Express Tribune – Bad neighbours: Peace activists branded traitors, non-Muslims

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Express Tribune – Bad neighbours: Peace activists branded traitors, non-Muslims

 
LAHORE: “You are traitors. Shame on you!” is how one elderly gentleman reacted upon seeing Raza collect signatures for a petition seeking a relaxation in Pakistan-India visa policies.

His tirade lasted 15 minutes, said Raza, who has spent eight hours a day, six days a week collecting signatures at the Daewoo Bus Terminal near Kalma Chowk for the last three months.

Raza, who refused to divulge his full name, is part of a campaign of the Institute of Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS) aiming to collect 100,000 signatures calling for easier visas for Pakistanis and Indians to visit each others’ countries. The campaign, which began in September last year, has so far collected around 60,000 from five Punjab cities. Five thousand have come from the desk at the Daewoo Bus Terminal.

Raza, who gave up his job as a pharmacist to work full time on the campaign back in February, said that passengers travelling to and from Karachi and Peshawar were very supportive of the cause.

Most of the opposition has come from Punjabis. “There have been times when people have stood next to our desk abusing us, calling us traitors,” he said. Accompanying Raza at the desk are Salman Ahmed and Shahid Qayyum Khaleek, two more of the 50 or so volunteers helping with the campaign.

They said while young people generally liked the idea of better ties with India, some older people felt “betrayed”. “They think their sacrifices will go to waste if they support such causes,” said Raza.

Still, this correspondent witnessed several people sign the petition. Gauhar Khan, an interior designer, said he was signing it because it was time for the two countries to move on from their difficult past.

The desk at the bus terminal is one of three set up in Lahore, though the only permanent one. The other two started out in Nishat Colony and Youhanabad but were later moved to nearby areas. Saeeda Diep, the chairwoman of the IPSS, said that the desks were moved if they failed to collect 300 or more signatures in a day.

“Amritsar is the closest Indian city next to Lahore, and we want people on both sides to freely move across the two cities,” said Diep, who has been promoting people-to-people contact for 15 years.

Of the five cities in which the campaign is being run   Lahore, Multan, Okara, Faisalabad and Pakpattan   Diep said that the greatest hostility towards India existed in Multan, owing to the presence of anti-India extremist groups in southern Punjab.

Diep said that volunteers had also been sent to educational institutions in Lahore to collect signatures, though she said they had not been allowed to enter Punjab University due to the strong influence on campus of the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is opposed to closer ties with India.

She said that there had been instances where students and even teachers at some educational institutions had abused volunteers and declared them non-Muslims. Despite that, more than 15,000 signatures had been collected from educational institutions.

Saima William, the project coordinator for the visa policy campaign at IPSS, said that minority groups had been most supportive of the idea of easier visas between India and Pakistan. “Perhaps it is because the minorities, being oppressed, have greater sensitivity to these issues,” she said.

William said signature desks had been set up at churches, but not at mosques. “If the imam is saying at his sermon that Indians are our enemies, how can we pitch a visa relaxation policy to them?”

Once 100,000 signatures are collected, likely before Ramazan, the petition will be presented to the prime minister.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2012.