PERSONAL POLITICAL: Rest in peace, comrade Kutty. The struggle continues

I wrote this piece a few days back – the second of my occasional syndicated columns. Published in The Wire, Naya Daur, Mainstream, The Citizen among others.

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Early Sunday morning in Karachi, a little over a month after his 89th birthday on 18 July 2019, B. M. Kutty slipped into the ever after. Lifelong activist, trade unionist, political worker, peacemonger, humanist. I like to remember him as I last saw him in Karachi – his big smile, deep voice with its powerful timbre, intense gaze behind the glasses, dapper as usual in bush-shirt and trousers.

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Commemorating Joint Independence Day together, India, Pakistan, citizens call for peace

Delhi, 12 August 2019: Mani Shanker Aiyer addressing the flagging-off ceremony. Photo courtesy Ravi Nitesh.

Wrote this piece yesterday, published in Aman Ki Asha, about the annual joint Independence Day Celebrations by Indians and Pakistanis. The Aman Dosti Yatra (Peace Friendship March) reached Amritsar from Delhi yesterday. Friends in Pakistan were prevented from going to the border but they held a seminar in Lahore. There’s a piece about the Yatra in The Indian Express:

“There is tension on the border due to Kashmir issue. But we have been getting huge response from the public. Sentiment on ground is different from social media where people have been trolling each other and spreading hate. On ground, people are coming to greet us. We are encouraged by the response. We have plans to light candles at Indo-Pak border on the midnight of August 14 and 15. We hope security forces will allow us this peace gesture like last year,” said Ravi, adding that this year, the yatra is dedicated to Shri Guru Nanak Dev on his 550th anniversary.

From Delhi to Wagah, a yatra for peace gets warm response.

My article below.

Commemorating Joint Independence Day together, India Pakistan citizens call for peace

Indian Army Col. (rtd) Ahluwalia with the peace marchers at Karnal, Haryana. Photo: Ravi Nitesh

Beena Sarwar

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

The annual Aman Dosti Yatra (Peace and Friendship March) was launched from Delhi Monday, with prominent Indian citizens. Public interactions are planned at more than ten places along the way in India starting with Rajghat in Delhi. Other points include Harijan Sevak Sangh, 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 candle light vigil of 14-15 August is a legacy of late 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.

The Yatra takes forward the cause of peace that they and many others on both sides have advocating and working for 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 barely 10 days later. 

Kuldip Nayar, Nandita Das, Asma Jahangir at Wagah border: Celebrating Aug 14-15. Undated file photo

Every year, thousands of people show up at the multiple public meetings held along the way at the Aman Dosti yatra 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.

The launch ceremony in Delhi this year included eminent citizens like Dr. Mohini Giri, former Chairperson National Women Commission, founder Guild for Service, and Founder Trustee Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia; former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar; Dr Syeda Hameed, author, and former member Planning Commission; 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, former Commissioner, Haryana T. K. Sharma, activist Dr Shanker Lal among others.

Local activists and organizers of annual Hind-Pak Dosti Mela in Amritsar will join the marchers to light candles on Wagah border at midnight of 14-15 August “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.

At Karnal a couple of hours drive from Delhi, the marchers were welcomed by Prof Abrol and other locals at Jaat Bhawan, the hall decorated with posters of peace poetry and quotes. Providing updates, Ravi Nitesh said that the passion for IndoPak Peace “lives on in the hearts of common people without being affected by social media and states”.

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.

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

Locals adding their support at different places included advocates, judges and other social activists. The overwhelming consensus was for hope for peace that they all desired, adds Nitesh.

Khadi Ashram, Panipat: Huge support for peace. Photo: Ravi 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, Khadi Ashram members talked about the poets Hali and Meer, and how Pakistan and India are two countries but one heart. They sang Mera Rang de Basanti Chola, the famous song commemorating shared hero Bhagat Singh Shaheed.

Mumbai-based journalist and longtime peace activist Jatin Desai who reached Attari on 13 August 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 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 13 August to participate in the event. Punjabi shared photos and brief descriptions of his fellow travelers to social media, providing a glimpse of the kind of people joining the 14-15 August commemoration.

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 14 August to participate in the joint Independence Day due to lack of government permission.

“Today in Amritsar. Two flags” – Dr. Syeda Hameed

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

The Pakistan government has designated 15 August, India’s Independence Day, as a Black Day in support of Kashmiris. There is some irony here since this was also Pakistan’s original Independence Day, as evident from the first speech of the Father of the Nation broadcast live on national radio: “August 15 is the birthday of the independent and sovereign state of Pakistan”. Pakistan’s first commemorative postage stamps released in July 1948, also mention 15 August 1947 as Independence Day as does the cover of the Press Information Department’s Independence Anniversary Series on August 15, 1948.

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

In support of the Pakistan government’s call, expatriate Pakistanis in 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, which should be the aim of anyone who wants to leave a better future for coming generations.

(ends)

Remembering Doc: The importance of civil discourse and the art of listening

At a small gathering last year, our friend S. Ali Jafari read his essay in Urdu about my father, whom he called “Doc”. His son Salman videotaped the reading, which forms the basis of this 14-minute video I edited for 26 May 2019, ten years after Dr M. Sarwar passed away peacefully at home in Karachi, at age 79.

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The story behind the viral ‘gwandne’ song

Collage of Bushra Ansari’s YouTube channel screenshots, 4-30 April 2019.

I wrote this piece a few days after Neelum Bashir’s Punjabi poem ‘Humsaye Maa Jaye’ (children of the same soil) went viral over India and Pakistan. Originally published in The Wire, 6 April 2019, the updated piece below includes the revised poem-script that Neelum Apa kindly sent me. Her talented performer sisters Bushra Ansari and Asma Abbas’ musical rendition caught public imagination, cutting through the rising tensions between India and Pakistan after the Pulwama attack, forcing even the Indian media, including television channels in the thick of hectic pre-poll reporting, to take note. Updates include the the jump in Bushra Ansari’s YouTube channel subscriptions, from 34 to over 25,000 in just three days, and to nearly 70,000 by 30 April, besides millions of views and shares. 

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Women warriors for peace and a viral Punjabi music video

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A poetic dialogue between two neighbours separated by an insurmountable wall goes viral. Pictured here: Asma Abbas and Bushra Ansari, performing their sister Neelum Bashir’s poem.

There’s been so much going on that I haven’t shared any updates here for a while. On Tuesday 11 Feb., Bilawal Bhutto Zardari gave a talk on Pakistan and the Welfare State at Harvard that I reported on: “We can’t say we’re too poor to look after our people”, published in The News on Sunday, 17 Feb.  I was going to post it with an important paragraph that got left out of my report when I cut it down, but the Pulwama attack of 14 Feb overshadowed everything. I’ll share it at some point. Continue reading

Celebrating Fahmida Riaz in Delhi

Fahmida Riaz-Delhi prog

Post updated to add the programme just received from Delhi; gratified that it includes the poem I posted here earlier, “Palwashe Muskurao”.

Great to know that friends in Delhi are organising this wonderful event to commemorate the great poet Fahmida Riaz – Fahmida Khala to me, she called my father Sarwar Bhai. I love the poem of hope and inspiration she recited, Palwashe Muskurao (Palwasha, smile), at the commemoration we organised for him and the student movement he led. Here’s information about the upcoming event in Delhi, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day, that I put together for the Aman Ki Asha website.

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Happenings Fahmida Riaz-Delhi-Feb 2019

What: ‘Transcending Boundaries, Defying Taboos:
The Poetry of Fahmida Riaz’

When: Thursday, 14 February 2019, 6.30 pm
Where: India Habitat Centre, Delhi
Who: Open and free to the public
Co-hosted by the PIPFPD and India Habitat Centre.

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Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle
Ab tak kahan chhupey they bhai!

(You have turned out to be just like us
Where were you hiding till now, brothers!)

Fahmida Riaz wrote her prescient poem in 1996 when the BJP first emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. When she recited it nearly twenty years later before an Indian audience in April 201, “it carried a weight equal to the history of South Asia itself” say members of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace & Democracy. Continue reading

Bangladesh #FreeShahidul – my opinion piece in Washington Post yesterday

Shahidul Alam in Central Park, New York, 2012. Photo: Beena Sarwar

The Washington Post published my opinion piece about Shahidul yesterday. Below, a slightly earlier version of the final edited piece for those unable to access WP.

Here’s why Bangladesh made a huge mistake by jailing Shahidul Alam

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