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Building bridges

Peace activist Sushobha Barve's book, Healing Streams — Bringing Back Hope in the Aftermath of Violence, recounts acts of courage in post-riot situations.

Sushobha Barve: the voice of moderation — Photo: K. Gopinathan

SUSHOBHA BARVE is a woman of uncommon courage. She addresses the intractable problem of building goodwill among communities in extraordinary circumstances. She has gone about this task in situations of bloody conflict such as the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, the 1992-93 Bombay blasts, and the 2002 Gujarat riots. Ms. Barve negotiates with people who are not in a rational frame of mind, puts her personal and public credibility at stake, and even stands the risk of losing her life in her "mission of reconciliation".

Ms. Barve was in town last fortnight in connection with a discussion on her first work, Healing Streams — Bringing Back Hope in the Aftermath of Violence, which is an account of her experiences in forging reconciliation among communities in the post-1980 conflict situations in India. She has worked with the forum, Moral Re-Armament, for 30 years in different parts of India. She was on the Governor's Peace Committee during the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 and was a founding member and trustee of the well-known Mumbai Mohalla Committee Movement Trust. She is now the Executive Secretary of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, working for the most part in Kashmir.

Ms. Barve's entry into the work of reconciliation began with what must have been the most frightening experience in her life. Two Sikhs on the train from Mumbai to Barabanki on the night of October 31, 1984, were hideously clubbed to near-death even as she was fervently trying to plead with the Hindu mobs to be merciful. She recalls: "The experience was to deeply affect me and change the course of my life. Building human bonds became my mission in life." In the coming years, she worked in Kanpur and in the slums of New Delhi to build trust between Hindus and Sikhs.

She then travelled to Bhagalpur in 1989, prompted by the massacre of 120 Muslims in Logain village of Bhagalpur district, in the wake of the shilanyas yatra taken out by the Vishwa Hindu Parishat. Eventually, in a month, the riots claimed 1,890 lives, most of them Muslim, in 226 villages.

During the Bombay riots she worked day and night in the Dharavi slum, one of the worst affected areas. Her interactions with people of all communities, the police, and the political parties did ensure some restraint.

Her visits to Ahmedabad, following the Gujarat riots, also helped in reducing tensions. She walked through the slums and riot-affected localities, sat through reconciliation meetings in mosques, met strangers in violence-hit bylanes trying to bring them together, negotiated with the police in tense situations, convinced members of the Muslim community that the state would protect their rights even if she had to live through suspicion from various quarters.

Her book, which chronicles these brave journeys, is not a theoretical work, but a valuable sociological documentation that vividly talks about the working of a riot through personal experiences. It describes how a riot occurs, who are the people involved, how tensions built up over time — having nothing to do with community identities — contribute to its occurrence, how political parties and certain sections within communities exploit sentiments, how looting becomes integral to a riot, and what becomes of the psychological profile of the people who suffer. Ms. Barve gives us remarkably minute details on communities going berserk in a context of perceived grievances.

But why is a book that captures events that have occurred almost 10 to 20 years ago, barring the Gujarat riots, being published now? Ms. Barve says: "I had a compelling thought to communicate my experiences... There isn't much material on conflict resolution in South Asia. Also, events that occurred 20 years ago are still with us, aren't they?" She has always worked on the premise that violence is futile and that has been her persuasion from the villages of Bhagalpur to the slums of Bombay. But can one uphold non-violence across contexts? In Sri Lanka, for instance, it is only for the first time that the Muslim community, under pressure from LTTE, is envisaging an armed struggle against the Tamil group. But Ms. Barve asserts: "I have seen at very close quarters what violence can do. It will only create a hate-revenge cycle. You speak of Sri Lanka, but what about South Africa? Nelson Mandela had more reasons than anyone else to take recourse to violence. Anyone will, after 27 years in prison. But how did he manage reconciliation with the whites?" The book at times lends the impression that all violence and fundamentalisms are the same across contexts. There is also a tendency to represent terrorism as endemic to a system, not born out of a specific political context.

When queried whether her book had gone soft on Hindutva, Ms. Barve said the publishers had to cut out "controversial" remarks. Censorship apart, there is much to be learnt from her experiences in the communal cauldron that is India, one lesson being the pragmatic hope of reconciliation. She is persuasive: "The majority community certainly has a responsibility. It has to think why other communities have grievances. It has to make a choice between trishuls and computers, between modernity and medievalism. A campaign of hate is no answer."


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