‘Un ka jo farz hai wo ahl-e-siyasat jaanen
mera paigham mohabbat hai jahan tak pahunche.’
(“Let the politicians do what they think they must
My message is of love, let it reach where it can’)
– Jigar Moradabadi
Three weeks ago, on a wet Friday afternoon, three men from Pune crossed the border from Wagah to Lahore. They carried little baggage but a big dream.
In Pakistan for the first time, they were on a historic buffer yatra, or pilgrimage on foot, for peace – at least in the three cities for which they have visas, Karachi, Shikarpur and Lahore. In each city, they interacted with members of the public on the streets, as well as in meetings with groups of Rotarians, journalists and students.
The latest initiative of its kind That was a quarter of a century ago, in August 2007, under the leadership of the late Indian activist Nirmala Deshpande, or “Didi” (sister) as she was affectionately known to activists across the region.
On August 14, the pad yatris are to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day at the Wagah border and then return to India to celebrate their own nation’s Independence Day.
They will participate in peace events in Amritsar, meeting the Aaghaz-e-Dosti (“Beginning of Friendship”) youth group from Delhi. All marchers will return to the Attari-Wagah border after sunset to light candles in solidarity with activists in Pakistan.
It is part of a long tradition of the two countries celebrating independence days together, started by activists like the late Dr. Mubashir Hasan, Nirmala Deshpande, Asma Jahangir, Kuldip Nayar and others.
Peace groups on either side have been doing this for a couple of decades now, even as administrations in both countries try to stop them.
India’s former Ambassador to Pakistan Mani Shankar Aiyar and his “Pakistan Indian Friends Group” comprising more than a dozen eminent writers, former diplomats and activists also wanted to be in Pakistan “in the fore- noon of August 14 to congratulate Pakistan on the 75th anniversary of its independence and return to Delhi for our own 75th anniversary of independence celebrations on August 15” (Mani Shankar Aiyar, email, July 28, 2022).
At the last minute the visa clearance did not arrive.
food of love
Meanwhile, meet Yogesh Mathuria, also known as VishwaMitra Yogesh, Nitin S. who does not use his caste name, and Jalandarnath Channole.
Originally from the state of Maharashtra, their friends and family had tried to dissuade them from going to the “enemy country”.
Meeting people in Pakistan who speak the same language and look like people back home in India was quite a pleasant experience for them then.
The overwhelming love and hospitality they experienced in Pakistan exceeded all expectations, they said during a online meeting from the Southasia Peace Action Network, or Sapan on July 31.
They were then in Shikarpur, a small town in Sindh, invited by Dr. Amir Soomro, a doctor, an “old friend” of Yogesh. Dr Soomro had traveled to Mumbai in 2014 and stayed with Yogesh after being introduced by a mutual friend with roots in Sindh. He is the only person in Pakistan they met before their visit.
The pad yatris are bound by their love for the march, and for Nirmala Didi and Mahatma Gandhi, they said in response to a question from the Sapan meeting chair, feminist activist Khushi Kabir, a founding member of Sapan in Dhaka .
Another constraining factor is the music.
The song they sing on their travels is led by Channole, a statue maker who has lived at Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Maharashtra, for over 30 years. He draws crowds to the streets with his tambourine and his music.
The lyrics include phrases like: ‘Prem hi pukar ho’ (let love be the only slogan),’sab ko sab se pyar ho’ (that everyone loves everyone) and ‘nafrat chodo dunya jodo’ (stop the hate, bring the world together). The chorus is ‘I have jagat’ – victory to the universe.
Channole emphasizes the role of people-to-people contacts in peacebuilding. ‘Ek doosre se milenge, samjhenge, vishwas badhega, tabhi dosti hogi (When we meet, we will understand, build trust and become friends).
“Boundaries are in our minds,” says Yogesh.
Governments have the power to grant visas. Or not. The application process was the most frustrating part of their experience.
The visas, although pushed behind the scenes by various contacts, took months to arrive. They gave personal interviews at the end of December 2021, but the visas were finally stamped in May 2022.
“It was harder to get a visa for Pakistan than any of the 46 countries I visited,” said Nitin S., 31. He has been walking and cycling for six years, since the 130th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.
Yogesh has been doing this for 15 years, since he was 50. Like the authors of a book that Yogesh read in his youth, Bina Paise Duniya Ka Paidal Safar (“walking in the world without money”) by Suresh Kumar and E. Prabhakar Menon, pad yatris do not carry money. They rely entirely on the hospitality of the locals for the stay and the food.
“It allows us to connect with people,” says Yogesh.
After retiring from a three-decade career in the corporate IT sector, he traveled through several Indian states, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Iran, United Arab Emirates and Armenia. But the place he had most wanted to visit was Pakistan. In 2014, he walked from Bombay to the Wagah border but did not have a visa to enter Pakistan.
Five days before their arrival in Pakistan, another resident of Pune, Reena Varma, 92, had crossed the border from Wagah. She only wanted to visit her childhood home in Rawalpindi. His visa application had been rejected twice. She was only granted a visa after the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs intervened following a concerted effort on social media.
Like the pad yatris of Pune, Reena Varma was warmly welcomed In Pakistan.
As the 75th anniversary of independence approached, such stories captured the public imagination and underscored the absurdity of the restrictive visa regime.
The difference is that the Peace Pilgrims have no nostalgic roots or ties to Pakistan.
These interactions underline the importance of people-to-people contacts and the need to continue working for a liberalized visa regime.
Reena Varma and the three pad yatris have approved the petition coordinated by Sapan in collaboration with nearly 20 organisations, calling on governments to ease visa restrictions and allow freedom of trade and travel.
A large number of peace activists received the pad yatris upon their arrival at the Wagah border on 22 July. These new friends then took them to the Anarkali bazaar in Lahore. They spent several hours meeting people over a meal and a drink.
It was like a “family reunion,” Yogesh told Sapan News Network.
Their new friends dropped them off at the station at 10 p.m. for the overnight train to Karachi – which was delayed. The other passengers found it hard to believe that the three were Indians. The overwhelming response they received was “We are one” and “It is the politicians who divide us”.
Their experience with the “lovely people of Pakistan”, as Nitin puts it, contradicts all the stereotypes they had been fed.
Friends from Karachi put them up in an apartment in the center of the metropolis. Torrential rain sabotaged their first scheduled public event. Later, however, they were able to participate in several public meetings.
A week into their journey, Dr. Soomro drove them to his home in Shikarpur, from where they joined the Sapan meeting. Yogesh is moved by the hospitable gesture of the Soomros to free up their own room for the Indian guests.
“They had memories of our hospitality in Mumbai, which I don’t even remember. I guess that’s how we South Asians are with our guests,” says Yogesh.
There were also several public meetings and walks through the streets of Shikarpur. The pad yatris were particularly touched by the response they received from the young people.
A week later, Soomro drove them to Lahore, a journey of almost 10 hours by road. Staying at the hostel of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, they spent the past few days meeting more people, overwhelmed with love and attention. Young science teacher and Sapan member Waqas Nasir brought home-cooked vegetarian meals. A Facebook friend, Haji Khan Farosh, whom Yogesh describes as “a young peace activist and cyclist in his mid-60s”, came from Swabi in northern Pakistan with gifts.
The peace pilgrims will conclude their pad yatra with a flag hoisting program at Gandhi Ashram in Delhi.
The Mahatma had been keen on visiting Pakistan and traveled to Delhi planning to visit Punjab, documents his biographer Narayan Desai in my life is my message. He was assassinated there on January 30, 1948.
His death was widely mourned in Pakistan, with leaders including MA Jinnah, as well as the Pakistani parliament paying lavish tributes and all parties contributing messages of condolence.
The future of peoples and countries is “inextricably linked”, notes an editorial in the The Pakistan Times, edited by the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (“The First Step”, February 6, 1948). Future policies of the two countries should be based “on Mahatma Gandhi’s last will and testament”, he said.
“Without community friendship and India-Pakistan agreement, there can be no freedom or progress for either” – the words of the editorial still ring true.
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of our independence, isn’t it time to let people meet?
Priyanka Singh is a data analyst and researcher in New Delhi. Beena Sarwar is a journalist from Boston, who has lived and worked in Karachi and Lahore.
Both are founding members of the Southasia Peace Action Network, or Sapan. This is a syndicated feature Sapan News Network of www.southasiapeace.com.
To note: To be inspired by South Asian Himalthe authors used “Southasia” in a nutshell, seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wanting any violence on existing nation-states.