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By Hina Wyne

Lytton Plaza, downtown Palo Alto, was the site this Saturday, May 25th, of the fifth of a series of monthly vigils, organized locally by the Friends of South Asia (FOSA).

The idea of simultaneous monthly peace vigils held around the globe was conceived by peace groups in India and Pakistan. The program of simultaneous vigils calls for peace-loving people all over the world to gather in the name of peace on the same day every month. The hope is that a global effort will help influence the policies of India and Pakistan and shake the rest of the world out of their indifference to a conflict that would directly affect a fifth of humanity and lead to a global catastrophe of the unthinkable proportions. The first of these monthly vigils was held simultaneously on January 27 in 18 cities around the globe. Thousands of people attended the vigils in India, Pakistan and the US. FOSA -- having already held two vigils in the Bay Area for Peace in South Asia -- joined this effort and has been holding monthly vigils since.

Forty-five concerned citizens turned up for this Saturday's vigil. Their somber faces indicated their frustration and their concern about the current increase in tensions, where warmongers in both countries are urging their governments towards a "decisive war". A few attendees at the rally fearfully noted that a disastrous war was in sight, and it would take tremendous courage to avoid the calamity.

Attendees at the May 25th vigil said prayers and listened to speeches and briefings.

Speaking to the participants of the vigil Ali Hasan Cemendtaur said that common people of South Asia have been going through periods of extreme mental torture, living under the the threat of a nuclear war. Their agony results from the incompetence of leadership that cannot resolve issues through dialogue. The leaders of both countries are getting paid for jobs they have shown dismal performance in. Mr. Cemendtaur said he thought it was time to file a lawsuit for criminal negligence against the leaders of India and Pakistan. He noted that even if the courts decide to award a jail sentence of 5 seconds for every person being tormented because of the failure of the inept leadership, it will come out to be a sentence of 91 years and 60 days for Vajpayee, and an equal time for Musharraf.

Also speaking to the crowd, Ashish Chadha pointed out the follies of the BJP Government. He explained how the extremists within the BJP Government are not only against Pakistan, but are also against the Muslims and other religious minorities within India. No sane person, Mr. Chadha said, could doubt that the present government, which is giving India a bad name, is the real enemy of India. He argued that fundamentalist forces within both Pakistan and India do not want to engage with the problems in their own countries-of poverty, of education, of health-and use the rhetoric of war to divert the attention of people from these pressing problems of the common man in both countries. In India the BJP government have consistently followed the politics of hatred and a jingoism of violence-with the only aim being the attainment of political power. The nuclear explosions in 1998 epitomized this attitude and a war with Pakistan will finally destroy the "evil enemy". But in this destruction India will also be destroyed, as a nuclear war will push the subcontinent into the stone age-the dreams of those who fought against the independence movement will go into smoke and both the countries will be left with death, destruction and complete annihilation.

In his speech Sabahat Ashraf said that any political party, any government should know that the bottom line for governance is the well-being of the common people. The principles of the founders of India and Pakistan, the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi and the community feeling of Mohammad Ali Jinnah was being betrayed by the leaders of both countries. Mr. Ashraf said that the people gathered in Palo Alto were themselves very patriotic, very nationalistic Indians, Pakistanis and their well-wishers from South Asia, North America and around the globe. It was their love and friendship for the people of South Asia and not the governments of South Asia that brought them out to protest a situation that only made life worse in a region where illiteracy, poverty, hunger, and disease where the real enemies. He said that inflexible bigots that only believed in hate needed to be spoken against wherever they were and whichever community they were part of.

Indhika Jagaratham, a Tamil from Sri Lanka talked about the peace brokered in her country recently. "People have come to realize that years of fighting have given them nothing but death and destruction. They want to live in peace." She prayed that the people of India and Pakistan would also realize this before reaching the disastrous end the current crisis is inching towards.

Akhila Raman said that India and Pakistan are dangerously close to an all-out war. She pointed out that many Indians and Pakistanis believe that nuclear exchange is a myth and that it would not happen in reality. She said that this is not true; Pakistan has far less conventional weaponry than India and has every incentive to strike first. In fact, she reminded the crowd that former White House aide Bruce Reidel had recently revealed that Pakistan did indeed prepare for nuclear strikes during hostilities over Kargil in '99, acc. to Bruce Riedel, a former White house aide. A nuclear exchange would very be much a reality if war starts.

Ms. Raman went on to say that the damage caused by Nuclear weapons is not localized; radioactive debris from a nuclear missile launched from India on Lahore, which is close to the Indian border can spread back to India and become suicidal for India itself, beside the horrendous destruction it would cause in Pakistan. She said that sane people anywhere in the world must not let this happen.

Kashmir, Ms. Raman said, is the underlying flashpoint and must be resolved with unconditional dialogue between India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris themselves. Kashmir is not a commodity to be bartered between India and Pakistan; it is about people who are bleeding and dying today. They must be included in any dialogue about their future.

Informally speaking to the group afterwards, Professor Ravi Rajan, a veteran activist with years of social action behind him, while appreciating the event, said that it is not enough for people to come to the peace rallies and then not take any further action. If the imminent war is to be averted, people have to be really active. They need to make calls, as well as send faxes and email messages to US government officials and other leaders of the world community demanding that they work hard to prevent a catastrophe and foster peace and prosperity in South Asia.

"Please realize that the lives of millions of your fellow countrymen depend on you. Don't procrastinate. Pick up the phone and make a few calls everyday."

Several of the demonstrators present at the vigil carried homemade signs with slogans such as 'Cowards Make War, the Brave Make Peace'; 'When Governments Go to War, Citizens Die'; and 'No One Wins a Nuclear War.'

FOSA plans to continue its participation in the Global Vigils. The next event is on Saturday, June 29, at Lytton Plaza, Palo Alto. All peace-loving people are encouraged to participate.

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