartfelt messages scrawled in childish handwritings reached the students of Ghauri Wisdom High School in Lahore.