A recent two-day event in Agra in memory of the late peace activist Nirmala Deshpande honours a Pakistani peace activist and welcomes Pakistani delegates
At a time of growing intolerance in India where a certain section of society has been stopping Pakistani artistes from performing, another section of society organised a unique programme to honour a Pakistani peace activist and host nine others in Agra.
On 17-18 October 2015, delegates from Pakistan participated in a seminar on the ‘Challenges before India & Pakistan’. The city of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love and affection, welcomed Pakistanis with a big heart. Businessman Raja Hassan Akhtar from Lahore led the delegates, six men and three women. Akhtar is also a member of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), the largest people-to-people group between the two countries. The visit of the Pakistanis was all over the media here.
The two-day programme commemorated the birth anniversary of late Nirmala Deshpande (universally known as “Didi”, sister), who worked tirelessly to promote peace between the two nuclear-armed states India and Pakistan.
At a time when the scenario between two countries is such that dialogue at the government level has been suspended, this effort spoke volumes about the aspirations of the people.
The event came in the background of the cancellation of Pakistani ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali’s concert in Mumbai and Pune following Shiv Sena’s threat. Such threats also forced the Mekaal Hasan Band – an Indo-Pak line-up – to cancel their Ahmedabad concert.
Shiv Sena and other right-wing fringe groups are bent upon exploiting people’s emotions for their short-term political gains. Their disruptions are not limited to the state of Maharashtra. Recently, Shiv Sainiks disrupted the performance of a Pakistani theatre group in Gurgaon, Haryana. However, audience members rose to the Pakistani artistes’ support and prevented the vandals from stopping the performance.
Such incidents of people countering expressions of intolerance and violence give hope in a situation where inter-caste and inter-religious tensions are running high. A particularly low point was the gruesome murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, killed by a violent mob in Dadri town, Uttar Pradesh (U.P.), recently on allegations of beef consumption.
The atmosphere at the two-day peace programme in Agra, also in U.P. was full of warm welcome for the Pakistani guests, who were invited to receptions and interactions with college students among other events. They had a great time talking and mingling with the common people of the historic city, and enjoying the beauty of the Taj Mahal. It’s clear that the common people have no grudge against common Pakistanis.
The Agra event marked the third year that the Amritsar-based Folklore Research Academy and Nirmala Deshpande’s Akhil Bharat Rachnatmak Samaj have jointly organised a programme in Nirmala Didi’s memory. The first one was in Patiala, Punjab, and the second in Lahore.
At this annual event, the organisers also present the Nirmala Deshpande Award for Peace and Social Justice to activists working towards promoting peace between India and Pakistan. The award carries a citation and one lakh rupees. The idea is to help activists to pursue their goal and also to encourage others to choose the path of peace.
This year, I was honoured to share the award with B. M. Kutty from Karachi, Pakistan. Incidentally, it was Nirmala Deshpande who suggested the title of Mr. Kutty’s autobiography Sixty Years of Self-Exile: No Regrets.
Mr. Kutty is a veteran peace activist known globally for his work. He is also one of the founder members of PIPFPD, launched in 1994. He continues to work towards enduring peace between two countries.
Sadly ill health prevented Mr. Kutty from traveling to Agra. Now over years old 90, he continues to work tirelessly and to encourage the youth to the ideals of peace. Kutty will continue to inspire people living on both sides of the border.
For me it was also an honour to receive the award from the legendary journalist Mark Tully, formerly with the BBC, who has inspired a generation of Indian journalists with his reporting and analyses.
Jatin Desai is a freelance journalist and peace activist based in Mumbai