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Mainstream, VOL L No 46, November 3, 2012

A Ray of Hope in an Atmosphere of Despair

Wednesday 7 November 2012, by Sandeep Pandey

Saeeda Diep is a Lahore-based activist who has been working consistently on issues of human rights, women’s rights, democracy, against patriarchy, feudalism and communalism and on peace and friendship with India. Quite obviously to work in an atmosphere of religious bigotry and everyday violence is not easy for a woman in Pakistan.

On September 22, she had organised a convention in Lahore on the occasion of 85,000 signatures collected over the last eight months in the cities of Lahore, Multan, Pakpattan, Faisa-labad and Okara. This campaign, addressed to the Prime Ministers of the two countries, was for facilitating easier passage across the borders as well as for continuing dialogue until all the disputes were resolved. A seven-member Indian delegation also went to participate in this convention.
Saeeda Diep, who is the Director of an organi-sation she created (Institute for Peace and Secular Studies), is of the opinion that only when citizens of the two countries are allowed to meet more often and in larger numbers the mistrust created over years will melt. She has been part of numerous such cross-border initiatives. Peace between India and Pakistan is the goal of her life now. Her dream is to create a home on the Pakistani side of Wagha border where visitors crossing over from India will feel at home.

The petition says that Pakistan and India should live as friendly neighbours and not as enemies. It further says that since the two countries have lived under the shadow of war for long, their potential has been undermined hampering initiatives for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. In a world where coexistence, engagement, cooperation and mutual dialogue are the norm, the petition says, the deficit in mutual trust can be minimised through greater confidence-building measures. Finally it advocates easing of visa policy to pave the way for peace and harmony through trade, tourism, collaboration in education and health-care sectors and renewed people to people contact.

There was a group of youth with Saeeda Diep—Sunil, Raza Khan, Elizabeth, Saima Williams, Salman, Amir, Awais Siddiqui, Naquib Hamid, Raheem ul Haque, Mariam Arif, Taimur Ahmed, Ayesha Arif, Fahim Sheikh and about 50 others who undertook the hard work and risk to collect the 85,000 signatures from public places like bus stands.

IN September itself earlier, on the visit of Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, there was an agreement signed with the Pakistani Government to relax the visa regime. For the first time group tourist and pilgrim visas are being considered to be given. It will be smoother for businessmen to travel now across the border. Citizens above 65 years and children below 12 years of age and ‘eminent’ businessmen will be exempt from police reporting. The decision on visa will be taken within 45 days of application. Although such announcements have been made in the past also it remains quite cumbersome to travel between the two countries. The convention on September 22 had to be postponed once because the Indian visitors were not granted visa by the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi.

If one has to travel to Pakistan the visa will not be granted until clearance has been given by the Pakistani Interior Ministry in Islamabad. This implies that unless there is somebody in Pakistan pushing for your case it is virtually impossible to go there. The visa is almost always granted only during the last few days before travel as the Interior Ministry takes lot of time to clear names. Visa when given is valid only for a few cities and one cannot go anywhere else. After obtaining the visa when one arrives at Wagha it is not possible to cross the border without permission of the Indian External Affairs Ministry. Such kind of restriction is not there for travel to any other country. It is ironic that if one is travelling by train, bus or air then this particular permission from the External Affairs Ministry is not required.

Now if one is able to cross all these hurdles and reach Pakistan then reporting to the police is must. If one fails to do this then one may not be allowed by the Pakistani authorities to return. One has to be also careful that one has to choose the same way and method of returning as one used to go into Pakistan. It cannot happen, for instance, that one decides to cross Wagha on foot and then return by air. One wonders what could be the possible rationale behind this rule but it is quite clear that these rules are strictly followed. All these rules apply on Pakistani citizens as well when they are trying to come to India.

If efforts of people like Saeeda Diep bear fruition then it will be a big relief for common travellers between the two countries.

Saeeda Diep has been associated with another movement which achieved a success recently. A group, called Bhagat Singh Memorial Committee, of which she is a part, had been demanding to rename Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh as this is the place where he was hanged. The Pakistani authorities, on the occasion of Bhagat Singh’s birthday this year, September 28, decided to grant this request. Since Pakistani textbooks don’t mention anything about Bhagat Singh people there don’t know about this great revolu-tionary who was born and brought up on their land. People like Saeeda Diep are also trying to keep his memory alive in Pakistan.

The author is a distinguished social activist espousing Gandhian values and striving to improve people-to-people relations between India and Pakistan.

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