Linking people to peace
Several peacekeeping initiatives by voluntary organisations in the Old City resulted in a massive human chain on Friday, which said `no' to violence. The presence of a large number of women clearly made a huge difference. USHA RAMAN reports.
CHAIN REACTION: Putting their hands together for peace. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar
ONE OF the wise men of our age once said, "Wars begin in the minds of men." Unfortunately, technology and mass media have extended the mind of man to such an extent that wars too have gone beyond the confines of one mind, or even a group of minds. We have been at war for centuries; over divisions of caste, language and religion. And at times like the present, it seems as though wartime will never end.
But an amazing thing happened in our Old City last Friday. Something that showed that the power to change and to contain, does indeed rest with the people; people like you and me. Cordons of peace woven by people did indeed shrink to a molehill a situation that had the potential to erupt into a mountain. For the past few weeks, Fridays have brought a very specific kind of tension to the people of the Old City. With tempers flaring elsewhere over the mandir-masjid issue, it did not take much imagination to figure out that other "hot spots" in the country would perhaps re-enact the communal confrontations. "Every Friday," says an elderly woman who has been living in the Hari Bowli area for several decades, "we remain hoshiyar". Hoshiyar about the possibility that such a confrontation might happen, and when it does, it might be fanned into the flame that scorched the lives of so many in December 1992.
Prompted by this anxiety, many groups swung into action to prevent such a thing from happening again.Brought together under the banner "People for Peace and Communal Harmony," several non-government organisations pitched in with ideas and volunteers. The group included organisations that had been working in the old city for many years, as well as other non-government development organisations that operated in other areas.
The central idea was about making communities aware of and responsible for their own security.Majority, minority, in-between... these labels do not matter. What does matter is that nobody really wants violence. "People for Peace" adopted a multi-pronged strategy. Apart from the usual activities of issuing a public appeal calling for continued peace and harmony among different communities, the conglomeration decided upon a series of measures aimed at pre-empting and defusing trouble in the area. Significant among these was the formation of local peace committees from among residents of trouble-prone pockets of the old city. Volunteers from COVA (Confederation of Voluntary Associations) and other NGOs such as Play for Peace, Centre for World Solidarity, Anthra, Yaksi, Deccan Development Society, Human Rights Forum, and a host of others, went into these areas to talk to people, hear out their fears and anxieties, and suggest plans for peace. A peace march by women organised by Asmita on March 4 was a gesture of concern, while the Inter-faith Prayers for Peace, on March 11, drew a large like-minded audience. COVA officers established contact and gained the cooperation of the local police, who agreed to allow a "peacekeeping experiment" on the tension-ridden days.
The peace committee's resolve was first tested on Friday, March 8, when trouble began after prayers at Mecca Masjid, and volunteers successfully prevented it from escalating into a serious situation. And on March 15, when everyone was waiting for something to happen, the committees swung into action again by forming human chains that prevented a crowd beginning to turn into a mob meeting with policemen who were prepared and more than willing to deal with any sign of impending violence. Several women volunteers participated in the effort, holding fast to the chain and speaking calmly to those who wanted to breach it on either side.
"The presence of the women really defused the situation the trouble makers were hesitant to throw stones indiscriminately," says Asghar Ali, COVA executive secretary.
There are some who feel that such community efforts that happen during times of tension are nothing but temporary "cosmetic gestures". The real problems underlying communal violence run deeper, and cannot be addressed merely by such expressions of concern, says Raj Monani, who is associated with Lok Satta and with a development group in the old city that focuses on projects aimed at women and children. He also feels that any solution must involve an "intelligent and considered plan to manage the minorities in this country." This can only happen if the thinking members of the community emerge into the ranks of the leadership and highlight the commonality of concerns that exist across communities.
Quadeer Zaman, who has been working with various groups in the old city as well as outside, feels that the large majority of common Muslims "have lost trust in the Hindu majority" because of the actions of a few groups. This trust can be rebuilt only if people of all faiths keep interacting at various levels, and the anxieties of the minority are not only given constant voice, but are addressed.
Even "cosmetic gestures" have a place, and an important one, too, says Sagari Ramdas of Anthra, an NGO that works with tribal communities in northern Andhra Pradesh. While Raj Monani feels that there is certain hypocrisy in people from more "secure" parts of town going and talking to those in the old city's hot spots, Sagari says that such a dialogue lends a certain sense of solidarity. "Even though we really are outsiders, I feel it is a confidence building measure. It is also an occasion to show that not every member of the other community shares the ideas of certain majority groups." While agreeing that these initiatives must be supported in policy and action by real measures taken by the government and other institutions, she feels strongly that community intervention is crucial to creating a climate of peaceful coexistence.
"Without community participation, no law enforcement agency or political group can really achieve success in such situations," agrees Sukumara, former Commissioner of Police. "And several such groups have been doing excellent work. They take the lead when there is a threat of violence and promptly help contain small problems." Sukumara too agrees that the problems in the old city, as in other similar parts of the country, do run deeper than the label of communal tension suggests. "It is understandable that the people of the old city feel that they are neglected." In illustration, he points to the progress HUDA has made in terms of developing the infrastructure of the new city, in contrast to the nonexistent work of the Quli Qutb Shah Development Authority, which is "practically a non-starter".
From that denial of the basic needs of a decent life arises the frustration that feeds the violence that ultimately takes on a "communal" colour. It is a complex spiral of cause and effect that obviously cannot be addressed by any one set of measures alone. But then, that is not justification for giving up or denying the importance of any single measure. They all work together, and each draws strength from the other. As did the clasped hands of the human chain, of the men and women who believed enough in peace to practice it and enforce it in the old city in the past few days.
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