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March For Peace

By Beena Sarwar

17 May, 2005
The News

Mazher Hussain from Hyderabad, India, has a dream that many others share. The energetic peace activist dreams of the time when people from India and Pakistan can walk together on public roads in each other's countries. When he first talked about this peace march idea during a visit to Karachi over a year ago, the first thing that came to mind was the difficulties of such an exercise. Visas... security... organisation (lack of, especially in Pakistan where the grassroots or community organisations are not as strong as in India)...

But Mazher, who heads a confederation of voluntary organisations (COVA), was not to be daunted. It would be like a relay of marchers, he said, with a core group walking the entire distance, while local organisations would prepare the ground for their meetings at the villages and towns they would pass on their way. "It is doable, and it will work. You will see," he insisted.

A year later, Mazher is part of the dozen peace marchers from India that Pakistan finally granted visas to (out of the 70 who applied) and allowed to cross into the country on foot for the final leg of the march. They had reached the border on April 18, and waited there until the permission arrived on May 7.

The group includes the young activist filmmaker Monica Wahi, who moved from Delhi to Ahmedabad after the Gujarat communal riots (carnage, rather, as the Indian human rights groups labelled them) and took up residence in an apartment block there in her quest to help the affected women. Supported by other women's groups, she set up a system for them to be able to earn their own livelihood by making and selling readymade garments, simultaneously promoting traditional hand-loom, dying and block-printing methods.

Led by the veteran and respected social activist Dr Sandeep Pandey, the Indian delegation has not been allowed to 'march' in Pakistan but only to drive, due to 'security reasons' according to the Pakistani authorities.

It is odd that thousands of Indians and Pakistanis can be allowed to roam on public roads and markets in each other's countries if they are ostensibly there to see a cricket match, but not if they are explicitly making the trip to promote the cause of peace.

Still, the very fact that they are here at all is testimony to their persistence and patience, and that of their fellow peace activists on either side of the border.

The march began on March 23 in Delhi, at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. India granted special visas to only nine Pakistanis (out of the 70 who applied), listing the cities they would be passing through on the journey. However, at the last minute, the Pakistani authorities prevented them from crossing into India on foot.

At the inaugural of the march, meanwhile, the presence of celebrities like the Indian director Mahesh Bhatt and the Pakistani film actress Meera (one of the three Pakistanis present there) ensured a fair amount of media coverage for the walk.

Meanwhile hectic efforts to secure permission for the other Pakistanis to join the Indian marchers continued, and on April 9, Pakistan finally allowed nine of them, including four women, to walk across the Wagah border to join their Indian friends who by then had reached the River Beas. The Pakistani women included Lali Kohli, the courageous former bonded labourer from Sindh who recently won her freedom, and young Nayyar Habib of the Labour Party.

The insistence on crossing the border on foot has political significance. It highlights the fact that the Indian and Pakistani governments normally restrict visitors from each other's countries to trains, airplanes and buses, which is far more time-consuming and expensive. Visa holders are restricted to the entry and exit points stipulated on their visa applications - you can't change your mind later and return to Karachi from Bombay if your visa application has Delhi as the exit point.

The peace march ended on May 11, the seventh anniversary of the Indian nuclear tests. Interestingly, the marchers' arrival in Lahore coincided with the authorities removing the replica of the Chaghi hills from in front of the railway station - followed by the clarification that the move is being made for 'repairs', a convenient escape route in case the hawks become louder than the doves.

As for the doves, the reception in Pakistan has been 'amazing', says Monica. Large numbers of people turned up to greet the marchers, from Lahore, to Sahiwal, to Chichawatni and Multan. "It was beyond all expectations, even of the local organisers," she adds. "Isn't it a great injustice for the governments to not allow us to walk as we had asked? To keep people apart who want to meet? Is this why they didn't give us permission to walk, they were afraid of this huge response?"

The organisers also raise the very valid question of how Pakistan hopes to host the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Social Forum in Karachi, January 2006, for which the Prime Minister has promised full support, noting that after all, he also promised full support to the 150 peace marchers - a far smaller number than the 20,000 expected for the Social Forum.

The writer is a staff member.

Email: beena.sarwar@gmail.com


 

 

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