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|February 19, 1999||
Protests gather momentum in Lahore
Sharat Pradhan in Lahore
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's much publicised visit to Pakistan tomorrow has evoked widespread protests from various organisations and individuals in the West Punjab capital.
While the Jamaat-e-Islami staged demonstrations in different parts of the city, banners have been put up at important junctions by different organisations to protest against the visit.
Demonstrators paraded through the city, raising slogans against the Nawaz Sharief government for "according a reception to those who demolished the Babri Masjid".
Shops and commercial establishments on the famous Mall will keep their shutters down tomorrow to express solidarity with the protestors.
All along the Mall as well as the busy Anarkali market were vehicles displaying protest banners and distributing pamphlets condemning the government for the proposed Indo-Pak summit over the next two days.
While some highlighted the Babri Masjid demolition, others demanded, "First give us Kashmir, then talk to us."
Such is the opposition to Vajpayee's visit that the Pakistan government has been compelled to cancel his sightseeing programme.
The venue for the civic reception for the Indian prime minister has also been changed from a local hotel to the Governor's House in Lahore, where Vajpayee will be staying.
Some Indian journalists were advised by the Lahore police not to move around in the Anarkali market in the old city "because of the prevailing tension".
Kashmir Committee chairman Chaudhary Mohammad Sarwar Khan said in a statement, "Pakistan cannot sacrifice Kashmir for the sake of friendship."
Lashing out at Nawaz Sharief, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's interior minister Naseerullah Khan Babar said, "Only a Punjabi prime minister could take such a step and invite an Indian prime minister at a time when Indian troops are inflicting torture on the innocent Kashmiri people."
The All-Parties Conference in Karachi has urged Sharief to take all parties into confidence before taking any crucial step on key issues like "withdrawal of Indian troops from Kashmir, implementation of UN resolutions for Kashmir, and signing of CTBT on terms set by Pakistan".
The common reaction of a cross-section of people seemed to be closer to the sentiments of the protestors. Observed Rashid Agha, a young bookshop owner, "I am sure no one is happy with the Indian prime minister's visit; what good is it going to do? Nothing."
Farooq, a general merchant, argued, "It is pointless to be holding the summit when India is not willing to hand over Kashmir to us and allow our Kashmiri brethren to live in peace."
Maqsood Khan, a young student, was equally averse to the idea of the Vajpayee-Sharief meeting at Wagah tomorrow. "It's all drama; how can we rely on a Hindu prime minister, whose party got the Babri Masjid pulled down and unleashed untold violence on the Muslims in India?"
Only a section of the elite appears to be looking forward to healthier Indo-Pak ties emerging from the summit.
"It would be wonderful if the two countries began on a clean slate, and agreed to let bygones be bygones," remarked Rahmatullah, a retired professor.
"It's high time we resolved our differences and relaxed rules to allow closer interaction between the people of the two countries; after all plenty of us here have our close relatives across the border, which, despite the proximity, is full of hurdles," said a senior citizen, who refused to be named.
But there are few like them who see an opportunity in Vajpayee's initiative towards paving the way for a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations.
Meanwhile, the city has been spruced up for the event and security intensified to prevent any untoward incident.
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