From edition

Letters and Bombs by Amitava Kumar

   The 1999 war in Kargil was the fourth war between India and Pakistan.
   The previous year, in May, India had exploded five nuclear devices in the wastes of the Thar desert. Before the month was over, Pakistan, as was inevitable, conducted nuclear tests of its own. Less than a year later, the war started in Kargil.
   The Kargil war was India’s first media war. Television crews trained their cameras on the 155 mm Bofors howitzers which had been in the news for a decade; they had been the focus of a bribery scandal which had helped bring down the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
With the Bofors guns in the front and the Himalayan peaks in the background, the war was fought for places like the snow-covered Tiger Hill. A reporter for an Indian newspaper wrote: “There were other mountains, taller, steeper and better defended, but none as photogenic, and none with a name picked out of a public relations handbook. It was also well-located, right in front of every reporter, every television camera.”   
   Nearly 500 Indian soldiers came back in bodybags from the frozen heights of Kargil. Reports indicate that the death toll on the Pakistani side was around 700. On the Indian side, another eleven hundred soldiers were maimed–half of them permanently. The media reported on the deaths and sacrifices of the combatants. The people in both countries were consumed by nationalist zeal. In India, you learned of the 22-year-old Lieutenant Thapar who died in the effort to secure Tiger Hill. Before he died, the lieutenant had written to his parents: “By the time you get his letter, I’ll be observing you all from the sky….I have no regrets; in fact even if I become a human again, I’ll join the army and fight for my nation. If you can, please come and see where the Indian Army fought for your tomorrow….”
   It is difficult not to see in such reports the tragedy of war. It is not simply a matter of lives lost. It is also that those who didn’t participate in the war and were opposed to it were left with very little space to protest against the futility of such misplaced idealism.

   I was very far from Kargil during the war. In fact, I was getting married. The woman I was marrying, Mona, is a Pakistani citizen. Mona is a Muslim. I am Indian, and a Hindu. A few hours before I stepped into the Toronto home of my in-laws for the first time, two Indian MiG-27’s had been shot down by the Pakistan Army. A younger cousin of mine, on hearing the news of my marriage a few days later, sent me an email chain-letter calling for donations to aid the children of the Indian pilot killed by the Pakistanis.
   After the wedding, a toast had been raised to peace between our two nations.
   This last December, a year and a half later, I went on a trip to India and Pakistan in order to talk to children in both nations. It would be my first journey across the border. One morning, in my hometown in India, I was narrating the story of my wedding to a group of students in St. Michael’s High School. I had passed out from this school, built on the banks of the Ganges in Patna, in the late seventies. After the visit to my former school, I went to a newer school in another locality. I asked the students I met in both these places, all of them enrolled in senior classes, to write letters to the students in Pakistan.
   “Will you like to be my friend?” asked Megha Agarwal in her letter. “Please be peaceful and love us,” wrote Megha’s classmate, Imbesat Imam.
   When I read the letters that were handed to me, I was not surprised to see that the students wrote in favor of peace. Perhaps the students had been influenced by my own story. And they were trying to enter into dialogue with those they might not have otherwise considered their partners. It could also be that the possibility of dialogue–where none had existed before–prompts in each one of us friendliness and an openness to exchange.
   As I was to hear over and over again during my trip, the common people of both countries want peace. What I was seeing in the letters could also be evidence of this simple, uncomplicated truth.
   A student in Patna’s D.P.S. School raised a series of questions in his letter for his imagined reader in Pakistan: “Why don’t you all change the attitude of your mind? Why don’t you all think in a positive way? This is all due to the wrong thinkings of your mind that the both countries are facing trouble. Why don’t you utilize your minds in creating something good?…Why don’t you think the things you are doing is not only harming people of India but also Pakistan?”
   Here, in this letter, the demand for peace was actually an accusation. It found the Pakistanis solely responsible for war–and for peace.
   Perhaps the proper response to this rhetoric, or at least an explanation for its roots, lay in a letter written by another student in the same class. Utsav Banerji wrote to a friend whom he had decided to call Aftab: “I only came to know more about Pakistan through the news shown on the television and also the news that we get from reading the newspaper. We only get the negative side of Pakistan through the news we read. I am sure that might be the case with you even. But I think we should try to cross this barrier and share a more friendly relation.”
   I put all these letters in a manila envelope and two days later caught a plane to Pakistan.
   At the P.E.C.H.S. School in Karachi, Alma Alvi wrote, “Please don’t think that we are your enemy.” The other letters echoed what had been written on the Indian side of the border; another student expressed the opinion that it was “mainly the politicians that create problems for the people of both countries….” An overwhelming number of letters written by the students in Karachi mentioned Kashmir.
   Kashmir was often invoked in a wider cultural setting, mixing issues of religion and the media. An example was the letter penned by Hajia Naeem: “Your country does every action against our country. Their main aims of life (according to me) are criticizing our God. Making fun of our refugees and freedom fighters in their movies…. You people always portray yourselves right in every walk of life and make us look like Frankensteins in front of you angels. In Kashmir people are burnt and are treated badly and you people think yourselves right even after all this.”
   I had given the students about fifteen minutes to write. The rest of the period was to be used for a discussion on issues like the cost of war between India and Pakistan.
   In Countdown, a book by Amitav Ghosh, we learn that every chapati eaten by a Pakistani soldier on the Siachen glacier bears a cost of about Rs 450 (roughly the average monthly wage for the country). The basic equipment for every Indian soldier on the glacier, where India and Pakistan have been engaged in an intractable conflict, costs Rs 60,000–about eleven times what the average Indian can expect to earn in a year.
   I repeated the questions that are no doubt clich├ęd but also undeniably crucial: “How meaningful is such military expenditure? Should we be spending money on guns and bombs or, instead, on books and schools?” The students were decidedly pro-peace in their response. I tried to be persistent. I said, “But you’ll get a holiday from school if all the money goes into war!”
   “We don’t want war,” they replied.
The next day I went to the Sadar area in Karachi where my wife, Mona, had attended the
Karachi Grammar School. Two students were waiting for me at the gate. A public address system had been set-up on the stage. The students were once again seated in front of me on carpets–girls to my left and the boys to my right–and this morning I got
a chance to read out aloud the letters of the students from Patna.
   I began with the one which ended with the words: “I’d like to say only that love us, care about us, because we new generation people are really looking forward. We don’t want enemies and war.” When I finished reading that letter, the students in front of me, several hundred of them, started clapping spontaneously.
   When I told the students that I, an Indian, had married a Pakistani who was a former student from that school, a boy raised his hand and asked, “How did you convince your wife that you were not the enemy?” We all laughed. But, I think the question has more general relevance.
   Both nations, in particular its common citizens, have been starved of any widespread contact. The result has been not so much hostility as much as ignorance and even suspicion. There is an urgent need for dialogue and also mutual gestures of goodwill.
   It is essential that Indians deeply and meaningfully recognize Pakistan’s right to exist as a nation independent from India. Indians cannot let their nostalgia for the past–which is, in fact, the national pain over the Partition in 1947 which led to the creation of Pakistan–blind them to the reality of Pakistan as a sovereign state. Similarly, Pakistanis can build a strong, secure civil society that is able to speak to India and the rest of the world without taking directions from either the Army or the growing Islamic fundamentalist lobby. The Army, currently in power in Pakistan, lost even more of its credibility in India after its foolish aggression in Kargil. The jihadis of the fundamentalist parties in Pakistan do not believe in peaceful coexistence. The larger part of the population does. These voices in both countries need to be strengthened and offered a forum to speak together.

   There was a letter from a 14-year-old girl in Patna that I shared with the children in Karachi. “Dear Sufi,” the letter has begun, and went on, “I think you people are very strict about your lifestyle. Is that so?” As I read out the lines out loud, the students, especially the girls, sang out in unison, “No….”
   I read further from the letter: “I believe the girls out there always have to cover their faces all the time…I don’t think you all are allowed to go anywhere on your own or interact with a lot with people.” Once again, the loud, singsong response, “No.”
   I said to the students that I was glad that I had read out that letter to them. They had now had a chance to respond. When I would write about this, their friend in Patna would get an answer to the question that she had raised in her letter. This was what the process of dialogue was all about. It is my conviction, of course, that this process, difficult and frustrating as it is likely to be, also needs to be carried out among adults.
   In the absence of such exchanges, the only letters that we will learn about are the ones that were mentioned in the dispatches from Kargil by Srinjoy Chowdhury. A major showed the visiting reporter the letter from his wife. Their son was only twenty-one days old. The letter said, “You have another one to look after now… This is a prayer, an appeal and a request. Come back in one piece. Life is so difficult. It was bearable with you around.”
   The letter had made the reporter reflective. He wrote: “I had seen a similar letter once. A young woman had written to a Paksitani army captain. She remembered his smile; she wanted to see him smile after he came back. It was found beside his dead body.”

Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos. He teaches English at Penn State University.

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