South Asia

Commemorating Independence Days, India and Pakistan Citizens Call for Peace

As tensions between the two countries simmer over Kashmir, the annual Aman Dosti Yatra seeks to normalise relations.

As India and Pakistan enter yet another tense phase in relations following the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, peace activists from either side continue their efforts to call for normalising relations between the two nuclear-armed nations.

The annual Aman Dosti Yatra (Peace and Friendship March) was launched from Delhi on Monday, with prominent Indian citizens participating. Public interactions are planned at more than ten places along the way in India, starting with Rajghat in Delhi. Other points where the yatra will halt are towns in Haryana and Punjab – Murthal, Gannuar, Samalkha, Panipat, Gharonda, Karnal, Taraori, Shahbad, Ambala, Ludhiana and finally Amritsar. Participants include locals from all walks of life and from different regions of India.

The midnight candlelight vigil of August 14-15 is a legacy of late journalists Kuldeep Nayar and Nikhil Chakravarty in India, and late Asma Jahangir and Dr Mubashir Hasan in Pakistan, who started this yearly tradition over two decades ago.

Kuldip Nayyar and Asma Jahangir. Photo: Aman Dosti Yatra

The yatra takes forward the cause of peace that they and many others on both sides have been advocating for and working towards all their lives. Last year’s Aman Dosti Yatra was flagged off in Delhi by Kuldeep Nayar, despite his failing health. It was his last public appearance. He passed away days later.

Every year, thousands of people show up at the multiple public meetings held along the yatra’s way and express their support for the peace cause. This is quite different from the dominant narrative perpetuated by the mainstream as well as social media.

Launch ceremony in Delhi

The launch ceremony in Delhi this year included eminent citizens like Dr Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, founder of the Guild of Service; former petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar; Dr Syeda Hameed, author and former Planning Commission member; Kamla Bhasin, feminist and founder member organisations like Sangat and Jago Ri; Prof Jagmohan Singh, nephew of Shaheed Bhagat Singh; as well as several others. They were joined by other eminent personalities like writer Ram Sharan Joshi, cartoonist Abid Surti, T.K. Sharma and activist Dr Shanker Lal.

Mani Shankar Aiyar speaking at the flagging off ceremony. Photo: Special arrangement

Local activists and organisers of the annual Hind-Pak Dosti Mela in Amritsar will join the marchers to light candles at Wagah border at midnight of August 14-15 “as a symbol of hope for peace, open borders, and to foster people to people relations between India-Pakistan”, says Devika Mittal of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, one of the supporting organisations.

Supporting groups in India include Nirmala Deshpande Sansthan, United Religion Initiative, Gandhi Global Family, Mission Bhartiyam, National Youth Project, Khudai khidmatgar Hind and Hali Panipati Trust.

Passion for peace

At Karnal, a couple of hours drive from Delhi, the marchers were welcomed at Jaat Bhawan, the hall decorated with posters of peace poetry and quotes. Social worker Ravi Nitesh said that the passion for Indo-Pakistan peace “lives on in the hearts of common people without being affected by social media and states”.

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Speaking at the event, Indian Army Col (Rtd) Ahluwalia welcomed the marchers, supported their call for peace and shared his friendly experiences with Pakistani counterparts in 1982 at Suchetgarh border region. The local hosts included renowned writer activist Dr Pavan Arya, along with Harpal Singh Kamboj and several other leading faces from Ambala.

Jatin Desai and friends at Martyrs Monument, Attari, paying tribute to the lives lost on both sides in 1947. Photo: Special arrangement

Throughout their journey, and especially in Punjab, the marchers have come across “huge support for India-Pakistan peace”, says Nitesh. “People stayed on even when it got late.”

Locals who supported the yatra at different places included advocates, judges and other social activists. The overwhelming consensus was for hope and peace, adds Nitesh.

At Panipat the marchers convened at Khadi Ashram, where the portraits on the wall include a famous photograph of M.K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah together. Welcoming the marchers, the ashram’s members talked about the poets Hali and Meer, and how Pakistan and India, though two countries, have one heart. They sang ‘Mera Rang de Basanti Chola’, the famous song commemorating the countries’ shared hero Bhagat Singh.

Mumbai-based journalist and peace activist Jatin Desai who reached Attari on August 13 was among those who paid tributes at the Martyrs Monument built to pay tribute to the thousands of people, mostly Punjabis, who were killed during partition. From where he stood, he could see the Pakistani flag across the border at Wagah.

Haryana-based singer and filmmaker Abhay Punjabi, who has roots in Sukkur, Sindh, is among the busload of peace lovers who reached Amritsar on the night of August 13 to participate in the event. Punjabi shared photos and brief descriptions of his fellow travelers on social media, providing a glimpse of the kind of people joining the August 14-15 commemoration.

Photos and brief descriptions of travelers on the yatra. Photos: Abhay Punjabi

Pak government denies permission

Meanwhile, headed over from Delhi to Amritsar, well-known feminist activists Kamla Bhasin and Dr Syeda Hameed learnt to their dismay that their friends in Pakistan had to cancel their plans to reach Wagah border on August 14 due to the government denying them permission.

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However, the Freedom and Peace seminar on August 14 in Lahore is going ahead as planned at the South Asia Free Media Association auditorium, with several organisations participating.

The Pakistan government has designated August 15, India’s Independence Day, as a ‘Black Day’ after the revocation of Kashmir’s special status. There is some irony here, since this was also Pakistan’s original Independence Day, as evident from the first speech that Jinnah broadcast live on national radio: “August 15 is the birthday of the independent and sovereign state of Pakistan”.

Pakistan commemorative stamps and Press Information Department publication listing Independence Day as 15 August.

Pakistan’s first commemorative postage stamps released in July 1948, also mention August 15, 1947 as the Independence Day, as does the cover of the Press Information Department’s Independence Anniversary Series published on August 15, 1948.

In support of the Pakistani government’s call, expatriate Pakistanis in the UK are planning to hold a demonstration at the Indian Embassy in London. Their call to stand in solidarity with “oppressed Kashmiris suffering from human rights abuse perpetrated by India” may have more clout if they also express solidarity with those suffering from human rights abuses at home Pakistan.

Some Indians provoked by this are planning a counter protest at the same venue, calling for their fellow expatriates to turn up and “outnumber Pakistanis”. This should be easy enough, considering there are many more Indians than Pakistanis around.

These demonstrations and counter-demonstrations will provide good grist for the sensation-hungry media mill, but are unlikely to help the Kashmiris. Nor will they contribute towards peace in the region.

Beena Sarwar is a senior Pakistani journalist.