Monday, March 19, 2018

Launch of the Aghaz-e-Dosti calendar

Raza Khan, Peace Activist
Who would have thought that the launch of a calendar that carried paintings from schoolchildren would become a tricky affair?

Aghaz-e-Dosti, an organisation working for peace between Pakistan and India, launched its annual calendar on Saturday. My friends and I had been discussing the invitation for days. Friends based abroad thought we should go while those in Lahore had cautioned us against it given the security situation and the fact that one of the conveners of the programme, Raza Khan, had mysteriously gone missing from Lahore in December.

And what were the paintings about? Peace, friendship, and cultural exchange — a couple of birds, ribbons, and flags of both the countries. Every page had the name and school name of the child.
The mood of the ceremony was sordid. Almost morose.  There is no trace of Raza Khan yet and he is now ‘missing’ – a term not very uncommon in journalistic circles.
Raza Khan, of whom most of us outside the activism circle hadn’t heard of before, went from school to school and arranged video exchanges between students of India and Pakistan. We had expected to see 20 people at this calendar launch; basically, the same old faces which appear in every protest outside the Lahore Press Club. But we were pleasantly surprised to see there were over 70 people. The mood was tense at the beginning but eventually lightened up. I had attended the initial meetings in December soon after the abduction had taken place. Raza’s friends were a close-knit group. They were worried, committed but also naively optimistic. They wanted to access officials through back-channels and exert pressure as a group. Time is a critical factor and this desperation is justified. Also, at the start of 2017, five bloggers who were very critical of Pakistan’s establishment and vocal opponents of militancy were abducted. However, after pressure from activists and social media users, four of the bloggers returned. This gave Raza’s friends hope that he can be brought back through public pressure too. However, now the initial optimism had subsided. Two months have now passed and the dismal reality has struck them. They now talked of Raza in the past tense. That nervous tension was now becoming a deeply-rooted disappointment.
Some lovely children were also there in school uniforms, receiving certificates, reading out loud the letters they had received from their Indian counterparts and sometimes just creating a cheerful raucous at the back. These served as joyous interludes in an otherwise grave ceremony.
Some big names were there, like Saleema Hashmi and IA Rehman. And some hardcore activists were there too. Nighat Khan, Diep Saeed and Imtiaz Alam, who heads SAFMA, were also in attendance. But above all, Raza Khan’s father was there too. He was an obviously old and sullen man, who was now faced with the unimaginable prospect of never seeing his young son again. He didn’t smile at any amusing anecdote, a sanguine song of peace, nor after a child’s jerky reading. He either looked down and wiped tears with his a tissue paper or he nodded his head solemnly.
Salima Hashmi, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, gave a brief speech about her experience in a Montessori in London. While her husband did his PhD, she taught those five years old everything she could while they taught her that any dispute, misunderstanding, and mistake could be forgotten or resolved through a laugh, smile, joke or game. ‘Bachon se seekhein (Learn from the children), she said.
Nighat Saeed Khan, an acclaimed women’s rights activist, mentioned the hilarious story of a mango tree on the Indo-Pak border. The tree’s fruits had been scattering on the ‘other side’, thus making it disputed and eventually requiring a settlement agreement regarding the fruit. Similarly birds, cows or monkeys crossing over are seen with suspicion. These stories were one more proof of how mundane this ‘conflict’ is.
Salman Rashid, travel writer and columnist, narrated the tale of his travels to India in 2008. At the end of this trip, he and his wife had to pass through extensive security while an Englishman didn’t have to bother much. At that moment, Rashid had thought to himself, that the people who drew the line have an easy passage while the locals suffer.
Dr Anita M Weiss, American researcher based in Pakistan for some time, said she had attended those video exchange sessions with Raza organised in schools. Schoolchildren would typically ask their friends across the border “what they like to eat or play” and when the other would say ‘biryani’ or ‘cricket’, the whole classroom would explode with joy.
Perhaps this is what ultimately caused Raza’s disappearance. He attempted to make Pakistani schoolchildren realise that there are children like themselves on the other side too. Those dozens of children would have one day stood up to those millions of war-mongering pawns in madaris some day. And this of course is unacceptable to some. But nevertheless, Raza’s friends launched the calendar, and have resolved to continue his mission of peace. This year the Aghaz-e-Dosti received over 200 paintings and drawings from children.
Everyone mentioned or missed Raza, who had led this initiative and was always there on the launch. A video was also shown on the occasion. In the video, Raza could be seen sitting behind youngsters singing songs of peace, taking photos of children, protesting with posters against religious extremism and sometimes conversing with other peace nicks.
Finally, IA Rehman, addressed the gathering. Now a frail figure in his eighties, he stood at the podium weakly but spoke with conviction. He said that ‘Aghaz-e-Dosti’ should be changed to ‘Mustaqil Dosti’ (start of friendship to continued friendship).
IA Rehman said during his speech that in Pakistan, those who spread the message of hatred are free while those who talk about peace are in jails. This summed up the anguish and bitterness all of us felt then. The only person left out was Raza’s father, Muhammad Ismail Khan, whose grief and loss was much higher than any of ours. Hopefully, he will get the chance to celebrate soon.
This piece was first published in the Daily Times

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