Light a candle for peace


    That’s how Admiral Ramdas and Lalita Ramdas celebrated the New Year’s eve on the streets of Hyderabad. And hundreds joined in

    For those of us who continue to believe that ‘people–to–people’ contact is the only way of building bridges between nations born out of complex political and religious compulsions such as India and Pakistan, the year-end brought little cheer. As we watched the drama of the hijack unfold from minute to minute over the television screens, it was apparent that the tentative efforts to build friendship, peace and democracy through groups like the Pak–India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy had received a severe blow thanks to the systematic targeting of the ‘Pakistani hand’ in the planning, implementation and the final denouement of the hijack episode.

    Media and officialdom alike never attempted to make a separation between the Pakistani state and the people. Xmas, Ramzan, New Year notwithstanding, the accusations became shriller with each passing day and there seemed to be little that any of us could do to counter the massive information and evidence that pointed to the complicity of our neighbour in this heartless exercise.

    We drove up from Alibag on Xmas Eve. The hijack took place that same day and it was impossible to think about much else in the days that followed. We had hoped that we would kick off the millennium with a large joint convention of concerned citizens from India and Pakistan to raise our voice for peace and sanity in our region. But the growing climate of anger and outrage that was developing made such fond hopes recede into an increasingly distant future.

    A few of us spoke informally here in Secunderabad soon after Christmas to share our concerns, and our hopes about creating a constructive climate for the mobilisation of voices of reason and balance. Over a post-Iftaar late night dialogue was born the idea of a candle–light vigil in a popular public thoroughfare joining the twin cities, on the Sunday after the New Year. The notice was impossibly short, the timing scarcely opportune (a day after the release of hostages), with government leading the hysterical denunciation of Pakistan’s role and demanding their being named a ‘terrorist state’, and a weekend when people might be too tired to stir out after New Year and millennium revelries.

    But an intrepid local group decided it was worth the effort and we agreed to meet at the statue of one of Andhra’s revolutionary poets on the Tank Bund, appropriately opposite the towering and benign presence of the Buddha in the middle of the Hussain Sagar Lake.

    One retired admiral and former chief of the Naval Staff, our son-in-law and I were the first three to arrive and we looked around sheepishly wondering whether anybody would actually be naively optimistic and join us.

    Gradually people began to roll up in twos and threes — one carrying a newly painted banner of the Pak–India Forum, others placards and postcards in Telugu, Urdu and English urging people to vote for peace. And candles, and more candles, which we were doubtful of using up.

    Then a miracle slowly began to unfold before our eyes as the first gang of about twenty of us old and young, men, women and children lit our candles and stood under the banner for a photograph around dusk. Inexplicably, people on the busiest road in a busy city slowed down, stopped to peer at the candle-holders and then more closely at the banner which began with the words Pakistan–India Forum. Intuitively, a small group of us began to solicit passers by, beckoning with candles and an invitation: "Would you like to light a candle for peace? Stop a minute and join us if you believe that violence and war serve no purpose?"

    It was a beautiful exercise in instant communication, education and learning. And an experience that demonstrated as nothing else could have that people from all walks of life were willing and ready to spare those few moments for peace because they were weary of the messages of anger, hatred, war and terrorism. It was an unrehearsed, impromptu happening, in the best sense of that word.

    Those who came to stop and stare were drawn in as if to a magnet. Was it the magic and the unique cosmopolitan history of this city of Hyderabad, captured in the black stone and granite statues of its many heroes and poets and revolutionaries? Was it the surrealistic presence of the Buddha rising out of the Hussain Sagar Lake? And there were enough of us with activism and education in our blood stream to engage several in conversations which were enlightening as they were revealing.

    A young Gujarati couple out for a stroll on a lovely evening actually got into a lengthy discussion:

    "Of course, ‘we’ (Indians) always want peace, it is ‘those’ (Pakistanis) who are causing all the trouble.

    "But how do you know? Have you met any of ‘those’ Pakistanis?"

    "No, no, but we know it is true. Ask anyone; see what the TV and press says. They are like that! See what they did when Vajpayee went to Lahore?" "Don’t you think that ordinary people are like us, be they in Pakistan or anywhere else?"

    "No, ‘they’ are different!"

    "Shall I tell you something? My daughter is married to one of those Pakistanis, and I have a little grand–daughter who is an Indo–Pak product.

    Believe me they are like you and me wanting to live in peace. Should we not try to speak to the ordinary people to influence both our governments?" (Silence). "Yes, maybe you are right. You see, we don’t know any one, we only know what we are told over TV and what we hear our friends saying."

    Others in response to our question: "What do you think is the purpose of this vigil?"

    "Oh yes, we know. It is to tell us that the Muslims can do what they like and get away with anything."

    "Let us discuss that, but why don’t you first light a candle for peace?"

    "Peace? Certainly. We are all for it, but you must tell ‘them’!"

    So our Tamil friend stands next to a retired navy chief and a burkha-clad woman, lights a candle and so do his wife and son. But he is not fully convinced."

    A group of young teenagers from a church group, rehearsing for a church social, are persuaded by one of our group to join us and strum their guitar so that all of us — by now nearly a hundred persons — can join in singing, ‘Hum honge kamyaab’…hogi shanti charon aur, is din’ (‘We shall overcome…’)

    Gangs of young men out for the evening, stop, listen, light candles and are reluctant to leave as the discussions get more and more animated.

    "Is peace really possible? Yes, we want to do business, but if there is violence and war, it will be impossible."

    "Exactly, so will each of you go and talk to five more of your friends in your workplace or colleges or homes?"

    "Yes, we promise."

    But it was the children, already excited with balloons and other goodies, who cajoled and pulled–in their somewhat embarrassed parents to join the peace brigade. Once the ice was broken, conversations were started, some people found that they worked in the same institution. A librarian met a professor from his college, others found they were from the same neighbourhood. The baloonwalla, the moomphalliwalla, the boy selling candy floss, women in burkhas out after iftaar, families on scooters, the list is long and diverse.

    But they all took time to stop, lit a candle and asked what the banner said and why. The message moved along in ever–widening circles and drew in over two hundred citizens in the space of the two hours.

    The press came too — mainly interested to interview this odd phenomenon — a former military person actually out in a peace demonstration. We asked them if they would have come had we just been normal citizens without a celebrity in our midst? They protested that they too were committed to peace — why else would they give up a Sunday evening?

    The questions kept coming fast and furious: What about Kashmir? Will we ever find an answer? Can there be peace without it? Is eternal conflict written in to the destinies of our two countries?

    We finally wound our way home after over two hours exhilarated by the experience, finding it difficult to believe ourselves that in this cynical urban milieu, such a happening had actually occurred…Our first battle for peace in the new millennium had indeed been won. And we want to share this moment with our friends wherever you are as we continue our journey.

    For there are promises to keep/and miles to go before we sleep (Robert Frost).

    Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2000, Year 7  No. 55,  Breaking Barriers 1