March For Peace
By Beena Sarwar
17 May, 2005
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,"
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 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.
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
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