After overcoming the initial obstacles in South Asia, where, first the Pakistani government denied visas to some Indians, then Indian government delayed permission to those of its citizens who had obtained visas from the Pakistani government to cross the Wagha border on foot, and the biggest disappointment in the form of denial by Pakistani government to permit the caravan to travel the land route through Balochistan, the peace activists assembled in Zahedan after flying into Iran via Tehran. This is where they would have arrived if they had followed the land route from Delhi through India and Pakistan.
Two members of Iranian parliament were there to receive the caravan at Tehran airport when it arrived from India on 8th December at 5 am in the morning. This signalled a positive response to the caravan from the Iranian authorities. The caravan was flagged off from Rajghat in Delhi and finally hit the road in Iran on 9th December, 2010. It went from Zahedan to Kerman, Yazd, Esfahan, Qom before reaching Tehran on 12th December, covering a distance of 1400 kms.
Spontaneous welcome were accorded at airports, several places on roadside in every city and at educational institutions to the caravan. Men, women and children came out to warmly receive the caravan. In Qom, a seat of religious and educational learning, when the caravan reached past midnight it appeared as if the entire city had come out on streets to welcome the caravan. Students on motorcycles criss-crossing and assembled men, women and children made it difficult for the three buses carrying the caravan members to move on the street. The enthusiam of youth, especially, was only to be seen to be believed.
Ummate Waheda, a voluntary organization was the host of caravan in Iran. The young members of this organization, both men and women, were taking care to ensure that the caravan was hosted properly in each city where it stopped on the way. They had organized meetings, roadside receptions, stay and food for the caravan. Its members were travelling with the caravan inside Iran acting as guide and coordinating with local hosts. The etire credit for mobilization inside Iran can be given to them. The media which picked up the story of caravan slowly was highlighting it on the front pages of newspapers and prime time television talk shows by the time it reached Tehran.
It was a coincidence that the period of caravan in Iran coincided with the Moharram, remembrance of martyrdom of Imam Hussain for Shia Muslims, a community which is present in majority here. Since in Iran religion dominates politics and society, there was display of religious emotions associated with Moharram in all public programmes. The spirit of sacrifice of the caravan in approaching Gaza knowing fully well the dangers posed by a belligerant Israel, were immediately related to the martyrdom of the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. So, the caravan with a political message acquired the undertones of religious sentiments.
The University of Sistan and Balochistan in Zahedan, Shahid Bahonar University of Kemran, Esfahan University and Tehran University hosted meetings for the caravan. Mayor of Esfahan and Mayor of Tehran hosted reception for the caravan. Meetings were arranged with Imam Juma, representative of the Supreme religious leader of Iran in Esfahan, Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi and Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli in Qom for the caravan. On the way from Zahedan to Kerman Naroi tribal community hosted a breif reception for the caravan. Hence no segment of the Iranian society wanted to be left behind in welcoming the caravan. At Esfahan, in one of the meetings, a Jewish speaker also got a chance to speak. He condemned the Zionist regime of Israel.
The high point of the caravan was appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in the meeting at Tehran University. He said in his speech that the Palestinian issue is not a question of struggle between Jews and Arabs or Muslims alone but it was a question of human rights violations of an entire population and hence was a global issue on which everyone who is concerned about democracy and human rights must act. He extended warm welcome to the caravan and even hugged caravan members. His simple clothing and down to earth behaviour enthralled everybody. He still continues to live in the government apartment where he used to live as a civil engineering professor before he became the president. His speech was preceded by that of Ashim Roy, one of the Indian organizers of the caravan.
Later the caravan got an opportunity to visit the parliament of Iran, Majlis-e-Shura. Nine members of parliament present were each gifted an autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. Feroze Mithiborwala, another Indian organizer who spoke on the occasion hightlighted the role of Iranian government along with Venezuala in challenging the might of imperialist forces. The Iranian parliament, in a magnanimous gesture donated 115,000,000 Tomans, equivalent to about seventy lakhs (7 million) of Indian rupees, as aid to Gaza to be sent along with the caravan. The money is to come from the Palestine Relief Fund created in Iran and the donations from salaries of members of parliament. Medical-surgical equipment will be bought with this money from Syria before the caravan enters Egypt. Incidentally, Egypt, who has given visas only to Indian members of the caravan has put a condition that it'll allow only 100 members of the aid caravan with every ambulance going as aid. Other nationalities which are represented in this caravan are Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Japan.
Meanwhile, an Israeli website run by a former intelligence official has described the caravan from India as a group of 50 terrorists consisting of left liberals, Islamic extremists and self-proclaimed human rights activists. In response, the Prime Minister of Palestine, Ismail Haniya, has welcomed the caravan. It remains to be seen whether the caravan will be allowed a safe passage to Gaza or would get entangled in a showdown. (CNS)
(Dr Sandeep Pandey is a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee (2002) for emergent leadership, who is a part of the Asia to Gaza peace delegation. He is a member of National Presidium, People's Politics Front (PPF), heads the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and did his PhD from University of California, Berkeley, USA. He taught at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur before devoting his life to strengthening people's movements in early 1990s. He writes for Citizen News Service (CNS) can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.citizen-news.org )