For the last 11 years, this pen friends club has been facilitating school children from India and Pakistan to reach out to each other
Abhigyan or Abdullah; Lucknow or Lahore. They come together in a little-known children’s club of pen pals. A club where there is no international border, no Line of Control. Only a will to extend a hand of friendship, the tenacity to rise above six decades of hatred. So you have Abhigyan, a Class 12 student of Lucknow, replying to a letter from Abdullah, a Class 11 student of Beaconhouse School, Lahore, with these words: “We would definitely achieve our goal through our efforts.”
In the last 11 years, this club, comprising school children from India and Pakistan, has brought in touch, thousands of young minds like Abhigyan Purukyastha and Abdullah Mohammad. They regularly exchange letters, talk about a slew of subjects, from the long standing tension between the two countries and the rising phenomenon of terrorism in the region, to their favourite toys, food and hobbies.
The pen friends club, named “Aao Dosti Karein”, is an initiative of the Peace Education Department of City Montessori School (CMS), Lucknow. The school is a Guinness World Record holder, since 1999, for having the highest number of pupils enrolled- 45,000 spread across its 20 campuses in the Uttar Pradesh capital. Raj Shekhar Chandola, the coordinator of the club, explains over the phone from Lucknow the genesis of the initiative, “We thought of it around the Kargil War. With bodies of soldiers coming from the front, we noticed a rising sense of jingoism in our students. There was a lot of dislike towards Pakistan. We thought we will have to do something to heal this.” They let a year and a half slip by to allow the situation to settle down.
“Just before Kargil happened, a delegation from the Habib Public School, Karachi, visited our school. It was led by Anwar Abbas, grandson of the legendary writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. I had his email with me. We collected names of around 100 schools across Pakistan and wrote to him seeking advise on how to go about creating a pen pal club of students of our school with theirs, in which language to write to them,” recalls Chandola. Anwar Abbas shortlisted 30 schools, suggested letters be written in English, a compulsory subject in Pakistan. CMS founder Jagdish Gandhi thereafter wrote letters to all of them, of whom five wrote back showing an interest in the initiative.
Soon writing pads with the letter head of the school was printed and requests sent out to all its campuses. “In the first year, to our surprise, we got 5000 letters from our students,” says Chandola. He along with a colleague read all of them before posting them. “The times were different; we didn’t want anything to stop this initiative.” So he didn’t allow many letters that expressed a desire that both the countries be one again. “On looking back, I regret doing this but I thought then that the Pakistani Government might think we are promoting the idea and attempting to derecognise them.”
Surprisingly, he adds, “all the letters that came as replies from Pakistan said the same thing.” Chandola particularly points out to a letter from a student in Karachi. “He wrote back saying when he asked his father, an army man, whether to reply to a letter he has received from a school kid in Lucknow, his father asked him to go ahead and not do the mistake his generation did.”
At present, CMS students write to students of six schools in Pakistan — Habib Public School, Karachi High School, Foundation Public School and Agha Khan Higher Secondary School, all in Karachi, the Beaconhouse School System in Lahore and, Abottabad Public School in Abottabad. It regularly received delegations of students and teachers from these schools. “A delegation came even after the Mumbai riots,” says Chandola. CMS is now in touch with yet another set of schools from new areas like Rawalpindi to widen the network of the club.