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Listening for the concern behind the complaint PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Saturday, 29 April 2017 08:43

Acclaimed educationist and activist Hemlata Prabhu was the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties's Rajasthan unit from 1983 to 1997 and its president in 1997-1998.

On April 23, Rajni Bakshi, author and journalist, delivered the 5th annual Hemlata Prabhu Memorial Lecture in Jaipur. The following is a translated transcription of the lecture:

You are alive
Believe in the triumph of life
If there is a heaven anywhere bring it down to earth.

This verse conveys the resolve, the energy and faith that Hemlata Prabhu embodied.

It is the fragrance and effervescent colours of these qualities that form the essence of this gathering in Miss Prabhu's honour.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the privilege of being involved in various political campaigns where Miss Prabhu was at the helm.

When Rajiv Gandhi's government gave into pressure from orthodox Muslim groups and amended the law to deny divorced Muslim women the right to claim maintenance from their ex-husbands -- we protested against this as a violation of the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution.

When a young women named Roop Kanwar was burnt on her dead husband's pyre in the village of Deorala we protested against this crime and those who sought to glorify sati.

In 1990 as the Ram Janambhoomi campaign began to gather momentum across Rajasthan Miss Prabhu led our motley group of human rights activists in a campaign to advocate communal harmony.

But looking back I realise that the biggest gift I got from Miss Prabhu was how she defined and celebrated a term that has now become fraught with controversy -- azaadi (freedom).

I have vivid memories of the depth of feeling with which she recalled her memories of 15th August 1947: 'Ah, what a joy it was to be young and celebrate the joy of and passion for freedom!'

When she said this Miss Prabhu was not just feeling proud of liberation from British rule she was revelling in the promise of azaadi as a harbinger of a society based on equality, justice and compassion.

She inspired us to see India's Independence not as a moment in history but as a dimension of our collective consciousness -- as an ongoing resolve, as the basis for a ceaseless striving.

So what now, in 2016, is the challenge for all those who cherish this liberal resolve and are committed to living by it?

How should we live in a time of increasingly bitter polarisation -- of Hindutva versus Secular -- or at times violently competitive notions of nationalism?

Citizens for Peace, a small Mumbai-based group of which I am a trustee, have been pondering these questions for over ten years.

Our quest for answers has led us to initiate dialogues with people from diverse backgrounds -- scholars as well as activists representing religious and caste-based groups as well as different political orientations.

These interactions have taught us that direct confrontation between opposing views does not resolve conflicts. But a different and fruitful chemistry comes into play when there is a willingness to look for and listen to the concern behind our opponent's complaint.

On the face of it, this may seem absurd.

You could say that listening for the anxiety and fears behind the hate and anger that led to the murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 would not have saved his life.

This seems even more starkly true in relation to the exhibitionist brutality of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other terrorist groups.

Yes, there do seem to be groups and individuals whose worldview and actions are driven by hatred so severe that nothing less than obliterating the 'other' will satisfy them.

But as Vinoba Bhave often said such people tend to be a miniscule minority at one far end of the spectrum of humanity.

At the opposite end are mystics and saints -- Buddha, Jesus, Kabir, Gandhi. The overwhelming majority of human beings fall in the middle of this spectrum and tend to be swayed towards either pole -- depending on the circumstances and mental climate of their times.

It is within this vast majority that listening for the concern behind the complaint can work wonders.

We live in a time when hideous anger easily flares up, particularly on identity-related issues.

This happens not just on social media and television shows designed as spectacle but within families, at work-places, among friends.

Often advocates of harmony and compassion fall victim to the same anger and end up hating the 'haters'!

This changes the moment we are able to turn the slanging match into a conversation. Our limited experience in Citizens for Peace has shown that this begins to happen the moment you ask the other person what is really bothering them, what is it that they really fear.

More often than not you may find that there is agreement on a fundamental truth -- respect for the life and dignity of all.

Even when this elementary humanism gets obscured and people in our lives seem in the grip of hatred this state may be a temporary phase. It cannot remain a permanent state if empathic listening nurtures spaces that are more inviting and healing.

Anger and hatred are draining, sapping emotions and ideologies based on them are inevitably degenerative.

The strongest way of celebrating Miss Prabhu's definition of azaadi as equality and dignity for all is to constantly remember that this way lies joy and a fulfilling life.

Rajni Bakshi is a Trustee of Citizens for Peace. She is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi among other books.

 
Growth or Secularism: A False Choice PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 19 April 2014 05:43
In the final lap of the Lok Sabha election campaign many contenders and
political commentators are claiming that voters have to choose between
growth and secularism.

This is a false claim. Why then, does the idea of a stark ‘choice’
between economic growth or secularism appear to be so compelling
to a wide range of people?

Firstly, the idea of growth and its mechanics are not closely examined.

Secondly, it is assumed that a more decisive and forceful Prime Minister
will work an economic miracle.

Thirdly, therefore it is worthwhile to compromise on secularism which
many view as being a sham in any case.

To further complicate the matter, growth is seen as something tangible
while secularism is treated as a fussy idea, or worse a political ploy,
cynically deployed by both BJP and Congress.

How then might voters resolve their polling day dilemma?
First and foremost it is vital to be clear that growth vs. secularism is a decoy. What is actually at stake is the core principle of a truly democratic polity –namely, the primacy of foundational principles and values over the mechanics of how goods, services and livelihoods are generated.

This is why Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly emphasized that true swaraj depends on each person, and society as a whole, honoring ‘dharma’. By using the term dharma Gandhi was not referring to a particular religion or sect but to the philosophical and moral markers which show us the path of righteousness – the basis of a society worth living in.

If that sounds too lofty we can just focus on the key markers of right action as enshrined in the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Article 15(1) makes it incumbent on the State to be religion neutral. This article prohibits the State from discriminating against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Even more importantly, section two of the same article implies that citizens cannot deny each other access to public spaces on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth.

In its most elementary form, this is what secularism means. This text book truth needs to be highlighted because over the past three decades secularism has come to be seen as a political ploy. Political parties of various hues have, from time to time, failed to be ‘dharmanirpeksha’ or religion neutral. At the level of everyday life citizens have in many cases rejected and violated the value of creative co-existence of different faiths or ‘sarva dharma sambhav’.

These inadequacies or failures do not undermine the soundness of the principle and the need to keep striving for a secular polity.

It is being suggested that India is now in such dire straits that as an emergency measure economic imperatives must be given priority over foundational principles of society.This argument is profoundly flawed.

Since the late 1980s it has been widely acknowledged that GNP growth by itself is not a valid measure of a nation’s material or social well being. Even the promise of ‘inclusive growth’ can be a chimera since higher incomes do
not necessarily lead to higher quality of life in terms of improved housing, education, health care and leisure time.

Even as a means to an end growth is important only if it is defined and measured in terms which include not just monetized goods and services but also sustainability of both nature’s eco-systems and the social fabric.

The worthwhile goal is economic democracy not growth per say. At the very least economic democracy is about fair and open access to social facilities and productive resources. But above all, it is about the promise of dignity for
all – the promise enshrined in Article 15.

An economy can grow exponentially with vast concentrations of power which may increase jobs but actually dis-empower the overwhelming majority because a handful of people call the shots in both the economic and political
sphere. There are complicated structural flaws that are preventing Indian society and economy from the goal of ‘sarvodaya’, well-being for all. Let us be wary of tall claims that a decisive leader can provide a quick fix.

Like much of life elections don’t offer easy or ideal choices. Voters in many constituencies may find that there is no candidate on their ballot paper whom they can fully trust. But here is a litmus test for choosing between competing
imperfection.

Reject any candidate or party that gives primacy to expediency over foundational principles – such as asking you to put growth above secularism. Instead, let us go to the polling stations with the conviction that we can only build a sustained prosperity on the sound principle of equal respect for all and dignity for all regardless of caste, religion, language or regional affinity.
--
Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on
Global Relations. She is also a Trustee of Citizens for Peace.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 July 2014 09:39
 
APPEAL TO INDIAN VOTERS PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Friday, 18 April 2014 08:03

 

Dear Fellow-Indians,

The best thing about our country is its cultural diversity, its
pluralism – the co-existence of a number of religions and ethnicities
over centuries, and hence the blooming of multiple streams of intellectual
and artistic thought. And, this has been possible only because Indian societ
y
has prided itself on being essentially secular in character, rejecting
communal hatred, embracing tolerance.

Today, that very sense of India is vulnerable. The need of the hour is to
protect our country’s secular foundation. Undoubtedly, corruption
and governance are important issues, but we will have to vigilantly work
out ways of holding our government accountable to that.


However, one thing is clear: India's secular character is not negotiable!
Not now, not ever.

As Indian citizens who love our motherland, we appeal to you to vote for
the secular party, which is most likely to win in your constituency.


Jai Hind!

Yours

Imtiaz Ali (Writer-Director: Highway, Jab We Met)

Vishal Bhardwaj (Writer-Director: Omkara, Maqbool)

Govind Nihalani (Director: Tamas, Ardh Satya)

Saeed Mirza (Director: Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai)

Zoya Akhtar (Writer-Director: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara)

Anand Patwardhan (Documentary Film-maker: Jai Bhim Comrade)

Vijay Krishna Acharya ‘Victor’ (Director: Dhoom 3)

Kabir Khan (Director: Ek Tha Tiger)

Kundan Shah (Director: Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro)

Nandita Das (Director-Actress: Firaaq, Fire)

Hansal Mehta (Director: Shahid)

Anjum Rajabali (Writer: Raajneeti, Satyagraha)

Akshat Verma (Writer: Delhi Belly)

Shubha Mudgal (Singer-Musician)

Anusha Rizvi (Filmmaker: Peepli Live)

Swara Bhaskar (Actor: Raanjhana, Tanu Weds Manu)

Aditi Rao Hydari (Actor: Murder 3, Rockstar)

Pubali Chaudhuri (Writer: Kai Po Che, Rock On!!)

Mahesh Bhatt (Director-Producer: Saaraansh, Jannat)

Anil Mehta (Cinematographer: Lagaan, Jab Tak Hai Jaan)

Saket Chaudhary (Writer-Director: Shaadi Ke Side Effects)

Rakesh Sharma (Documentary Film-maker: Final Solution)

Vinay Shukla (Writer-Director: Godmother)

Robin Bhatt (Writer: Chennai Express, Krish 3)

Aneesh Pradhan (Tabla Maestro)

Sanjay Chhel (Writer: Rangeela, Yes Boss)

Sameer Anjan (Lyricist: Dhoom 3, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai)

Imteyaz Husain (Writer: Parinda)

Rajesh Dubey (TV Writer: Balika Vadhu)

Vinod Ranganath (TV Writer: Shanti, Swaabhiman)

Jalees Sherwani (Lyricist: Dabang)

Danish Javed (Lyricist and Poet)

Amitabh Shukla (Film Editor: Chak De India)

Sukant Panigrahi (Art Director)

Surabhi Sharma (Documentary Film-maker)

Anusha Khan (Producer)

Bishwadeep Chatterjee (Sound Designer: 3 Idiots)

C.K. Muraleedharan (Cinematographer: 3 Idiots)

Dr. Manasee Palshikar (Screenwriter-Teacher)

Jyoti Dogra (Actor)

Joy Sengupta (Actor)

Kauser Munir (Lyricist: Dhoom 3)

Mazahir Rahim (Screenwriter)

Nishant Radhakrishnan (Film Editor: Satyamev Jayate)

Preety Ali (Producer)

Priyanka Borpujari (Screenwriter)

Rajashree (Writer-Filmmaker)

Manjushree Abhinav (Novelist-Filmmaker)

Prayas Abhinav (Artist-Teacher)

Ruchika Oberoi (Film-maker)

Rukmini Sen (Screenwriter and TV Journalist)

Sameera Iyengar (Theatre activist)

Sharad Tripathi (Screenwriter)

Shivani Tibrewala Chand (Playwright)

Simantini Dhuru (Filmmaker-Activist)

Sona Jain (Film-maker)

Tushar Gandhi (Activist)

Teesta Setalvaad (Activist)

Javed Anand (Activist)

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 18 April 2014 08:14
 
Why I won't vote BJP - by Dilip D'Souza PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Tuesday, 08 April 2014 06:05

The pity is, I actually think our constituency has a good politician
from the BJP. If he ever runs for parliament, my opinion of him, by
itself, would tempt me to vote for him. Yet I cannot forget: he is
from the BJP. Much as I'm also tempted by the logic that we must
sometimes look at the candidate and not the party, I know this like
the back of my hand: I will not vote for this party.

The pity is, too, that any party that presides over the plethora of
scams of the last few years deserves no less than to be flung out of
power. I mean the Congress, of course.

And even so, I won't vote BJP. They have done too much to turn away
too many people like me. Perhaps they don't care, but that's the way
it is.


To start, there's the obsession with the Ram temple. Every time we
hear that times have changed and young Indians aren't interested in
this tired old nag of an issue, somebody in the BJP will announce that
building that temple is on their agenda. Whether India is afflicted
with scams, or still widespread poverty, or poor primary education --
whatever it is, the BJP returns, every time, to that lazy way to ask
for votes: champion the Ram temple. Sure enough, it appears in their
newest manifesto too. If you had to judge solely from the several
decades that the BJP has demanded it -- luckily, you don't -- this
temple is this country's highest priority. It must take singularly
warped minds to hold tight to this warped vision for India for so
long.

On from there is the way the BJP and fans label anyone remotely
critical as "anti-Hindu". A good example is a "List of Anti-Hindu
Personalities and their intricate connections" that's made the rounds
for years. (Full disclosure: I'm on the list). This marvel of
convoluted paranoia and illogic would be laughable if so many people
didn't appear to take it so seriously. Like: Among many places you'll
find it on the web is LK Advani's own site, lkadvani.in, where it has
resided since before our previous Lok Sabha election.

I know why these lists are made. "Anti-Hindu" is a surer way to get
people's bile up, after all, than a mere "anti-BJP". (Similar are the
labels "Pakistani agent", "Italian origin" etc). It's also a lazy way
to argue, used when bereft of anything more substantial. And in this
case, it's hilarious to note that also on the list are the relatively
recent BJP inductees Udit Raj and Subramanian Swamy. "Anti-Hindu
Personalities": that's you, kind sirs.

On from there ... I could go on, with plenty more reasons not to vote
BJP. Among them, their unwillingness to see justice done for horrific
crimes. Above all, though, I believe their politics demean India.

I believe we have the people, the talents and the passions in this
country to take on the world. But the BJP chooses instead to
systematically turn Indian against Indian. This applies to the
"anti-Hindu" label, it applies to the lies and suspicion directed at
critics, it applies to episodes of murderous violence left to fester.

For me, all this is unforgivable.

And when you call them on it, the BJP's supporters have only this
particularly brainless response: "But the Congress also does crappy
things."

Well yes, it does. In fact, crappiness from the Congress was the
reason this country grew repulsed by that party in the first place.
But when they came to power, the BJP turned out to be no different,
and in many ways even worse. (To my knowledge, not even the Congress
holds on to lists of "Anti-Hindu Personalities.")

That's where plenty of us are today: left with no national political
alternative to choose from. I'm talking about the plenty of us who
live ordinary Indian lives, pay our Indian taxes, obey Indian laws. I
mean Indians who care what kinds of lives our fellow Indians --
indeed, our fellow humans -- live, because it's as simple as John
Donne once explained: no man is an island and any man's suffering
diminishes us all. I mean Indians who want to see India wise, strong
and compassionate, a force for good on a violent, fractured planet.

Our great dilemma is that on fundamental counts like these, our two
major political parties have failed us.

I won't shy away from the challenge this dilemma poses, for when I
head for the voting booth. But it does also leave me with this
certainty: I won't vote for the BJP.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 April 2014 06:10
 
Tribute PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Saturday, 28 December 2013 00:00

Citizens for Peace mourns the loss of a dear friend and crusader for peace and justice.

Farooque Shaikh will be missed and his spirit will be celebrated forever.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2013 05:27
 
Mushawarat condemns the cowardly attack on the Mahabodhi temple in Gaya PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Monday, 08 July 2013 07:25

All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat

New Delhi, 7 July, 2013: The All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, the umbrella body of
Indian Muslim organisations, condemned the terror attack on the Mahabodhi temple in
Gaya this morning.

AIMMM President Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan described the attack as cowardly and utterly
inhuman. He sent his condolences to the Mahabodhi temple priests and to the Buddhist
community at home and abroad and wished a quick recovery to the innocents injured in
the terrorist attack. He said we have all the goodwill for our Buddhist brothers and sisters
and want the best of relations with them all over the world.

Dr Khan condemned the “Mayanmar angle” which has been quickly propped up by some
politicians and mediamen, saying there is no indication that there is any call or urge that
innocents in our country should be attacked for the crime of a few misguided persons in
another country.

Dr Khan asked the national media to desist from irresponsible, wild and hasty speculation
that the so-called “Indian Mujahidin” is behind the attack. Media should behave in a responsible
manner and allow the security and intelligence expert do their work without pressure to
come up with quick results without proper investigations.


Dr Khan said the investigating agencies should probe with an open mind as we have
seen umpteen innocent Muslim youths framed up in previous incidents which were later
proved to be the doing of misguided Hindutva ultras. He said investigating agencies
should probe the beneficiaries from such terror attack in the present political scenario in
the country, especially in the state of Bihar.

-------------------------------------------------------

ALL INDIA MUSLIM MAJLIS-E-MUSHAWARAT

[Umbrella body of the Indian Muslim organisations]

D-250, Abul Fazal Enclave, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi-110025  India

Tel.: 011-26946780  Fax: 011-26947346

Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it   Web: http://www.mushawarat.com/

Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan, editor Milli Gazette was one of the key speakers
at the PeaceTalks Identity Conference. To watch part of the film click here
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylnUNiBcjrI

Last Updated on Monday, 08 July 2013 07:44
 
Riots, violence and the power of perception PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator   
Thursday, 19 September 2013 05:58

Ali Khan Mahmudabad's reflections on the Muzzaffarnagar violence.


http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/counterflows/entry/riots-violence-and-

the-power-of-perception


Ali was a participant at one of CfP's workshops on Identity.


At CfP, we are struggling to address the underlying causes of violence, and believe

that all change must start with ourselves…


There is no way to write a history of violence. Perhaps the only thing

that can be analysed, however incompletely, is the context in which

the violence takes place. Unfortunately, this approach too has major

shortcomings, not from the point of view of an analyst or academic but

from the point of view of those who are affected by the violence. Part

of the reason for this is that in the arguments over religious identity,

socio-economic backwardness, ideology, political machinations, the

numbers of people killed, or injured, caste configurations, the importance

of class and money, the individuality of the victims are forgotten or

subsumed into a narrative that does not seek to truly address the issue

but just to further its own particular cause: nationalism, liberalism, secularism,

Islam, Hinduism- you take your pick. In trying to write the history of violence,

often the history of the future of the individual is silenced. The biggest tragedy

and injustice is that those who die, suffer or are uprooted are denied their

talents, denied their future.


Recently a town called Muzaffarnagar in Northern India has been torn

apart by what is labeled Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence. Many people

are outraged but sadly, behind a lot of the outrage are the calculations

of people who already know how they want to view what happened.

Therefore the sad fact is that the conversation about who is culpable,

who started the violence and who patronised it can never end.


With the kind of technology available today, which of course has so

many benefits, fake photos, videos and other material goes viral on

the Internet. This has been the case in Muzaffarnagar and no one

particularly cares for the truth but only how they can benefit from

what happened. On the other hands there are hundreds of photos

depicting the mass migration of entire villages, of frightened and teary

faces of little girls and boys, of those who survived horrific injuries and

of those who have been affected in some way. The problem then is of

how we view these photographs and therefore the people depicted in

them. The wider issue becomes one of what language to use to talk about

them. When you see two young sisters holding hands in the middle of crowd,

separated from their families, do you see Muslims, Hindus, Jats, Shias,

Sunnis, Dalits, Christians, Buddhists?


Language is ultimately the site of philosophy and therefore everyday we

consciously or unconsciously make existential choices about our beliefs,

our politics, and our bodies even. Philosophy might be talked about as

the hallowed preserve of old men sitting in ivory towers but in essence

we all partake in philosophical conversation every day.  The real test

therefore is to question our presuppositions, our pre-commitments and

ourselves before we pass judgment. Ultimately of course it is not about

passing judgment but about understanding.


One thing that appears particularly striking about the victims of violence

is how they talk about themselves and this is bourne out by the testimonies

and experiences of victims from across the world whether they are in India,

Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Rwanda, Korea, Japan, America,

Russia or indeed any other country. Almost inevitably the loss which people

suffer is expressed as the loss of a brother, a sister, a husband, a wife, a father,

a mother, a son, a daughter, a neighbor or a friend and not as that of an Indian,

a Hindu, a Muslim, a tailor or a barber. It is ironic that even those who seek to

twist the suffering of others to suit their own agendas end up talking at the level

of the individual: at the level of the personal. So for instance the much-touted

slogan of a recent political rally, held in the same area that has experienced

violence, used the slogan ‘bahu-beti bachao’ or save our daughters-in-law and

daughters in order to make the issue one of community pride.


There are no quick fixes and easy solutions to resolve situations in which violence

spirals out of control and those that are offered are often with an ulterior motive in

mind or are so abstract and vague that they cannot translate into anything tangible.

However, the one thing that is possible is that as individuals we can look inwards

and interrogate our own views and ideas. The way in which we view others is perhaps

one of the few things over which we do have complete autonomy, no matter what

extraneous factors exist. So even though it is claimed that identities are inherently

antagonistic, this conflict is borne out of our own gaze.


One of the intriguing things about America is that when lives are lost in warfare

or ‘terrorist’ attacks the victims are always talked about in great detail. Their

relationships, their lives, their pasts, even the place where they bought coffee

are highlighted. Whether this is cynical propaganda or not is irrelevant. What is

important is that it helps others view the victim as no different from themselves.


Similarly, while sitting in a bus or train when two strangers speak, in itself an act

of trust and sadly an increasingly rare thing in today’s segmented world, they try

and establish common ground: perhaps a language, a country, a religion or

something very mundane even, like a common destination or a shared experience

like waiting for late buses.


Differences are inevitable, even within families, but these are embraced

because ultimately it is what is shared that matters. The question then that

we face everyday is whether we set out in order to determine difference and

therefore create distance or to seek out similarities and therefore establish trust.

Even in the most bleak of times there is always hope, provided we seek it out.

Amidst the tragic events in Muzaffarnagar, a few Muslim families decided to stay

on in their village despite most others having decided to leave. These people are

being protected by their neighbors who happen to be Hindu. Amongst the

people who stayed behind are 80 year old Nizamuddin and his wife Nabiyan who

said “even if our neighbors want to kill us, we will not say anything. We have

shared Diwali and Eid together. These Hindus are nothing less than my brothers.”

Last Updated on Thursday, 19 September 2013 06:14
 
Two Roads Parted in the Woods PDF Print E-mail
Written by Priyesha Nair   
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 13:10
Citizens for Peace condemns the killing of Mahendra Karma and his team.
We mourn the continuing cycle of violence that has plagued the people
of Chattisgarh, as well as
surrounding states. We appeal for the strengthening
of efforts to find
both peace and justice in this region.

Re-published below is a moving article by the Gandhian activist
Himanshu Kumar, about his long standing friendship with Mr. Karma. Himanshuji,
who worked in this area for 17 areas, has spoken on our PeaceTalks platform on the
complexity of this problem.

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL51421AFBDBEC0155

Two Roads Parted in the Woods
by Himanshu Kumar

I first met Mahendra Karma in 1992. We had organised a training programme
for farmers at our NGO, Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, in Kanwalnar village in Dantewada,
which was still part of Madhya Pradesh then. Karmaji came over and spoke to the
farmers. I became his admirer in my very first meeting with him. He was a very good orator.
I have never heard anyone employ the Gondi language as powerfully as he did. I learned
a lot from his use of the language.

At the time, Karmaji did not have an official position. He had a lot of free time. We spent a
lot of our time together. He borrowed and read nearly every book in my personal library.
He showed an immense interest in the working of our organisation. He often attended our
meetings, too. Subsequently he became the head of the district panchayat. Our friendship
deepened. Karmaji often called me to his office to seek my views on various matters of policy.
When elections were called Karmaji became an independent member of parliament. Later he
became an MLA and the jail minister in the cabinet of then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister
Digvijay Singh.

Meanwhile, a movement was launched to demand that Dantewada be made a separate district.
Mahendra Karma was the chairman of the committee set up for the struggle and I was made its
secretary. Later I piloted the programme where Dantewada was made a district. After that, the
entire administration came down toour ashram. We had a meeting where we discussed all the
then existing problems of Dantewada district and their likely solutions.

When Chhattisgarh became a separate state in November 2000 Mahendra Karma became
its industry minister. My friendship with Karmaji was getting ever deeper. The administration
would nominate me to every committee in the district. So much so that BJP leaders started
calling me a Congress man.

In 2003, the BJP won the assembly elections. Karmaji became the leader of the opposition
in the assembly. We were still friends as before. He would often talk with me about the
BJP’s communalism. I gave him Prabhash Joshi’s book, “Hindu Hone Ka Dharma”
(The Dharma of being a Hindu), to read.

As industry minister, he had told me that he was going to invite the industrial houses
of Mittals and Jindals for mining in the Bailadila area to bring development. Karmaji told
me that he would ask the industrialists to begin by building a township in Bijapur district,
which is to the west of Dantewada, so that it, too, can develop.

In 2005 Mahendra Karma had a word with me when the Salwa Judum, a militia of the tribals
to counter the Naxals, was being started. It was possibly only a coincidence, but a dangerous
one nonetheless, that the Salwa Judum was to be started in the same Bijapur where licenses
were given out for mining. Karmaji told me that tribal villagers were planning a rally against
the Naxals and he was going to join it. He said that I, too, should participate in it. I told him
that I am always in solidarity with the people and if they are against the Naxals then I would
stand with them. But I said I would join the rally only if it was free of weapons because I just
cannot participate in a movement that has weapons in it.

Mahendra Karma assured me that the rally would be without any weapons. I asked if his
bodyguards would be there. Mahendra Karma had been given Z category security and 55
commandos were always with him. I know this figure because every time he visited our
ashram I would be asked to count how many cups of tea needed to brewed. I had to count
all the people with him.

Karmaji told me that his bodyguard would indeed be present with him and that Chhattisgarh
Chief Minister Raman Singh had said he would send the police to provide security at the
public meeting. Upon learning that I declined to participate in the rally.
In a few days news
of violence began to come in. I still kept quiet. Now various human rights activists and national
and international journalists began visiting ourashram to investigate the role of the
Salwa Judum. Binayak Sen, Balagopal, Nandini Sundar, Ramchandra Guha, Harivanshji and
many others visited our ashram and subsequently published their reports on the Salwa Judum.
Mahendra Karma and I continued to meet each other. But we did not talk as openly as before.
Although I hadn’t yet publicly spoken out against the Salwa Judum.

Around that time Vanvasi Chetna Ashram started working with UNICEF.
That was when Salwa Judum men attacked our workers for the first time. They kidnapped
our volunteers and thrashed them badly. That was when I spoke against the Salwa Judum
for the first time publicly. By now, the tribal people had begun coming to us to seek help.
Most incidents were about the police murdering tribals, or kidnapping and raping tribal
women. We wrote to the government on these matters. But the government did not take
any action. So we started approaching the courts. We had now begun speaking out against
the Salwa Judum in the news media even though Mahendra Karma was its leader.

Karmaji, too, had now obliquely started attacking me. Any time we came face to face we still
talked to each other but only about our children. He doted on my two daughters. His young
daughters would often drop by at our ashram to play there. His wife, Devti, too, would visit
often to meet with my wife, Veena. Karmaji continued to borrow books from me. But we had
stopped talking politics altogether.

Then in 2009 the state government demolished our ashram. We tried to continue ourwork
through a rented house. I wrote to the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and invited
him to visit Dantewada to hold a hearing on the atrocities being committed on the tribals.
This greatly troubled the state government and Mahendra Karma. The police began to put our
workers into the prison, or threaten them with murder. On my last day in Dantewada one of
my volunteers came to me and said that Mahendra Karma was sitting in the office of the
district collector and screaming that he wanted freedom from Himanshu Kumar right away.
The volunteer told me that I would be killed that night. Immediately thereafter that worker
fled Dantewada with his wife and daughter. Within a half hour of that the police attacked
his house and, among others, took away the motorcycle that the ashram owned and that
was parked outside.

I thought about all this for long. I realised that if I died that night it would be of no profit to
the tribals. My coworkers were in prison. I was fighting court cases on behalf of so many
tribals. That night I jumped the wall in the backyard and escaped into the forest. The police
had surrounded the entire house. I somehow reached the main road. A taxi was waiting for
me there. I sat in it and left for Delhi. Since then I have not gone back to Dantewada that
had been my home for 17 years.

Mahendra Karma’s killing today has revived my memories of the time I had spent
with him. His ambition and his fears had forced him to get caught in a trap that Raman
Singh had laid for him. In 2005 the police had been closing in on him over his alleged
role in an illegal sale of teak wood from the forests. He had faced imminent arrest. It was
to escape that and the subsequent ignominy that he gave in to Raman Singh’s demand
that he head the Salwa Judum. I may or may not have agreed with whatever Mahendra Karma
did, but I must concede that he always impressed me with his intelligence and courage.

I am deeply saddened by his killing today. I bid farewell to my loving friend with a heavy heart.

(Translated into English by Ajit Sahi)
First Published in http://tehelka.com/two-roads-parted-in-the-woods/
Last Updated on Saturday, 06 July 2013 06:40
 
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