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At A Hindu Saint’s Gujarat Ashram, A Clarion Call For Indo-Pak Peace

A message of inter-faith harmony at a three-day conference in Ram Bhakt Morari Bapu’s spiritual commune.

12/06/2017 1:00 PM IST | Updated 12/06/2017 1:00 PM IST
Sudheendra Kulkarni
Sudheendra Kulkarni welcomed by Morari Bapu at the Mahuva conference.

Do birds know borders? Do clouds recognise countries?

As the Alliance Air flight from Bombay to Bhavnagar began its descent, the white clouds drew an abstract painting against a serene blue sky. Below was the Gujarat coastline with a patchwork of salt pans, its whiteness brighter with the sharp evening sun. As the plane descended further, there was the mesmerising sight of a flock of flamingos flying in formation, their plumage adding a pink dash to the painting.

Greater flamingos are migratory birds from the North. But now they are said to have become residents of the Gulf of Khambat and the Rann of Kutch (which is shared by India's Gujarat and Pakistan's Sindh). I wondered where the ones I saw flying came from, or where they were going. But did it matter? Neither birds nor clouds carry divisive religious or national identities. Thank God.

Not Dharma Gurus, but Sadgurus (genuine spiritual gurus) should take the lead [in promoting Indo-Pak dialogue]. Religion is being misused by many so-called religious leaders for irreligious ends. Morari Bapu

I was on my way to Mahuva, a two-hour drive from Bhavnagar, to attend a three-day satsang (socio-spiritual assembly) at the ashram of Morari Bapu. India's best-known and widely respected Ram Kathakar, Bapu tells the story of the Ramayana, interspersed with songs drawn mainly from Shri Ram Charit Manas of Goswami Tulsi Das, a 16th-century Bhakti poet. He has been doing so all over the world for the past five decades. Morari Bapu's Ram knows no national, or even religious, borders. "Ram and his message of truth, love and compassion belong to the whole world," he says. Indeed, Bapu's discourses are replete with expositions of the same message from other religious and spiritual traditions—Indian and foreign. In particular, he takes great pains to show the convergence of the teachings of Hinduism and Islam. Next month he is planning to visit Turkey to pay homage to his favourite Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi at his mausoleum in Konya.

Sudheendra Kulkarni
Morari Bapu

Like Ram, whose mission in life was to transcend enmity and uphold the unity of humanity, Bapu has been trying, he says, "to build bridges between Hanuman and Rehman." After the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002, no religious leader has endeavoured so consistently to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony as Bapu has. For the past two decades—even before the Godhra and post-Godhra violence erupted—he has been attending the annual Yaad-e-Hussain programme organised by the local Muslim community in Mahuva, as the chief guest. Imam Hussain is a hero for him because the Prophet Mohammed's grandson sacrificed his life fighting against tyranny. In a bold and unconventional move, one that certainly displeases the votaries of hardline Hindutva, Bapu has changed the visual projection of Ram. The idols of Ram, Laxman and Hanuman in his ashram are without their weapons. God or his avatars, he believes, do not need any weapons.

"[T]he Kashmiris we met became even more unfriendly when they learnt that we had come from Gujarat... However, their attitude would change when we told them, 'We have come from Gandhi's Gujarat, not Modi's Gujarat." Sanjay Bhavsar, co-founder, Sadbhavana Forum

Hence, Bapu's sprawling and scenic ashram in Mahuva—he has named it Kailas Gurukul—was the ideal venue for the conference (1-3 June, 2017). It was the eighth edition of an annual meet organised by the Sadbhavana Forum, a non-political organisation engaged in voluntary service. Founded by Sanjay Bhavsar and Tula Patel, an idealistic couple inspired by Gandhian ideology, and patronised by Bapu, the forum has brought together hundreds of young and not-so-young social activists in Gujarat, channelising their energies in diverse projects—from providing shelter and life-transforming education to orphaned children to ambitious undertakings such as striving for peace and normalcy in Kashmir.

Sudheendra Kulkarni
Sadbhavana forum volunteers with Kashmiri kids.

Just a few days before the conference began, 25 Sadbhavana volunteers had returned from a three-week-long peace mission in Kashmir, where they mostly interacted with school children and teachers in the Valley. They had also participated in rehabilitation efforts after floods had devastated the Valley in 2014. "But we saw a visible difference in the situation in Kashmir in these three years," says Sanjay. "We encountered a most unwelcome response wherever we went. Questions such as 'Why have you Indians come here?' were hurled at us. And the Kashmiris we met became even more unfriendly when they learnt that we had come from Gujarat. 'Oh, you have come from Modi's Gujarat,' they'd say scornfully. However, their attitude would change when we told them, 'We have come from Gandhi's Gujarat, not Modi's Gujarat. We have come here to listen to you, to have a dialogue with you.' After this, they would open their doors and hearts. This is the undying power of Mahatma Gandhi."

The theme of the Mahuva conference, "Samvaad se Sadbhavana", was a continuation of these peace warriors' mission in Kashmir—an attempt at creating goodwill and harmony through dialogue.

The theme of the Mahuva conference, "Samvaad se Sadbhavana", was a continuation of these peace warriors' mission in Kashmir—an attempt at creating goodwill and harmony through dialogue. Attended by over 300 social activists, and with Morari Bapu present in many sessions, it deliberated on issues that are vital to Indian society.

Arif Mohammed Khan delivering his speech.

The conference began with a speech by Arif Mohammed Khan, one of the most outspoken and learned Indian politicians. Even after the passage of three decades, people still remember him for his courageous 1986 speech in Parliament, in which he, as a member of Rajiv Gandhi's council of ministers, defended the Supreme Court ruling granting alimony to divorced Muslim women in the famous Shah Bano case. Rajiv Gandhi was a well-meaning but inexperienced Prime Minister. Despite commanding a huge majority in Parliament, he succumbed to pressure from anti-reformist forces in the Muslim community and legislatively annulled the Supreme Court ruling. This was a major turning point in Indian politics, and marked the beginning of his party's downslide.

Arif bhai touched upon another sensitive issue in his speech—triple talaq, which is currently being debated by the Muslim community and the wider Indian society. Arguing that it has no sanction whatsoever in the Holy Quran, he said the defenders of triple talaq have no respect for the wishes of Muslim women or for the Indian Constitution. However, a greater part of his speech dealt with the essential similarity between Islam and Hinduism. Armed with appropriate Quranic sayings, and drawing upon supportive references from Hindu saints and scriptures, his speech was a rebuke to Muslim and Hindu fanatics alike.

Coming just a few days before the CBI raid on the residence of Dr Prannoy Roy, Ravish's plain speak on the misuse of the instruments of governance to browbeat the media had a predictive ring to it.

The same thought was the thrust of the speech that followed. It was by Prof Sharifa Vijalivala, a renowned name in Gujarati literature. She bemoaned the tendency in contemporary Indian society to divide people on the basis of their religion. "Even colours have come to have religious affiliations—green is Muslim and saffron is Hindu. It's high time we realised we are all one people under India's tricolour." Morari Bapu honoured her with this year's Sadbhavana award.

Shabnam and Vipul Rekhi singing Kabir bhajans.

The second Sadbhavana award went to singers-cum-peace activists Shabnam Virmani and Vipul Rekhi. Through their Kabir Project, the duo have been spreading the message of interfaith and inter-cultural understanding and harmony. On the second night of the conference, they enthralled the participants with their soulful rendition of the works of the 15th century north Indian mystic poet, as well as of some other Bhakti-Sufi saint-poets. For Shabnam, as she said in her acceptance speech, the award given by Morari Bapu had special significance because her own journey as a singer of Kabir bhajans was triggered by the deep sorrow and anguish she had experienced after witnessing the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002.

Ravish Kumar delivering his speech.

A highlight of the conference was a discussion on the role of the mass media in promoting dialogue in society. The two speakers who spoke on this theme—Dr Hari Desai, a veteran Gujarati editor and columnist, and Ravish Kumar, the celebrated anchor of NDTV Hindi—were unanimous in their conclusion. The Indian media are contributing not to democratic dialogue, but to divisive diatribe. Ravish Kumar, in his frequently cheered speech, spoke of the fear and submissiveness that has turned a big section of the mass media into a mouthpiece of the government. Coming just a few days before the CBI raid on the residence of Dr Prannoy Roy, NDTV's founder, Ravish's plain speak on the misuse of the instruments of governance to browbeat the media had a kind of predictive ring to it.

"India's defence forces combine shaurya (bravery) with shaleenata (righteousness). The Army must never cease to be shaleen in its conduct with its own people." Admiral L. Ramdas on the use of human shields

Admiral L. Ramdas, a former chief of the Indian Navy and a speaker in the afternoon session, is a courageous voice from the military fraternity. He is 84, and for the past nearly quarter of a century after his retirement he has been serving public causes with a rare kind of courage and conviction. In his speech, he made a strong pitch for a just and humane political solution to the Kashmir issue, cautioning that continuous use of force would only worsen the situation. He decried the recent episode of the Army using a Kashmiri civilian as a human shield to ward off stone-pelters. "India's defence forces combine shaurya (bravery) with shaleenata (righteousness). The Army must never cease to be shaleen in its conduct with its own people." Brave, and timely, words of caution from a war hero.

Admiral L. Ramdas delivering his speech.

Lalita Ramdas is also a passionate peace activist in her own right. The daughter as well as the wife of former Naval chiefs, she has recently spearheaded a signature campaign on a statement that calls for immediate resumption of bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan on all issues, including cessation of terrorism and a settlement of the Kashmir issue. She read out the statement, which has been signed by over 1000 eminent personalities in both India and Pakistan, at the conference, whose participants endorsed it. It's not out of place here to mention that their daughter Kavita Ramdas, a well-known name in the global movement for women's empowerment, is married to Zulfiqar Ahmad, a Pakistani peace advocate.

Sudheendra Kulkarni delivering his speech.

In my speech, I stressed the need to bring a sense of urgency and resolve to bear on the task of normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan. "The continuous hostility and low-level conflict between our two countries, unless stopped and reversed, has the danger of escalating into a full-scale war. Wars in the past have not solved any problem. The entire world is concerned that a new war between India and Pakistan could be a nuclear war, which would have catastrophic consequences for our two countries and beyond. Therefore, the yardstick of patriotism today is promotion of Indo-Pak peace and reconciliation, and not perpetuation of jingoism and warmongering."

[A] nuclear war... would have catastrophic consequences for our two countries and beyond. Therefore, the yardstick of patriotism today is promotion of Indo-Pak peace and reconciliation, and not perpetuation of jingoism and warmongering.

I stressed the centrality of resolving the Kashmir issue—the core issue between India and Pakistan—through honest dialogue both internally (with all the stakeholders in Jammu & Kashmir, including the separatists) and externally (with Pakistan). "For this," I said, "our two countries should pursue an innovative approach, focusing on a solution that is acceptable to India, Pakistan and also to the people of Kashmir. This is what Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif attempted, and the endeavour was carried forward by Dr Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf. A broad framework for resolving the Kashmir issue is already in place, and it is known as the four-point Musharraf-Manmohan formula. Despite some differences between the two sides, this formula can still serve as the basis for a fresh bilateral dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif should build on this framework, modify it if necessary, and even give it a new name to put their own stamp on it."

Sudheendra Kulkarni

I underscored the fact that, unlike his predecessors, Modi enjoys a huge parliamentary mandate, which he can use to take a bold and out-of-the-box approach to solve the Kashmir issue and to (largely, though not fully) normalise relations with Pakistan. "Indian people will support him. He will earn a name in history. However, if he dithers, history will have to find another leader to achieve its mission."

Predictably, some conference participants asked me, "How can there be talks with Pakistan when it continues to back terror attacks in India?"

[I]f Modi and Sharif continue the dialogue and achieve some progress on some issues despite the provocation by terror groups... it is going to strengthen the pro-peace and pro-democracy forces in Pakistan.

My reply: "Pakistan is certainly guilty of aiding and abetting terrorism. It must, for its own good, combat terrorism without making any distinction between good and bad terrorists. By nurturing religious extremism and terrorism, Pakistan itself has become a victim of its wrong policies. Terrorism, either inside Pakistan or from across the border into India, is not going to end soon. However, if Modi and Sharif continue the dialogue and achieve some progress on some issues despite the provocation by terror groups and their backers (and Sharif is not among them), it is going to strengthen the pro-peace and pro-democracy forces in Pakistan. This will ultimately enable our two countries to achieve bigger breakthroughs in future. Therefore, India and Pakistan should resume dialogue in an interrupted and uninterruptible manner."

I have always believed that India-Pakistan dialogue should not be left to the two governments alone. People from all walks of life should participate in it in a forceful and consistent way. I said this to Morari Bapu in a private conversation with him, and suggested that "Dharma Gurus (religious leaders belonging to different faiths) should take the lead." Pat came his enlightened retort. "No, not Dharma Gurus, but Sadgurus (genuine spiritual gurus) should take the lead. Religion is being misused by many so-called religious leaders for irreligious ends.

Do saints like Morari Bapu have borders, religious or national? Can they succeed where the politicians have failed?

That Morari Bapu is a true Sadguru, and not a self-serving Dharma Guru, is evident from both what he preaches and practices. I suggested to him that he should visit Pakistan and initiate a dialogue with influential people in religious and non-religious spheres. "I would very much like to go to Pakistan. I am keen to visit Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. If possible, I would even like to conduct a Ram Katha in Pakistan and contribute to building a bridge of understanding, goodwill and peace between India and Pakistan."

Morari Bapu sitting with the audience at the Mahuva conference.

As I flew back from Bhavnagar to Bombay on a late evening flight, the sun had set, darkness had arrived, and no flamingos could be seen. But the thought that long lingered in my mind was: "Do saints like Morari Bapu have borders, religious or national? Can they succeed where the politicians have failed?"

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