Peace, one seed at a time
In the immediate wake of the horrific November 26 terror attacks on Mumbai, Indian and Pakistani politicians alike ramped up the tough talk and harsh rhetoric.
Cynicism reigned. Old prejudices bubbled to the surface. And tentative calls for peace and diplomacy were quickly drowned out by full-throated cries for retribution.
The business of holding elections and forming a new government in India allowed for a brief lull in the warmongering, but things only worsened this summer after the Lahore high court unsurprisingly granted a reprieve to the attack's alleged mastermind, Jamaat-ud-Dawa founder Hafiz Saeed.
What followed was a tepid interaction between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement's 2009 summit in Egypt.
Today, fingers still point accusingly, and the bickering over Kashmir and Balochistan continues to dominate the subcontinent's airwaves and parliamentary chambers. At a time like this, it really and truly appears that nothing can ever be done to end the endless cycle of violence.
Peace, it seems, hasn't a chance.
And yet, against this backdrop, a tiny miracle took place this July, almost entirely unnoticed. Deep inside the dark forest of Indo-Pak conflict and anguish, a seed of a peace was planted.
Ruth Verma, a 14-year-old Mumbaikar and a student at the JB Petit School, became best friends with Noorzadeh Raja, a Pakistani girl of the same age from Lahore.
"Don't tell my friends from school or my sister this, but I honestly feel like Noorzadeh's the person closest to me in the whole world right now! She is like a sister. We're best friends now and we'll be best friends forever, no matter what happens between India and Pakistan," Verma explains.
Interestingly, prior to this summer, Ruth had never met a Pakistani, let alone befriended one. She, like the overwhelming majority of school-aged Indians, had a very two-dimensional view of Pakistanis as violent, irrational and regressive people.
It's hard to grudge Ruth her earlier perspective. She's a sweet young girl with nary a bad bone in her body, who holds visible contempt for prejudice and discrimination. It's just that she didn't know any better. As she says, she had never even been given the opportunity to make that decision herself.
"In India, you're conditioned from birth to think that Pakistan and Pakistanis are evil. It's not even a question really. It's just assumed," she points out.
When asked what made her budding friendship possible, Ruth doesn't hesitate a moment.
"The Seeds of Peace Camp -- it changed my life," she states matter-of-factly.
Seeds of Peace is a US-based, nonprofit, nonpolitical organisation founded by the late John Wallach, award-winning author and journalist. Wallach was inspired to create the movement after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Having recognised that tomorrow's leaders are humankind's best and possibly only hope for sustainable peace, Wallach sought to bring together youth from conflict-ridden regions to teach them the skills required for peaceful coexistence.
He famously proposed the Seeds of Peace initiative at a state dinner that was attended by political leaders from Israel, Egypt and Palestine. He said that only true understanding and positive interactions could combat the malevolent forces at work in the world; and following a toast to his visitors, he pledged to bring 15 youngsters, aged 13 to 18, from each of the three countries, along with three Americans, to a new camp he was founding in Otisfield, Maine.
From that humble beginning of 48 campers and four countries, Seeds of Peace has grown to become one of the world's most respected and admired conflict resolution-oriented NGOs. Today, over 4,000 campers from 22 countries have completed the programme, and they in turn have shared their experiences with countless others.
'Seeds of Peace is not some left wing, 'make love, not war,' sing a song, plant a tree, call it peace,' Wallach told CNN in a 2000 interview, two years before he passed away. 'Seeds of Peace exists in the real world. It exists among people who've been taught to hate each other, and it's finding some basis for them to coexist with one another.'
In 2001, Seeds of Peace spread its reach to encompass India and Pakistan, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Ferzan Mehta, who has served as the coordinator of the Indian Seeds of Peace programme since its inception.
Though Mehta prefers to stay out of the limelight and let her 'seeds' do the talking, she's quick to point out a simple credo: "One of our main motives is to spread peace in order to combat terrorism. Another critical goal is to fight the horrible, negative influence of stereotyping, which always lurks just below the surface. The best place to start is with the leaders of tomorrow."
What exactly does a stay at the Seeds of Peace camp entail? And how are the campers selected?
The 2009 Indian delegation comprised 10 'seeds', aged 13 to 15, from five Mumbai high schools: Yashodham High School, JB Petit High School, Bombay International School, Saifi High School and New Era High School. For emotional support and encouragement, they were joined by a peer leader who is their senior by a few years and a previous Seeds of Peace graduate. Two adult leaders supervised the delegation.
To be considered for the programme, earlier this year aspirants from the five schools wrote essays on the potential for global peace. The strongest applicants were placed into a pool and from there were again judged strictly on merit.
Earning admission to the programme is itself a tremendous accomplishment and a smart addition to any resume. But, as the 2009 peer leader Rishi Razda says, the real reward is the camp and its accompanying experiences.
"When I think of Seeds of Peace, I think of a place where, as Tagore once put it, the mind is without fear and the head is held high," says the poetic Razda, who has been involved with Seeds of Peace for three years.
This year, the delegation arrived at the camp in Maine June 22 and returned to India July 17. In that relatively short amount of time, less than a month, the campers confronted and conquered decades of bad blood, prejudice and misunderstanding.
To achieve this, the 'seeds', as they're affectionately known, are challenged in most intense and uncomfortable ways, starting with their living quarters.
The cabins are internationally integrated, strategically so. Indians sleep side-by-side with Pakistanis and Afghanis. Israelis sleep next to Palestinians and Jordanians. A few Americans are sprinkled in randomly for good measure.
It's not all idealism and holding hands
For many kids, getting over this hump is the most difficult part of the whole experience.
'I remember in our first or second year, we had an Israeli who was walking outside the bunk at 2 o'clock in the morning. We said, 'Why aren't you sleeping?' He said, 'I can't fall asleep because I am afraid the Palestinian kid in my bunk is gonna knife me,' Wallach recalled in his 2000 interview with CNN.
Rapidly, however, certain truths begin to emerge. For one, Indian and Pakistani campers recognise the similarities in dress, food, music, language and history that bind their two countries.
Gaurav Bhawnani, a 14-year-old seed from the Yashodham School, says he was amazed at how easy it was to understand Urdu, which he always considered a 'foreign' language.
"We were speaking Hindi and (the Pakistanis) were speaking Urdu. They're like the same language! In our own countries, we seem so far apart that we're almost total opposites. But at camp, the Indians and Pakistanis were almost identical when compared to the other seeds. It wasn't always easy to identify with some of the things the American, Egyptian and Israeli campers were saying, but with the Pakistan and Indian seeds, we were really able to connect. My best friends during camp were definitely Pakistani and Afghani."
Rayan Modi, a student of Bombay International School and an Indian camper from 2007, echoes these thoughts. "One thing I found very interesting is this: seeds from other countries couldn't even distinguish the difference between an Indian and Pakistani. As we got closer, and things became less formal, we mingled with each other so freely, that the other kids just called us the 'Indo-Pak' delegations. I never would have imagined that all of us would be happy to be grouped together under one name."
Also used to break the ice are a common dining hall, where Pakistani and Indian campers alike cribbed about the food, and the international trust-building exercises and games.
"When you're playing the games with kids from other countries on your team, those trust-building exercises, you learn to stop looking at everyone as just a nationality. You start seeing people as individuals," says Zeenia Kolah, another JB Petit student.
"When you arrive there, you expect to be some ambassador for your country. You go there to say: 'I am Indian. India is right. You are Pakistani. Pakistan is wrong.' But that's not how things happen. You learn to see everyone, including yourself, as just another individual," he says.
But it's not all idealism and holding hands. At the crux of the Seeds of Peace experience, however, are the famous 'dialogue' sessions, where seeds from 'opposing' countries convene to discuss issues of contention.
This year, it was the Pakistani, Afghani and Indian seeds all put in one room together, to try to make sense of the strife and violence that threatens to tear apart the fragile fabric of South Asia.
26/11, Kashmir, the War of 1971, the Durand Line (between Pakistan and Afghanistan) and global terrorism -- no topic was off-limits.
After passionate arguments that touched nerves at the political, social and personal levels, the emotionally drained seeds started from scratch, and learned some lessons in the process.
"The dialogue sessions were very valuable to me," says Jay Shah of the New Era School. "When we first began with the dialogue sessions, we all got caught up in history and ended up blaming each other. But, by the end of camp we'd learn to drop our bias. I came to know the other side of the Indo-Pak conflict, and how they see history. An important thing I learned is that even if I don't agree with your beliefs or views, I must learn to respect and acknowledge them. If I refuse to even accept that different points of view are possible, how can I be sure of my own perspective?"
Also, for the first time, many of the Indian seeds actually felt sympathy for their Pakistani counterparts.
"The Indians were talking about Pakistan's role in 26/11. The Afghanis were talking about the Durand Line. And I guess the Pakistanis felt cornered, because they were involved one way or the other with every issue,'' explains Daksh Mehta from the New Era School.
"I also learned to distinguish a person from the actions of the country. It's counterproductive to blame normal Pakistanis for every bad thing that happens in their country. They are dealing with the same violence and terror that we are," he adds.
Zeenia from JB Petit concurs. "We in Mumbai faced the horror of 26/11. But that was just one incident. I realised that a lot of what we experienced during those three days of 26/11, that's what people in Lahore experience almost every day."
Ruth Verma adds that she was very impressed with the pluck and fortitude shown by the Pakistanis. "There was one girl whose attitude towards terrorism was: 'When it's my time to die, I'll die. I'm not going to live in fear. When you show fear, you've let the terrorists win.' That was such an amazing way to look at it."
For Gaurav Bhawnani, the dialogue sessions were crucial because they allowed him to consider violence outside the scope of just terrorism in India. "We think we have it pretty bad in India. But when we heard those Afghani kids telling stories, it changed our whole viewpoint. There was one Afghani boy who related a story of bombings near his house. It was so horrific that we had to stop him. All of the Indian and Pakistani kids were crying. It was so scary. But he had become so numbed by all the violence that he could have kept talking for hours without getting upset. That had a huge impression on me, to show me that other kids are growing up in situations that are even worse. And it worked vice versa too, because the Afghani kids were fascinated to learn about the problems in Kashmir. They all agreed that Kashmir is one of the most complicated disputes in the whole world, when before camp they didn't know that."
Spreading the message
Finally, the seeds say that the most important lesson they learned was that any idea of an objective history should be viewed critically. In comparing Pakistani and Indian textbooks, they were shocked to see the omissions, additions and fabrications that littered both sets of books.
"This is stuff we are tested on during our exams. This is supposed to be the very barest of facts," says Gaurav. "And yet we discovered that the books agreed on hardly anything. So even if you try your hardest in school to read your book and do your studies, you're still getting a much different version of events compared to a Pakistani student your age."
For example, most of the Pakistani campers had no idea that India is a secular country, despite its large Hindu majority. "They all believed that Muslims are very, very ill-treated in India, when that's not necessarily the case," says Ruth. "Of the 10 campers from India, there were five different faiths represented. The Pakistani students couldn't believe that. They were really stunned by our religious diversity."
Murtaza Jetpurwala, from the Saifi High School, says that the Pakistani seeds all assumed he was Hindu, until he told them otherwise. "They were very interested to hear about Muslims living happily in India. I told them that there are even Muslim schools and many mosques in India, which they had no idea existed. I want to stay a part of Seeds of Peace in the future, so I can continue to share my experiences with Muslims from other countries. They should know that we Indian Muslims are proud to be Indian."
Now back in Mumbai, the Seeds are eager to share their experiences with family, friends and the media, so that the message of acceptance, compromise and co-existence can extend beyond a handful of teenagers, hopefully to all of South Asia.
That's not as easy as it sounds.
"There is the assumption that all Muslims aren't terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims. And that most of the terrorists are Pakistanis. It's not fair to say an entire nation is a terrorist nation. That's one thing I learned from camp. Now I'm taking that message to my classmates, friends and family. In this way, Seeds of Peace makes a difference," says Jay Shah.
He adds, "After camp, when I went to school, my friends and their parents asked me about my trip. And when I said that I made very good friends with the Pakistanis and that they were very nice, (my friends and their parents) objected and said, 'Oh, those seeds from Pakistan were all trained to behave good. But in real life all Pakistanis are bad.' I was so disturbed that day that I could not sleep at night. So I want to spread this message: Pakistanis are not bad! I've had real conversations with real Pakistanis and that's not the way they are."
That desire to spread the message explains why a group of former Seeds of Peace campers -- who were part of the original batches in 2001, 2002 and 2003 -- continue to meet in Mumbai fortnightly. Because of logistical problems, they use Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with their Pakistani counterparts. And from time to time, they set up Mumbai-Lahore video conferences to recreate the Seeds of Peace Camp atmosphere, which to a man they found conducive to substantive dialogue and understanding.
Now in their late teens and early twenties, these ambitious young people from Mumbai and Lahore are working on compiling a book that will highlight the massive contradictions between Indian and Pakistani textbooks.
"We realised a lot of the strife and conflict stems from the glaring discrepancies in our textbooks," says Huzefa Furniturewala, one of the earlier Mumbai-based graduates who stayed involved over the years.
There is also an exchange programme, which every two years sends handfuls of Pakistani kids to India and Indian kids to Pakistan.
"The Seeds of Peace experience doesn't end with camp. It begins with camp. I participated in the exchange programme and it was one of the best experiences of my life. The people in Pakistan, the common man and woman on the street, were just so curious and kind when I was in Lahore," says one of the 2002 graduates.
It seems like all these seeds, planted in earnest, are beginning to bear fruit. There are thousands of members of the Seeds of Peace Facebook group. Hillary Clinton specifically showered praise on the group during her recent trip to India. Every year the number of participants grows.
And, yet, the programme has doubters. There's even an anti-Seeds of Peace Facebook group, which heaps scorn on the young campers for pursuing that which others has already determined is impossible: lasting, sustainable peace.
To answer the critics Keshav Pasari, a 2008 Seeds of Peace camper, has a simple but powerful anecdote.
In the days following the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts, Pasari received some most unlikely calls of sympathy.
"It was my Pakistani friends, who live in Lahore," he remembers. "They weren't sure how close Ahmedabad is to Mumbai, and wanted to check that I was safe, that my family was safe. It was really touching to know that someone 'from the other side' was worried for my well-being."
And while today Keshav counts those Pakistanis among his closest friends, without Seeds of Peace, they never would have met.
Meera C, a student of the Bombay International school, sums up the experience best: "I went to camp thinking we'd learn about the other side of the argument and that we'd become more mature and critical in our thinking. That happened. But I also made friends I will never forget. I'm not just saying that, either. It's true. And if camp can make an Indian and a Pakistani become best friends or an Israeli and a Palestinian become best friends, it says a lot about Seeds of Peace."