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E Dialogue across Borders

A Pakistani and an Indian begin an email exchange, attempting to share their thoughts honestly, without fear and hostility, exploring what divides our countries, and seeking ways to bridge the divide

From Conversations: conceived by Dilip D’Souza, an email dialogue between Dilip D’Souza and Beena Sarwar: Courtesy: Jang


Dream On

18 Mar 2010

Dear Beena,

To begin with, my salaams to the memory and spirit of Aziz Siddiqui, whom you mentioned in your last letter. He's right, of course: is giving up the fight for your beliefs even an option?

The interesting thing about this exercise is that we agree about a lot of things. Which might raise the question, are we the right people to be doing this exercise at all? But that raises another question: why not? Why should voices that tend to agree on some things not be raised and heard?

And maybe that will be my theme for this letter. Meaning: Why has the relationship between our countries come to be defined by people who are fundamentally antagonistic and vengeful? Is it something intrinsic to the very existence of India and Pakistan? But even if it is, does it have to remain so for eternity?

This is hardly to suggest that we magically give up the serious disputes we have. What I'm suggesting is those of us who don't see red at the very mention of the other country must claim our rightful space on the battleground. We must spell out and vigorously defend our vision of the future for our countries. After all, I don't want my children to be burdened with this hostility that kills soldiers along our borders every day, even when we are not fighting an all out war. After all, I think we are best served by brave soldiers who are alive to serve.

There's a reason I mention "battleground" and "defend" and "soldiers" above. I'm laying some early groundwork for something I wonder if we can work towards a joint memorial, somewhere near the border, to the soldiers who have died on both sides.

Think of it: at least in our early wars, it's certain that plenty of soldiers on either side grew up as neighbours, maybe even cousins or brothers, in the same village or town; officers were certainly compatriots during their military training. It must have torn at them to have to fight each other.

We in India have war memorials, as I'm sure you in Pakistan do as well, remembering the sacrifices of our fighting men over six decades. What would it do for our countries to have a joint memorial, remembering the sacrifices on both sides over six decades? What would it do to us? To the hostility?

There are precedents for something like this, which maybe I'll get to in a subsequent letter. For now, what do you think?

Speaking at my alma mater, BITS Pilani, a few months ago, the actor Rahul Bose said this: "I have a dream of a time when we will cheer a Younis Khan sixer as madly as we cheer a Yuvraj Singh one." I hold to the hope that this idea of a joint memorial is a step towards realising Rahul's dream.

yours always,


March 19, 2010

Dear Dilip,

Thanks for your salaams to the memory of our beloved, respected Aziz Siddiqui. I feel sad he is not better known in India, just as there are so many other respected and beloved figures on that side about whom we in Pakistan know little or nothing.

I agree that we need to define the relationship between our countries -- 'we' as in people like you and me, rather than those who are "fundamentally antagonistic and vengeful". Certainly, even if it has always been that way, now is the time to change that. If sane voices have an equal playing field and reach the people, the call to resolve all issues through dialogue will prevail over those who routinely use aggression to sabotage peace.

I like your suggestion of a joint memorial to soldiers on both sides. But for this to happen, our armies will have to stop seeing each other as the 'enemy'.

The idea reminds me of an earlier proposal that you may know about -- a joint memorial on Wagah border to "all victims of partition violence". Expatriate Pakistanis and Indians initiated this move through Asiapeace (www.asiapeace.org) and its associated Association for Communal Harmony in Asia (ACHA). They even presented a petition to then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in August 2004 in the hope that "this memorial will also serve as a symbol of the ending of the armed conflicts and hostilities of the past, and of the beginning of a new era of cooperation, peace, and friendship between the great people of the two countries". The full text is online at http://indiapakistanpeace.org.

The website includes the rationale behind the demand. An extract: "It is our sincere wish and hope that this memorial will help begin a new chapter in the history of the Subcontinent -- one based on a better understanding of the past and on mutual trust and respect in the future." (The author is the respected academic and analyst Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed).

ACHA has been observing India-Pakistan Peace Days on August 14 and 15 in different cities around the world for some years now. In 2008, having failed to persuade the governments of India and Pakistan to build this memorial, they set up a virtual memorial where people can contribute names and information. There is a particularly moving comment from Kanta Luthra whose father, then registrar of Punjab University, was stabbed to death in Lahore: "Even after losing everything in the riots, I haven't forgotten my father's teaching, "Love people for what they are, not for their religious beliefs" -- (http://noosphere.typepad.com/virtual_memorial/)

P.S. I admire Rahul Bose greatly, but his dream that Indians and Pakistanis will one day cheer each other's cricket heroes equally goes against the essentially competitive nature of sports. I don't know of any two countries where people cheer the other team as loudly as their own. Still, Indians and Pakistanis do often cheer for each other against a third party. For now, that's good enough for me

Very best




It's about time

11 Mar 2010

Dear Beena,

Again, so much to address! But since I asked what annoys you about Indians, and since you answered so frankly, let me make that the theme for this instalment of our exchange, and in two ways.

First, your beef is with "the hard-nosed nationalism and sense of superiority of many Indians, the refusal to introspect and see flaws within their own society." Personally, I’m bothered too by this reluctance to see flaws, by the sense of almost manifest destiny and even entitlement that a lot of us Indians nurse.

But let me say this: in at least two respects, I think we are indeed superior to Pakistan. One, we chose the superior ethos for our country in 1947: the secular as opposed to the religion-based. Two, we’ve had the better form of government: the essentially democratic as opposed to the frequently dictatorial.

Undoubtedly both our secularism and democracy have serious, even gaping, flaws. Yet I would choose the India of 1947 over the Pakistan of 1947 every time; just as I would choose the India of 2010 over the Pakistan of 2010 every time. Indeed, that would apply to every one of our 62 plus years. It’s hardly my intent to rub anyone’s nose in this, but it is fundamentally the way I feel.

Second, let me try to explain what annoys me about Pakistan and Pakistanis. The major thing is the apparent obsession of your leaders with Kashmir. It’s not my case that our quarrel over that beautiful state should not be resolved, or cannot be resolved. But I wonder what progress we will make towards peace if we have only this one bone to chew on. Why not see what else there is between us? Why not find other things that we can use to learn to trust each other, which will give us some kind of basis to then tackle Kashmir?

For now, there is no trust that I can see. Because Kashmir makes it impossible. Surely, I think, the ordinary Pakistani’s quality of life is not dependent on what happens to Kashmir. Why does that not find wider and louder expression in Pakistan?

There, we’ve both fired our first salvos of annoyance. What do you make of that?

All good wishes,


March 12, 2010

Dear Dilip,

Thanks for your honesty. Lots to chew on there. First let me say that if I were in your shoes, I would probably feel superior too. We agree that it is better to keep religion out of politics and of course the better form of government is the democratic. As you and other Indian friends recognise, India’s secularism and democracy are far from perfect. I know you have fought long and hard against these flaws.

Similarly, many of us in Pakistan have fought, and continue to fight, for these values – secularism and democracy. Cynics will say it’s a lost cause. I refer them to the late respected journalist Aziz Siddiqui, who, confronted with my pessimism during earlier dark days, drew on his pipe, removed it and responded calmly: "Phir kiya karein, hathiyar daal dein?" (So what shall we do, throw down our weapons?).

You are, as you realise, fortunate that your country chose that path and enshrined those values into the Constitution. We were not as lucky.

The man who brought Pakistan into being (pushed by the intransigence of the Congress leadership which saw the benefits of having a buffer state between India and the ‘wild west’ (not something you’ll read in either of our history books) died barely a year later. His successors literally censored the guiding principles he had articulated.

These are historical circumstances that we cannot take blame or credit for. What I am saying is, instead of superiority, try understanding and empathy. We don’t want your pity but your support. We will fight on, with or without it.

Kashmir — yes, our politicians (some of them) are obsessed. Most people (including many Indians I know) agree that to deny the Kashmiris their right of self-determination was unjust, and that injustices continue to take place there. But it’s not as black and white as portrayed either in your media or ours.

Many Pakistanis realise that not all Kashmiris want to join Pakistan — and we don’t blame them. I remember seeing a banner some ten years ago at Lahore’s Regal Chowk: "Kashmir se pehle Sindh bachao" (before saving Kashmir, save Sindh). It didn’t remain there long.

Since 1995 the largest people-to-people group between our countries, Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, has been reiterating that Kashmir should not be treated merely as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, but a matter concerning the lives and aspirations of the Kashmiri people. This principle has started to find its way into public discourse. The Kashmiri people’s diverse views are starting to be heard. One day, the matter will be resolved — but not anytime soon.

There are elements in Pakistan (and India) working hard to keep the tensions alive. Only a continuation of the democratic process will eventually prevail over those elements. That is why India should support the process in Pakistan, instead of undermining it by refusing to talk.

Meanwhile, certainly, let’s focus on our commonalities and shared heritage rather than our differences. There must be an acceptance of both. The process of learning to trust will only happen when people are allowed to meet and interact.

Very best,



Let us introspect

2 Mar 2010

Dear Beena,

Since we've started on this path of exploring the anti-the-other-country feelings, let's take it a little further and see where it goes.

First, you draw a distinction between the (sometimes) elected Pakistani governments and what you call the "establishment" – the army/bureaucracy nexus, if you will. Nawaz Sharif was, you tell us, pro-India, but this establishment undermined his government's efforts in that direction.

One trouble with this is that in India we do have a hard time drawing this distinction, and especially in remembering it at stressful times. Perhaps again because we've sunk some democratic roots, we tend to think that governments should be accountable. The idea that something like Kargil could have happened entirely as a venture of a military man, without the head of state knowing about it, seems crazy to us. For that reason, we tend to hold all of Pakistan responsible.

For that reason too, I want to ask you: did you (as an ordinary Pakistani) see Vajpayee's bus yatra and what you call the "peace process" of that time as a substantial step towards peace? Or were you as sceptical of it as many Indians are of Nawaz Sharif's "pro-India"

feelings? In other words, what Indian step, from our "establishment", would you consider as a substantial step towards peace between us?


March 4, 2010

Dear Dilip,

Your comment about Indians having a hard time drawing the distinction between 'establishment' and 'government' – the idea that governments should be accountable, that Kargil could not have happened without the head of state knowing about it – and consequently tending to hold all of Pakistan responsible, set off a light bulb over my head.

The insight makes it easier to comprehend the greater hostility that exists in India towards Pakistan compared to the other way around.

Yes, I believe that Vajpayee genuinely wanted peace and so did Nawaz Sharif – not necessarily out of any great love but because they realised that there is no option. Nawaz, a businessman, is also aware of the economic benefits. We would have made progress had Kargil not happened, which itself may not have happened had India not initiated the nuke tests – but there's no point going on about the past.

I feel bitter that each time either one of our governments takes a step towards peace, those who have vested interests in keeping the tensions high between our countries undermine it through a violent act in my country or your's. The instigation may come from either side, but local collaborators facilitate these acts – which I regard these as criminal and political rather than purely terrorist (is there a great distinction?).

Regarding the hostile comments to our exchange – firstly, what is the source of these comments? Unless they come from verifiable users who want to engage in constructive dialogue, why dignify them with a response? Remember that the intelligence agencies (at least here for sure) are active in spreading rumours, disinformation, and planting stories. Also, not everyone thinks like us. You're not going to change their mind, they're not going to change your's, so let them rant.

Last Sunday we (as in 'aman ki asha') held a public event at a shopping mall. Ok, so it was an upmarket mall and but hundreds of people attended and overwhelmingly supported the initiative. There were some nasty remarks and hostile comments -- but very few. They're entitled to their views. As long as they don't use violence to make me change my mind, fine.

You ask what annoys me about Indians. I hate to generalise, but if I had to pinpoint a trait, I would say it's the hard-nosed nationalism and sense of superiority of many Indians, the refusal to introspect and see flaws within their own society. Yes, there are such people in Pakistan as well, but because we've often had an adversarial relationship with our governments (mostly military dictators) there is less of a tendency to toe the government line.

But most Indians I've met (from journalists and politicians to shopkeepers, farmers and taxi drivers) see the commonalities and shared problems and want to be friends – even if they don't agree with the other government's polices. I think that's true of most Pakistanis too.

I'll end on that optimistic note for now. More later






Let’s keep it going


Feb 23 2010

Dear Beena,

That was a good start, thank you. While I know that terrorism continues unabated in Pakistan, I had no idea of the numbers you quoted to me. 8,000 civilians and 3,000 security personnel killed in seven years, is a tragic, horrifying toll. I think more of us in India need to comprehend the magnitude of what’s happening today in Pakistan.

There’s plenty in your letter that I’d like to discuss. But for now, I’d like to focus on one theme you brought up.

You point out that since Pakistan has been "unable to protect its own territory" from these attacks, how can it stop them crossing into India? You also point out that this violence is the legacy of years of "pro-jihadi, anti-India" posturing of Pakistani governments that ordinary Pakistanis did not elect anyway.

Now there are those in India who would say, well, Pakistan is just reaping what was sowed in the years that the country rode that particular tiger (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors). Perhaps there’s not much point in going over the past like that — after all, what do we do now? But those same folks might also say this: there were indeed the occasional Pakistani governments that people did elect — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif ran a few of those — and yet those elected governments were also distinctly "anti-India".

What might our relationship look like today if there had been popular pressure on at least those governments to abjure the "anti-India" stance? Put another way, just how popular is the "anti-India" stance anyway, among ordinary Pakistanis?

Actually, I ask this in the hope that it will be a mirror for Indians. We might have elected (and voted out) our governments, and so maybe democracy has stronger roots here than in Pakistan — yet I don’t think we’ve done well in toning down the anti-Pakistan stances our governments have taken. From Indira Gandhi’s infamous "foreign hand" to nuclear tests to plenty more, our political players have shared one characteristic across the board: the animus towards Pakistan as a distraction from our own failures. Yet my feeling is that this animus has substantial roots too, among ordinary Indians.

In other words, am I right in thinking that the anti-the-other-country feeling is more widespread in both our countries than either of us would like to believe?

If it is, that’s of course the best reason for this exchange we’re attempting. So let’s keep it going.

yours always,



February 25

Dear Dilip

Thanks for your email. Yes, the casualty figures are quite hair-raising. I remembered reading somewhere that thousands had been killed but didn’t quite believe it, so did a search, found these horrific figures at the South Asia Terrorism Portal website. I assume they’re extracted from media reports. Even if they’re not dead accurate (pardon the pun), they indicate the mess we’re in and the price Pakistanis are paying.

I agree that there’s a need to focus on what do we do now rather than going over the past like that but it is important to understand the past in order to move on to the present and visualise the future.

However, I would disagree that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were ‘distinctly "anti-India"’. Remember, it was Benazir who came to an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi to end the insurgency in the Indian Punjab. Nawaz Sharif hosted Vajpayee’s famous bus yatra and started a peace process that was sabotaged by the Kargil debacle, which he has always maintained he never knew about until it was too late (it was the brainchild of his army chief Gen. Musharraf). Nawaz Sharif in fact was elected despite, or because of, his pro-India stance in his election campaign the last time round.

Yes, they were elected governments, but they were never fully in control. Perhaps it was because of this lack of control that their policies never reflected a ‘pro-people’ stance. They were not allowed to make or run policy. That remained, and has largely remained in the hands of what we call the ‘establishment’ — that combination of army, agencies and bureaucracy, which continues to tug one way while the government is pulling another.

Regarding your question about the "anti-India" stance among ordinary Pakistanis, see the response to the survey undertaken in Dec 2009, seeking a response to ‘aman ki asha’, which confirms what anecdotal evidence suggested: the majority of respondents (72% Pakistanis and 67% Indians) expressed the desire for peace between the two countries.

There may be hostility towards each other’s governments’ policies — but on a personal level, as people, Indians and Pakistanis on the whole want at least peaceful relations. This is something that we experience first hand when we visit each other’s countries. Yes, there are pockets of hard-liners — almost all situated within the self-styled ‘religious’, ‘nationalist’ groups (on both sides of the border, mind you).

Maybe I’m overly optimistic or idealistic. But I do believe that if the voices for peace are allowed as much public space as the voices for hostility have been allowed, the former will simply overwhelm the latter.

And on that note, for now, I’ll end. Take care





Peace is hard work


February 16 2010

Dear Beena,

I started writing this before Pune. When I heard about those 11 more senseless deaths, I decided to rewrite it. I want to start by saying how difficult horrors like this make it to remain committed to the idea of peace, of speaking the language of reason. Here’s the bottom line: most Indians believe that this latest attack, like previous attacks, was conceived in Pakistan.

Now I’m one of those who believe India has simply winked at a lot of its own home-grown violence: Delhi in 1984, Gujarat in 2002, Mumbai in 1992-93, these weeks of carnage and others left thousands of Indians slaughtered in the most ghastly ways imaginable. In no way are they less horrible than the blasts in Pune, or the massacre in Mumbai in November 2008.

Yet we have never found the will to bring justice to bear on all that Indian-conceived and Indian-executed barbarity. Far from it, we even elect to rule over us some of the apologists and cheerleaders of the barbarity. I cannot help wondering, why doesn’t this leave us Indians as angry as 26/11 did, or Pune does?

Yet that question, while necessary, carries an air of futility, especially at such times. The reality is that there is that anger towards Pakistan which clouds every other attempt at reason and perspective. I wonder where the climate for peace is at times like these. Where’s the constituency for those who say, "This is the time, above all, to keep talking"? Or "Anger and hatred is exactly the measure of the terrorists’ success"? Or "Hatred is easy, but peace is hard work"?

In other words, what I’m asking is this. Indeed this is the time to try to understand each other, rather than succumb to easy stereotypes. In the light of 26/11 and Pune, what can you tell us that will help ordinary Indians understand an ordinary Pakistani’s perspective on the violence that threatens to consume us all? How can we together build that constituency I mentioned a few lines ago?

Do write back, and let’s keep this going. I have to see hope in dialogue, or I’ll lose my hope in humanity itself.




Feb 18, 2010

Dear Dilip,

Thanks for your characteristic honesty and introspection. It helped me realise how difficult indeed the situation is for you and for other Indians who are committed to peace.

You ask me to help Indians understand a Pakistani’s perspective on "the violence that threatens to consume us all". Your phrase partly contains the answer: the violence does threaten "to consume us all" — which is why it is crucial to unite in combating it.

Secondly, consider how Pakistan itself has been caught up in a cycle of violence. With around 8000 civilians and 3000 security forces personnel killed in ‘terror’ attacks across the country since 2003, people here are stung by Indian accusations of Pakistan’s involvement in cross-border strife. Pakistan has been unable to protect its own territory from fanatical militants, how can it control what such militants do across the border?

Remember where this violence comes from — it is at least partly, if not largely, due to the short-sighted policies of successive Pakistani governments, especially the Zia regime, and their pro-jehadi, anti-India stance. This home-grown violence now threatens to consume us.

Remember also that ordinary Pakistanis were not responsible for these policies — we didn’t elect those who formulated them, and we paid the price for opposing them. Indian voters elected the government whose nuclear tests of 1998 pushed the region into a new and dangerous age (Pakistan’s elected government tested in retaliation — a move that I and many others opposed, as you know). But Indians can vote out a government whose policies they don’t like. Pakistanis have never had that luxury.

Consider India’s home-grown violence — you’ve flagged some of the landmarks (Delhi 1984, Mumbai 1992-93, Gujarat 2002).

I believe "our" extremists and "your" extremists are two sides of the same coin. They feed off each other. They share worldviews about ‘nationalism’, women, religious minorities and the superiority of "their" own religious beliefs, and aspire to establish control over the "other" (in their rants, just substitute ‘Pakistan’ for ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ for ‘Muslim’ — no difference).

Just as many Indians believe that Pakistan is behind violence in India, many Pakistanis believe that Indians are instigating violence in Pakistan. Why can’t we recognise that ‘taali donon hath se bajti hai’ (it takes two hands to clap). Our countries leave no opportunity pass to hurt each other. In the process, they hurt millions of innocents.

It’s time to move beyond the blame game and exert pressure on our governments and our establishments to show maturity.

All the best


‘Conversations’, conceived by Dilip D’Souza, is based on the premise that, despite setbacks, it is critical to stay on the road to peace. This road, the process and the hard work of peace — rather than easy hatred and vilification — are part of this crucial journey.





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