By Tulika Bathija
For the past four months, I have been unable find the words to express my grief over the disappearance of my dear friend, Raza Khan.
When I received the message that Raza was missing, it shook me to the fibre of my being. How was that possible? How could a man who never raises his voice, hardly argues, politely manages disagreements, and has not hurt any living being pose any threat? What would anyone gain from his disappearance?
I am unable to imagine what he might be going through now. Is he cold? Has he eaten? Has he slept? Is he hurt or in any kind of physical pain? I don’t know where he is, but it is important that we all know who Raza is and move heaven and earth to bring him back. If only I could walk across the Wagha border to look for him. If we abandon him at this hour, there is no coming back from that place of darkness.
Raza Khan is the Pakistan Convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti (AED) and the Coordinator of Hum Sub Aik Hain, a registered organization in Pakistan that provides a platform for people to share their dreams and hopes for a peaceful Pakistan across classes and religions. He comes from a humble background and decided to pursue an education in gender studies in his 30s. Social activism, peacebuilding through education and interfaith harmony was his life’s work.
I have known Raza since 2014. We met when I was teaching at an international school in Mumbai. I reached out to AED to connect me with an individual who could put me in touch with educators and schools in Lahore, Pakistan. The person with whom AED's India convener Devika Mittal connected me was Raza. A cross-border letter exchange blossomed into a lifelong friendship. However, it is a deep regret that Raza and I have never met in person. I don’t wish to sound as though I never will, but soon I will, if not beyond the meshed wires, then in another land, one that does not prevent us from meeting, because we are supposed to be enemies and not friends.
I vividly remember the day I sent the Independence Day cards to Lahore through AED. Devika had sent me the contact details of a man named Raza Khan. The address did not have the area code. The school courier person was going to arrive any minute and I was running out of time. I got his number and made an international call to Lahore. He was in a crowded place. Later he told me he had stepped out of his class to take my phone call. I thanked him immensely for working with me on the greeting card exchange project, and he replied, “We are not doing a favour to each other. Both of us are working toward this project because we are passionate about building peace between the two countries.” That was the beginning not of a cross-border alliance to fill our Facebook wall, but a new friendship.
In March 2016, Lahore bled in the aftermath of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal blast, which had killed hundreds, mostly innocent children and their mothers. I contacted Raza to ask if my students could send solidarity cards to their peers in Lahore. Not only did he find a school where the majority of students were from the Christian community that was attacked in this blast, but he also ensured that the cards reached students who had lost siblings and friends in the horrific incident. Raza lauded my efforts, even though he was the one who did the groundwork. He had to seek contacts, build networks, and organize the delivery and distribution of the letters. He would go with his jhola bag, wearing a simple kurta and pajama. He was like Santa Claus but bringing not presents but a bagful of love, hopes and dreams.
It brings him immense joy to move hearts, to provide an education to children that taught them to question and challenge the systems that advocate for hate and animosity. He strongly believes that all children have a right to an education that gives them the freedom to meet new people, bridge barriers and break stereotypes.
As a full time, teacher, I was often very busy and even though I tried my best to make India-Pakistan networking the soul of my career in education, I was never able to do enough. The rigmarole of exams, tests, assessments and unit planning did not allow for many opportunities. It was Raza who ended up steering our future collaborations, who travelled across cities, met all my requests, initiated Skype talks, people-to-people contacts, and sometimes chased me to finalize dates. I have interacted with armchair activists who use oratory and elitist writing to promote peace. But Raza is different. From a humble Urdu/Punjabi speaking background, he rarely focuses on his own accomplishments, instead bringing to fore the voices and faces of Pakistani children, facilitating dialogue from behind the scenes and capturing their stories of friendship.
As Raza and I connected over these projects, we started discussing the role of interfaith harmony. He expressed the belief that if we cannot find a way to restore harmony in our own countries, how could we ever strengthen the ties between India and Pakistan? We discussed the possibility of creating a peace education programme. Raza, ever the visionary, saw the opportunity to construct a platform to facilitate intersecting conversations on interfaith relationships, violence, patriarchy, environmental issues and the role of arts in peace-making. His idea grew into a vibrant space called Lowkey Lokai.
After I moved to Japan we didn’t have the opportunity to work with each other again, but Raza kept the letters alive, exhibited them at influential places in Pakistan, cared for and preserved them. These letters will forever be symbolic of our friendship. He frequently asked about my well-being, my diet and about adjusting to a new country. I had shared with him the loneliness and anxiety of adjusting to a new environment, and he had offered words of comfort. I knew I was never alone, that far away in Lahore this friend would take my phone calls, even in the middle of the night. Whenever I would call him or receive a call, he would, “Good Evening, Kaise hain aap?”, the conversation beginning with his warm Lahori tehzeeb. He sent me wishes on Diwali, inquired after my parents, conveyed his best to my family, and always listened with empathy and compassion. If ever he was unable to take a call he was profusely apologetic. Eating alone at a restaurant in Japan on my birthday, I listened to a beautiful voice message from him.
If something ever happened to me this man would stand with a placard in the streets of Lahore. He would stand up for you if you had a different viewpoint from his.
Raza believes in the power of humanity; loves and cares deeply for people beyond caste, sect, creed, gender, faith and religion. The State, the people of Pakistan, and also the people of India who believe in humanity must fight for Raza’s return from wherever he has been taken. Let us bring him back.