Review: The Peacemakers by Ghazala Wahab
A collection of 12 essays by a diverse group of writers focuses on people who have risked their lives to bring about peace in the midst of violence
It is hard to feel hopeful when the news cycle brings reports of people being killed because of their religion, caste, race, gender or sexual orientation in different parts of the world every day. Still, we cannot afford to give up on the dream of a better future; it is inspiring to read about people who have resisted hate with love, and violence with dialogue.
Journalist Ghazala Wahab’s new book The Peacemakers is a collection of 12 essays written by people working in fields like law, journalism, human rights, filmmaking, academia, community medicine, and activism. Wahab, the editor of the volume, and author of one of the essays, describes the book as “an anthology on people who have risked life and limb to bring about peace in the midst of violence”.
The book opens with an essay by historian Rajmohan Gandhi entitled Before and after the Partition: Four Years in Gandhi’s Life that chronicles the author’s grandfather MK Gandhi’s efforts for peace in East Bengal and Bihar between November 1946 and April 1947. While he was able to get Hindus and Muslims to march jointly for peace, he paid a heavy price for his unwavering determination and was assassinated by Nathuram Godse.
What drives people to put themselves in danger for the well-being of others? Activist Teesta Setalvad explores this question in her essay Gujarat 2002: A Heritage of Humanity. One of the individuals profiled here is Piyush Desai, chairman of the Wagh Bakri tea company that distributed tea free of charge to relief camps in Gujarat for six months in 2002. He was ashamed when people asked him why he, as a Hindu, wanted to help Muslims. He recalls how the brand owes its origins to a Muslim who gave his ancestors a loan of 10,000 rupees more than 150 years ago. “We are indebted to him. How can we ever pay off this debt?” he said.
Wahab’s book is filled with many such heartwarming stories that restore one’s faith in humanity. Writer Natasha Badhwar and human rights researcher Oishika Neogi’s collaboratively authored essay, Delhi Violence, February 2020: The Doctor Who Bore Witness, is a case in point. Dr Mohammad Ahtasham Anwar’s 15-bed private hospital in New Mustafabad provided medical care to victims of communal violence. He was adamant that he would treat any human being who needed his services.
It is important to document such humanitarian efforts because people like him might not make it to school textbooks, and future generations deserve to know that compassion was not entirely lost. There were people who chose restraint, rose beyond narrow identities, and went out of their way to heed the call of their conscience.
In The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984: Three Days of Horror, journalist Rahul Bedi writes about additional deputy commissioner of police Maxwell Pereira who, along with a group of over 20 police officers, prevented a mob from entering the Sis Ganj Sahib gurudwara in Delhi. Pereira was of the firm belief that he and his colleagues did not require any orders from their superiors to “act correctly as warranted in times of such need”. He felt that it was their duty to protect Sikhs, and cops who procrastinated were colluding with the mob.
Similar anecdotes are found in journalist Jyoti Punwani’s essay, Bombay Riots 1992-93: Months of Madness. Apart from the mohalla committee movement led by Julio Ribeiro, Sushobha Barve, Yasmin Shaikh and FT Khorakiwala, this essay honours the work of Youth for Voluntary Action – an NGO working in the slums and chawls of Jogeshwari. A women’s peace march through both Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods, and interfaith cricket tournaments, were among the innovative approaches used to build bridges after the damage was done.
Wahab’s book would certainly enrich the curriculum of university departments offering courses in peace and conflict studies. Free of academic jargon, these essays would also appeal to those who are genuinely interested in viewing recent Indian history through the lens of peace. This is the history of people’s movements and citizens and activist groups are at the forefront of it.
Journalist Teresa Rehman’s essay, Insiders and Outsiders in Assam: The Ant of Rowmari, for instance, celebrates the work of Sunil Kaul and Jennifer Liang who run the Action Northeast Trust. They build peace through education, countering domestic violence, the economic empowerment of women, legal aid, and initiatives that promote mental health. Rehman draws attention to the fact that gender-based discrimination too is a form of violence.
This theme comes up again in Wahab’s own essay, Jammu and Kashmir 2004-19: No Peace Without Justice, where she narrates her experience of meeting two Kashmiri women at a coffee shop in Srinagar in 2008. These women were excited about the availability of new employment opportunities for Kashmiri youth but also had to contend with “moral vigilantism” from a religious organization forcing women to be fully veiled in public.
One of them told Wahab that women who lost their husbands, brothers, and sons during the heyday of militancy in the valley, were compelled to fend for themselves. However, when they stepped out of their homes to work, their character was questioned. Since many were worried about their safety, they wore veils to avoid being recognized in public.
“When a woman goes out to work, she is not only pursuing a career, she is also showing other women that it is possible to step out of the house, no matter how difficult the situation is, and earn a livelihood,” said one. She was convinced that a “decent education” could enable children in Kashmir to break out of the cycle of violence.
This essay is not meant to be an in-depth historical exploration of why things are the way they are in Kashmir. Wahab is interested in common people’s aspirations for peace, alongside the work of organizations that raise awareness about enforced disappearances. The book also discusses how peace does not imply an unquestioning adherence to the status quo; it must make room for the acknowledgement of harm, accountability and justice. Without these, reconciliation would mean little and those who are marginalized would be more vulnerable.
Researcher Shivam Mogha’s essay, Muzaffarnagar Riots, 2013: Sliding Towards Violence, touches upon how the marginalized are being pitted against each other in Uttar Pradesh. He joined an RSS shakha to participate in sports activities but cut off ties with the organization after immersing himself in Ambedkar’s ideas.
During the Muzaffarnagar riots, he learnt how both Dalits and Muslims had suffered but resources earmarked for rehabilitation were used to divide people from these communities. The resistance to tensions created among them came from village elders who formed the Aman Ekta Manch and organized meetings in villages to resolve conflicts and rebuild trust.
The book also includes essays by Nandita Haksar, Sunil Kumar, Uttam Sengupta and Ramani Atkuri. Haksar, a lawyer, writes about her involvement as a citizen in the Indo-Naga peace process, and how it became impossible for her to work in the human rights movement when she saw that “the influx of foreign aid had ensured that the agenda was no longer dictated by the needs of the people but by western states and perhaps corporations.” Kumar, a Chhattisgarh-based journalist, writes about challenges in the Maoist and Naxal-affected tribal areas despite efforts of civil society leaders like Swami Agnivesh, Sudha Bharadwaj and Bela Bhatia, among others, to foster dialogue.
Sengupta, a journalist, reflects on the deeply entrenched prejudices that he encountered while growing up in Ranchi in the 1960s and 1970s. As a Bengali whose parents were refugees from East Pakistan, he was often subject to slurs related to dietary preferences and skin complexion but he also saw that his parents who lost their ancestral home did not hold bitterness towards all Muslims and welcomed his own Muslim friends into their home.
This is the kind of world that Atkuri, a practitioner of community medicine working in tribal and rural areas of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, dreams of in her essay on the Bharat Jodo Yatra. She joined Congress politician Rahul Gandhi in a walk stretching from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, to affirm an Indianness that is non-discriminatory.
In sum, The Peacemakers gives readers hope that discrimination and hatred are only passing afflictions that can be overcome.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.