Women's initiative for peace

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Notwithstanding their personal loss and trauma, several riot-affected women from Gujarat converged at a women's meet in Rajasthan to express their overwhelming desire for peace and communal harmony.

EVEN though we as a nation and people cannot look squarely at ourselves as parts of Gujarat continue to simmer, there are faint rays of hope that we need to turn to and take strength from. A meeting on the theme "Women for Peace" that was held in Rajasthan from June 23 to 25 was one such event that raised hopes. The three-day meeting, initiated by Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, was held on the campus of the Social Work and Research Centre at Tilonia, Ajmer district. A response to the communal carnage in Gujarat, the meeting was aimed at affirming the voice of secularism, peace and humanism. It was convened also to help prevent the spread of communalism in Rajasthan. Since women suffer the effects of communalism in diverse ways, and are particularly victimised during communal riots as happened in Gujarat, they have a key role to play in opposing communalism.

The meeting was attended by around 1,000 rural women members from various local organisations in different parts of Rajasthan as well as activists, writers and academicians from within the State and outside. Also present was a group of 25 women from various relief camps in Ahmedabad. Their arrival was a poignant moment. They were received with much love by the assembled women who embraced each one of them, knowing that they too had suffered much during the riots. The pain suffered by these women was there for all to see and feel. Most of them were crying when they related what had happened to them and the difficult circumstances that they were currently living under. Listening to their stories, many other women also started crying. These first-hand experiences from Gujarat conveyed, more than anything else, what the end result of communal hatred could be.

Women hold placards with messages that appeal for peace and communal harmony at a silent peace rally at Kishangarh in Rajasthan. One of the placards reads, "prem se kaho hum insan hai (say with love that we are human)".-BELA BHATIA

In spite of their personal adversities, these women from Gujarat displayed extraordinary courage. Over and over again they pleaded that what had happened to them should not happen to anyone else. Not revenge, but understanding, love and peace was what they craved for. As Saiyyad Irshad, 16 years old, told the gathering: "A lot of pain has been inflicted upon us, but instead of crying we have to have the courage to rebuild our lives." Yet it was not going to be easy for most of them or for the others back in the camps. The trauma, the pain and the loss were now part of their daily lives. Learning to love again, trust again and hope again would be a struggle. As conveyed by Jaibunisha, who lost 19 members of her family: "How can I trust them again? I am dead even though alive. I live only because I have to, for my children."

In a related testimony, Aarti Sahni of Sathin Union, Ajmer, recalled the pain that her family had to go through after their house was burnt down in Kashmir many years ago, forcing them to leave. But she too said that she did not have any feelings of revenge. The people of Kashmir, she said, continued to suffer in many ways, and an attempt should be made to resolve the existing stalemate by consulting them.

Plenary meetings and group discussions were held on various aspects of communalism, ranging from the role of communal violence in diverting attention from real social problems to various ways of overcoming communalism. Aruna Roy emphasised the need to deal with the problem of communalism in a holistic manner. Communalism, she said, was one of the several related forces which included globalisation, militarisation and casteism, which threatened to undermine India's democratic and political framework and affect the lives of ordinary people in numerous ways.

Historian Uma Chakravarty spoke about how women were used as symbols, targets and participants of communal violence. She argued that women would have to fight against all forms of violence because different kinds of violence were closely linked. For example, domestic violence and communal violence were linked because men who are violent outside the home are likely to bring that violence inside and vice-versa. Dunu Roy of Sajha Manch, Delhi, observed that while the communal forces were gathering strength, the already small space that non-governmental organisations and autonomous movements had occupied was shrinking.

Kavita Srivastava, who had just returned from another peace event in Ayodhya, explained that many people there had turned against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad because its communal programme had played havoc with people's daily lives - causing the displacement of local residents for security reasons, disrupting the local economy, reducing the flow of traditional pilgrims, and undermining the town's tradition of communal harmony.

A recurring theme was the meaning of dharm (religion) and its role in human life and society. It was observed that no religion preaches hate or encourages interpersonal animosity, and that daya (compassion) was a principal teaching of all faiths. Manavta or insaniyat (humanity) was the most basic human value that had to be held above separate religious identities. Some of the participants felt that manav dharm, which is manifested in a concern for all human beings, was more important than religious ritual. "What use is it going to Kashi or Mecca if we do not first feed the hungry or quench the thirst of those who are thirsty?", asked Suhana from Ahmedabad. Pointing out the many positive roles of dharm in people's lives, Lal Singh, an activist of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, observed: "dharm dharm ke beech ki ladai hi adharm hai (the fight between religions is itself anti-religious)".

Another person, who is trying to put into practice his belief in manav dharm is Bhanwar Meghvanshi. Bhanwar, who is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, spoke of how he had become disillusioned with the RSS after experiencing caste-based discrimination within the organisation. After this experience, he drifted across a whole range of religious and political organisations and was disillusioned with all of them as none was really committed to social equality. He said that Dalits had often been manipulated into participating in communal violence and that it was important that they distance themselves from communal forces. Echoing Bhanwar's sentiment, Norti Devi, a 55-year-old Dalit activist of the Mazdoor Kisan Morcha, pointed out that the poor would have to organise and fight the communal forces unitedly, for ultimately it was the poor on both sides who suffered. Instead of fighting with each other, the poor should fight for their basic democratic rights.

AS part of the meet, various creative activities were organised, which expressed through action the same themes that had been taken up for discussion. For example, on the night of the second day, women from Gujarat stood in a row with lit candles, from which all the other participants lit their own candles. Soon, the place was beautifully lit by a thousand candles. It was almost as though the plea of the women from Gujarat, that whatever happened to them should never happen to anybody else, was no more a plea but a resolve.

There were several songs and plays too, which emphasised similar themes. "Where could one find God? - not in temples or mosques but among fellow human beings," went one song. Another song echoed the same sentiment: "Mandir bhi le lo, masjid bhi le lo, magar tum hamare lahu se na khelo (you may take the temple and the mosque, but do not play with our blood)". Other songs drew on Rajasthani folk traditions such as renditions of Kabeer's verses by musicians from Barmer - the famous Kabeer bhajan "jiya joon jal thal mai data, jyan dekhu tu hi tu" was sung with much vigour. Besides songs, there were several slogans that emphasised the need for more love and humanism in our society: "Hamara nara: aman, ekta, bhaichara (peace, unity and sisterhood, such is our motto); prem, insaniyat ho aadhar, aisa rachenge ham sansar (we will give shape to a world which is based on love and humanism)".

How easy it is to look for differences and miss similarities! This was proved when blood tests of more than a hundred women were carried out. Much to their amazement, the women realised that blood groups could differ not only within their own religion or caste but also within their own families, while those they thought had "bad blood" could in fact have the same blood group as their own. The participants recognised the need to be careful and not let social differences divide them, or allow hate to enter their hearts and homes. This, they felt, was possible only by practising love in their daily lives and by attempting to bridge the distances.

There was a lot of one-to-one expression of love and care by hugging each other, holding hands and listening attentively to each other. On the second day, women tied rakhis (friendship bands) on each other's wrists as a symbol of their joint commitment to end violence, and put mehndi on their hands as a celebration of their love and friendship. They also made collective pledges, not to let trishuls or talwars enter their homes, and not to allow anyone to hoist green or saffron flags on their roofs.

The three-day gathering concluded with a silent peace rally through the streets of Kishangarh, the nearest town. Kishangarh is one of the eight places in Rajasthan that witnessed communal disturbances in the wake of the violence in Gujarat. This was the first time that communal strife had broken out in Kishangarh. As local residents point out, no untoward incident had occurred even during the Partition days. The silent rally spoke volumes to them - it gave voice to their own silent apprehensions and concerns. The sight of this dignified procession of determined women and men from all over Rajasthan, weaving their way through the streets of Kishangarh with the message of peace and love, made a deep impression on them. The public responded with many gestures of support - they provided water at several points en route and sold tea at a reduced price to the participants. One resident even distributed laddoos at the end of the rally.

The rally ended in a sabha (assembly) at Katla bazaar, which is known as a stronghold of the RSS. The speakers did not make political speeches but focussed on simple messages related to the daily lives of ordinary citizens, be they Hindu or Muslim, and the necessity of preventing the communal wave from spreading in Rajasthan. The assembly included speeches by Muslim residents of Kishangarh, an unprecedented event in Katla Bazaar.

This meeting was about aman (peace), insaniyat (humanism) and prem (love). The mindless violence of Gujarat has raised basic questions about our belief in as well as our capacity for tolerance. There has been some degree of erosion of basic values in society. One needs to understand why because Gujarat has shown us that these personal values have deep connections with our actions in the political sphere.

Bela Bhatia is Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi.

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