To Pakistan, with love from India
Times of India - 23 March 2006
by Abantika Ghosh
WAGAH BORDER: "My friend, I want you to know that the sun shines exactly the same way in India as in Pakistan."
Writing to her faceless friend across the border, seven-year-old Swati of Jogeshwari slums in Mumbai sums up the essence of phrases like people-to-people contact and confidence-building measures better than several summit-level talks together.
Others are less profound, but not wanting in ardour. For instance, this huge handmade picture of an ice-cream cone with the message, "Eat this ice cream, be my friend", or the simple appeal, touching in its innocence and honesty: "I love cricket and football and I love it when my team beats yours. Let's be friends."
These — and others like the imaginative painting of two kites shaped like the Indian and Pakistani flags criss-crossing each other across the border — are just some of the 11,000-odd letters from schoolchildren across the length and breadth of India that will reach Pakistan via the Wagah Border on March 24.
They will be distributed among Pakistani school kids — and possibly elicit many more thousands of replies. Also in the mailbag is the world's largest 'love' letter, a mammoth 120x80 metre effort, written and painted by students of Bangalore, Mumbai and Ahmedabad and bearing the message — "India loves Pakistan, so let's join hearts through our friendship and make the world a better place."
The letters will reach Lahore through a motley contingent of less than 10 volunteers from Friends Without Borders, an organisation created to foster ties between disputing nations.
As Mark Jacobs, a volunteer put it, "We just happened to be in India, so the first batch of letters is going to Pakistan. If we were in Israel, it would have been the West Bank. If back home in the US, it would probably have been Iraq."
The group was formed when John Silliphant, who needed to leave India for visa renewal in February 2005, decided to "arrive in Lahore with an armload of friendship letters".
"I fell ill with jaundice but the idea just refused to die. So I roped in some of my friends and it was soon much more than an armload. These are just the first batch and many more are still being sorted out and translated in various cities and also in remote villages of the country to make the effort as pan-Indian as possible," Silliphant said.
The response has been overwhelming. "The moment we would enter a class and ask, 'how many of you want to have a friend in Pakistan?' the hands would just shoot up. Even now when the letters are finally going, we have been flooded with requests from students asking us to talk to their teachers to ensure that they can come at least till Wagah," Silliphant said.
"But since it is examination season, this could not be arranged." But the letters will not go entirely without a send-off.
Jacobs said, "Students from a school in Amritsar will come and even the Prime Minister is expected to be at Wagah on the day, though not because of this and we hope to meet him too before going to Pakistan."
The letters are about friendship but they still needed to be screened, just to ensure no inappropriate content reached Pakistan.
"There were innocent, often offhand, references to terrorism, about how Pakistan should not harbour terrorists, some well-meaning kid from a Christian school writing 'Jesus loves you though you are a Muslim'," Jacobs said.
All letters written in languages other than Urdu or English are being translated, he said. "The idea was to make it as far-reaching as possible, create the awareness that you can have a friend across borders.
So if a kid writes in Tamil, he is welcome to do so, we'll ensure that his message gets across."