Thirty seven year old Pakistani peace activist Raza Mahmood Khan who had gone ‘missing’ from his residence in Lahore on December 2, 2017, has not surfaced yet despite numerous protests, solidarity statements, editorials, candle-light vigils, Twitter campaigns, and a court case.
It is widely believed, in Pakistani activist circles, that Khan’s abduction or ‘enforced disappearance’ is the handiwork of state security agencies that were miffed with his passionate involvement in the work of building solid people-to-people ties between Pakistani and Indian citizens through a peace initiative named Aaghaz-e-Dosti of which he is the Pakistan Convener. Aaghaz-e-Dosti, which literally means ‘The Beginning of Friendship’, is a joint initiative of Mission Bhartiyam (India) and Hum Sab Aik Hain (Pakistan).
There is no official word of Khan’s whereabouts even as his friends, colleagues, well-wishers and fellow activists in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world continue to work hard to keep his story alive in the public eye. And it looks like they will not give up anytime soon.
One of Khan’s pet projects is the annual Indo-Pak peace calendar that Aaghaz-e-Dosti is publishing for the sixth time, amidst the grief and loss they have been plunged in ever since Khan disappeared. Every year, this calendar features paintings made by children and teenagers from India as well as Pakistan, and is a much cherished symbol of hope for improved relations between both countries.
The paintings that made it to this year’s calendar were selected from a pool of 200 entries that came in from Dehradun, Karachi, Delhi, Lahore, Mumbai, Peshawar, Lucknow, Rahim Yar Khan, Vadodara, Anupshehr, Borgaon and Sadalga. One of the paintings was submitted by an overseas Indian student living in Oman. The first launch event will be held at the India International Centre in Delhi on January 13, 2018, accompanied by a panel discussion titled “Sharing of Hopes for a Peaceful Co-existence”.
“Raza’s disappearance is a disturbing fact,” says Ravi Nitesh, Founder of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, who lives in Delhi. “We all know that anything may happen to any of us, yet we want to say that our work is not against anyone. It is in accordance with the ideology of peace, love, and non-violence. We feel that our actions for peace must speak, and they must not stop in anyway. We are very concerned about Raza, and are hopeful that the government of Pakistan will make every effort to ensure his safe return as soon as possible.”
Atiqa Shahid, who is Acting Pakistan Convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti in Raza’s absence, says, “We are launching this calendar again with great courage to give the message that nothing can stop us, and our objective to spread love and humanity on both sides. This calendar is our resistance against the unjust practices in society. It connects people without any geo-political agenda.” She lives in Lahore.
The call for entries for this calendar required students of grades 8-12 to respond to the theme “Indo-Pak Peace and Friendship”. They had the option to reach out to Aaghaz-e-Dosti on their own, or have their school send in an official entry. The paintings for this year’s calendar were selected before Khan’s enforced disappearance.
Delhi-based Devika Mittal, India Convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, adds, “When I look at the calendar, I only think about Raza, all his ideas and visions for it. But yes, while it does remind me about him, unsettle me as I try to think about where he is, what is he going through at this moment, the calendar is also an important symbol of what he, and we stand for. It is the symbol of his selfless and genuine contribution for a better world.”
The calendar also contains messages from well-known people who have been advocating for peaceful dialogue between India and Pakistan. These include journalist Nirupama Subramanian, sociologist Dr. Anita Weiss, author Anam Zakaria, women’s rights activist Kamla Bhasin, Retd. Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, Retd. Lt. Gen. Muhammad Masood Aslam, journalist Rahul Jalali, author Amardeep Singh, historian Dr. Mubarak Ali, and Awami Workers Party spokesperson Farooq Tariq, among others.
Umair Vahidy, Team Member at Aaghaz-e-Dosti’s Lahore chapter, says, “In one of the paintings selected this year, the word ‘Pakistan’ is written in Hindi, and the word ‘India’ is in Urdu. What follows is the word ‘Zindabad’ in English. This calendar is children’s imagination of a world where there is no enmity between Indians and Pakistanis. There are no religious divides. They stand together, hand in hand. It is the kind of world that Raza dreams of.”