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A prayer for peace

NIGHAT GANDHI was in an ashram in Karnataka when Godhra and the subsequent mayhem in Gujarat took place. A Muslim, married to a Hindu from Gujarat, she offers a prayer for the future of her children and the country.

ON February 28, at an ashram in a village north of Bangalore, the students in a course for yoga instructors were taking part in their graduation ceremony. Each participant was asked to place flowers before a portrait of Swami Vivekananda, after whom the centre was named, and say a few words. When my turn came to speak, I said, "I hope each one of us will make it a mission to work for world peace, by first bringing peace into our personal lives through the practice of meditation."

After we received our certificates, a course mate, a doctor who had been allowed to go to the city, gave me two bits of news. We had not been allowed to read any newspaper or listen to the radio as we were expected to be free from the usual sources of stress and worry. The first item was that a rail coach had been set on fire in a town in Gujarat. The second one was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had lost the elections in Uttar Pradesh. On March 1, after leaving the ashram, I was with a friend and was visiting her family in a small town on the border between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. I recall with gratitude that my hosts, devout Hindus, were extremely hospitable, because I was their daughter's friend, without ever considering my religion. I am sad because I feel sure that more incidents like Godhra and what followed in Gujarat, will only destroy that kind of warmth and spontaneous trust.

One of my favourite words in Hindi is shanti, meaning peace, contentment and silence. The word has a soothing quality because of the softness of the music in the sound it makes. Chant om, shanti, shanti, shanti, slowly and softly, and as the notes of the last shanti fade into silence, you enter the abode of peace, gaining entry, perhaps for a fraction of a second, into a world ordered differently from the one you are accustomed to. But even that fleeting feeling, so ephemeral that you begin to doubt whether you really tasted its existence, is precious. All you can remember afterwards is a memory of that silence where you touched, or rather which touched you with what can be termed true happiness, true contentment, and which seemed to arise out of nothing, needing no reason and no causality for its existence. For the gift of teaching me to touch that silence, I shall always be grateful to my teachers at the yoga ashram.

But along with many such positive teachings, I was troubled by some of the statements I heard and some of the things we were made to do.

At the inaugural ceremony, the chief guest, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker from Karnataka, emphasised the need for society having men of integrity, discipline and sensitivity. Courses such as these, he hoped, would produce the kind of men India needed for rebuilding the country's lost glory. I was surprised at this emphasis on men because there were 35 women present, but presumably, according to the esteemed guest, they could not play much of a role in rebuilding the country.

I was asked by an assistant teacher about whether I expected Muslims to practise meditation, as they are "all so violent and believe in killing everybody". Since the word Islam means peace, Islam can't advocate violence, nor are all Muslims like bin Laden, I said in response. And why shouldn't the concept of meditation as a path to peace appeal to right-thinking Muslims, since the Prophet Mohammed himself used to meditate for days in a cave? I quote this incident only to show the depth of misconceptions each religious community has about the other.

The course had many RSS workers, a number of them from the United Kingdom. They were intelligent, well-educated non-resident Indians, who had become full-time volunteers of the RSS in the quest for reinventing their lost Indian identity in foreign lands. One of the most popular bhajans sung in the ashram was by an RSS volunteer from the U.K.. The words were set to a popular Hindi film song: "Eint layee patthar layee tere liye, mandir banaongi wapas na jaogi, apni Ayodhya chodke, Rama ho rama re, bhool mat jana apni Ayodhya chod ke. (I have brought bricks and stones for you, until I build a temple I won't leave my Ayodhya, Rama, oh Rama, don't forget your Ayodhya").

This young woman had the leadership qualities to inspire a whole generation of women. I asked her if she had come across cases of domestic violence in the course of her social work among Indian families in England. She said that it was most often the Muslim women in England who were the victims. I said that in my work with women in a small North Indian town, I regularly came across victims of domestic violence from all religions.

At the course, we were also made to attend mandatory bhajan sessions and shout slogans like "Jai Shri Ram". I found this a bit confusing. The attainment of personal peace seemed desirable, but what connection did slogan chanting have with this quest? Also RSS slogans like "Doodh mango ge to kheer denge, Kashmir mango ge to chir denge (If you ask for milk, we'll give you kheer, but if you ask for Kashmir we shall kill you"). Or indeed the meaning of songs like "Har bala devi ki pratima, baccha baccha Ram hai (Every girl is an image of a goddess, and every boy an image of Ram"). What about Indians who do not see their children as the embodiment of Ram? Is there any virtue in propounding our culture as only Hindu values, as a single, homogenous entity to the exclusion of all other cultural identities alive within India?

I admire the RSS for instilling such precise misconceptions in educated young people. Why don't we, the so-called secularists, have our own agenda of humanitarianism and respect for diversity that will inspire our youth? What are we teaching our children in schools about respecting human rights? Do we have any structures or institutions that function with the regularity, the discipline, and the single-mindedness of an RSS shakha? There are some valuable lessons we could learn from Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists. One of them would be an indefatigable zeal for a "cause". And unless we zealously promote non-communal values, the fundamentalists' agenda is sure to win hands down.

I boarded the train home from Bangalore on March 3. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had held a rally that afternoon close to the station. I was dressed in a T-shirt and trousers, discarding the usual salwar-kurta. I rehearsed the answers I would give if someone interrogated me. If they asked me what I was, I would say I was a Parsee. My brain wasn't reasoning why on a train anybody would have the right to ask me such questions seemingly normal people could, if they wanted to, pull me up because of a Muslim name, and yes, the unthinkable could happen. But who were these "normal people"?

Until then, I had always believed that communal riots were the work of hooligans, belonging to both minority and majority groups. Gujarat was proving me wrong. I also had enough proof from my stay in the yoga ashram and my interactions there with educated, middle-class young women and men workers of the RSS that rationality in matters of religion is not a given within the same individual as rationality in other matters.

Gandhiji's lessons ... Peace and non-violence must prevail.

I am married to a Gujarati, a Hindu, and we have two children. We have never thought of ourselves as Muslims or Hindus. When their classmates ask my children at schools whether they are Hindus or Muslims, they say they are neither but they respect all religions. I had always been told by my husband that the essential Gujarati is a no-nonsense businessman with an eye on the bottom line, and that Gujarat is a State where women feel safe.

Going to see his ailing father soon after the riots, he returned from Ahmedabad, ashamed. The prosaic Gujarati businessman did not seem to have just money on his mind, nor were women safe in Gujarat. He witnessed what he would have just weeks earlier considered impossible — an apartment complex with 200 flats, and only two flats belonging to Muslims destroyed. One shop alone, in a row of several shops, burned down because its owner had a Muslim name. But most shocking of all for him was the lack of remorse on the part of the average Gujarati for the brutalities that had been wreaked on human beings.

When I finally got home on the morning of March 5, I was overwrought. My husband held me in a long embrace, and I couldn't let go of my children. I console myself with the thought that killing in the name of religion is perhaps another stage in human evolution. Men invented gods and religions, and perhaps it is time women and men got together to reinvent "godlessness", in the sense of abolishing the idea of different gods and different religions for different groups of human beings. Perhaps, in time, we will look back upon incidents like Gujarat as the Dark Age of humanity. But that doesn't help us now, it doesn't help the child whose family was butchered before its eyes, nor the bereaved whose dear ones were burned alive in a train compartment.

What might shorten this Dark Age is a conscious effort made by you and I, to end this darkness. Let us begin by reminding ourselves that all of Nature is God, and the greatest worship of Nature lies in according equal respect to all beings in Nature. May there come a time when all of us decide not to build a temple or a mosque in Ayodhya but a monument to Nature.

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