Beyond the conditioning

The email was brief and to the point:

Dear Danielle,

If Pak stops sending murderers to India things will improve.



I was pleased to receive this comment, because it showed the writer had read the piece and thought about it. Unfortunately, he hadn’t understood my main premise: that citizens can’t be held responsible for the policies of politicians and the misdemeanours of a few.

I wonder if he’s heard of the Amistad, a project that aims to establish constructive communications between the people of Cuba and the United States. The politics of both countries continue on a divisive course; however, there has been some relaxing of visa restrictions between the two countries in recent months, paving the way for people to see relatives after years apart (see:

The blame game is clearly counterproductive and juvenile. I believe that a shift from the high-handed and seemingly futile political maneuvers towards open and honest communication between citizens can lead to greater understanding.

My faith was restored by another email, in which the reader – let’s call him Ash* – felt compelled to share what he termed as his “personal experience and understanding about what we as children have been taught”. He wrote: “What we have been exposed to as children reflects who we are as adults. I was born and raised mostly in Pakistan growing up on the constant negativity about the nation “across the border.” It was not til I went to study in the US that I realized that so many of us (Pakistanis and Indians) have been fed all this hatred against each other since childhood. Although there are some issues that spark instant reactions from both sides (Kashmir, or the wars and terrorism) but I have found that on a common ground (the US) we tend to leave our prejudices aside.”

He continues: “I was really surprised to find out from an Indian friend of mine that they are taught the exact opposite of what we are taught in primary school regarding the war of 1965. We are taught that the Indian army was planning to attack and they had decided ‘we attack tonight and we’ll have breakfast in Lahore.’ They are taught that the Pakistani army had planned the attack and decided that ‘we attack tonight and we’ll have breakfast in Delhi.’ So much propaganda to justify who actually won the war.”

He feels it is such conditioning on both sides over the years that has brought us to where we are today: “It would be a great advantage to both the countries and the whole region if this animosity ends. Generation after generation being played by a handful of leaders on both sides for their own political agendas.”

His point about what we are taught from a young age and the impact that has on shaping opinions into adulthood reminded me of a Bulgarian friend whom I travelled with in Turkey a few years back. When we met up in Istanbul, she confided in me her initial reluctance to visit Turkey. What had been ‘drummed into’ her at school about Ottoman history and their iron-fist occupation of Bulgaria from the twelfth to the early twentieth centuries had led to her negative preconceptions of Turkish people.

She even told me how acutely aware she was of having the chance to turn back before reaching the border. This was how strong those instincts were. She was to call me on arrival at the bus station in Istanbul and asked a fellow passenger if she could borrow his phone. The passenger, a Turkish gentleman, happily obliged. When a second (Turkish) person, an employee at the bus station, let her also use their phone, she was floored. Her perceptions about Turkish people were turning out to be ill-founded. They were capable of kindness and compassion!

As Ash puts it, “conditioning” does appear to play a major role in shaping an individual’s opinion. That is why it’s important for people anywhere to question what they ‘hear’, by doing their own research and creating their own experiences, no matter how they go about that. The stories recounted above support the mantra of not believing everything one hears or reads without giving it a second thought.

Broadly speaking, I see one of the functions of a diplomat is to iron out the mistakes that politicians make; then let’s hope we, as individuals, can take on a more prominent diplomatic role; precisely a role that Ash has discovered outside Pakistan on neutral territory. Having forged such friendships outside India and Pakistan indeed may demonstrate the positive potential meeting under those circumstances holds.

Call me an idealist, but if governments and individuals gave less thought to competing than to engaging with each other, our world might become a more peaceful and harmonious place.

*Names changed to protect privacy

This article is a follow up to ‘You lived through the experience?’, Aman ki Asha page, The News, Mar 31, 2010.

This version has some minor modifications. The original article above can be found at: 

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