There were several obstacles in South Asia for activists who wanted to travel in a peace caravan to Gaza.
The Asia to Gaza caravan from New Delhi to Gaza is part of the international effort to break the two-year-old blockade of Gaza by Israeli forces. This is probably the first time such an ambitious caravan, through land route, has been planned to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
It was to travel through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Egypt. The caravan plans to reach Gaza on December 27, the anniversary of the blockade.
First the Pakistani government denied visas to some Indians. Then the Indian government delayed permission to those of its citizens who had obtained visas to cross the Wagah border on foot. Then the biggest disappointment was the denial by the Pakistani government to permit the caravan to travel the land route through Balochistan.
But 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 the Iranian parliament were there to receive the caravan at Tehran airport when it arrived from India. 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 December 9. It went from Zahedan to Kerman, Yazd, Esfahan, Qom before reaching Tehran on December 12, covering a distance of 1,400 kilometres.
The caravan was spontaneously welcomed at airports, on the roadside in every city and at educational institutions. 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 and assembled men, women and children made it difficult for the three buses carrying the caravan members to move. The enthusiasm of youth was only to be seen to be believed.
Ummate Waheda, a voluntary organisation, was the host of the caravan in Iran. The young members of this organisation, 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 organised meetings, roadside receptions, stay and food for the caravan.
Its members were travelling with the caravan in Iran acting as guides and coordinating with local hosts. The entire credit for mobilisation in Iran can be credited 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 the caravan travelled through Iran coincided with Moharram, the 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 belligerent 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. The mayors of Esfahan and Tehran hosted receptions 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. On the way from Zahedan to Kerman, the Naroi tribal community hosted a brief reception for the caravan.
No segment of the Iranian society wanted to be left behind in welcoming the caravan. At Esfahan, at 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 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's appearance at the meeting at Tehran University. He said the Palestinian issue is not a question of struggle between the Jews and Arabs or Muslims alone, but it was a question of the 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 a warm welcome to the caravan and 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 President. His speech was preceded by that of Ashim Roy, one of the Indian organisers of the caravan.
Later, the caravan got an opportunity to visit Iran's parliament, the Majlis-e-Shura. Nine members of parliament present were each gifted an autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. Feroze Mithiborwala, another Indian organiser, who spoke on the occasion, highlighted the Iranian government's role along with Venezuela in challenging the might of the imperialist forces.
The Iranian parliament, in a magnanimous gesture donated 11,5000,000 tomans, equivalent to about Rs 70 lakh (Rs 7 million), as aid to Gaza to be sent along with the caravan. The money came from the Palestine Relief Fund created in Iran and the donations are from salaries of MPs. Medical-surgical equipment will be bought with this money from Syria before the caravan enters Egypt.
Incidentally, Egypt, which has given visas only to the Indian members of the caravan, has imposed a condition that it will allow only 100 members of the aid caravan with every ambulance going in as aid. Other nationalities represented in this caravan are Malaysian, Indonesian, Pakistani, Iranian, Azerbaijanan, Bahraini and Japanese.
Meanwhile, an Israeli Web site 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, Palestine Prime Minister Ismail Haniya has welcomed the caravan. It remains to be seen whether the caravan will be allowed a safe passage to Gaza or will be entangled in a showdown.
Image: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad with a young member of the caravan at Tehran University.