What are the roles available for the political class in times of rioting? Political leaders can be expected to instigate riots, propagate rumors, mobilize mobs, indulge in blame game, and manage post-riot relief and compensation. Are they expected to stop riots, and heal wounds? No. That would be too idealistic. When rioting is on, the mob is in such animalistic frenzy that it would be foolhardy even for an otherwise popular leader to go out and tell the people to come to senses.
In Muzaffarnagar, the usual suspects played all the roles of the first category; no one was prepared to make any sacrifice to stop the bloodshed or heal wounds. No one was expected either. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi did, time and again, but well, that was Gandhi. And he paid with his life for that.
It would be too idealistic for people who are not Gandhi, right? No. It so happens that there have been people who laid down their lives to stop massacres in the name of religion. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, a Congress activist, freedom fighter and journalist, was killed by a mob during an orgy of communal rioting in Kanpur in 1931 as he tried to bring them to senses. A very fitting example is also that of ‘Vasant-Rajab’ — Vasantrao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani, a Hindu and a Muslim — who sacrificed their lives in their effort to quell communal violence in Ahmedabad on the day of the annual Rath Yatra on July 1, 1946. (The Ahmedabad-based Movement for Secular Democracy celebrates July 1 as Vasant-Rajab Day to keep their legacy and memories of their martyrdom alive.)
Arguably the last instance of such humanist intervention during rioting was from a Gandhian: Ravishankar ‘Maharaj’, a freedom fighter and social reformer, who went out in disturbed areas of Ahmedabad during the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad that left over 2,000 people dead. He and his associates sang hymns, held mass prayers and appealed people to shun violence — apparently with some success. Society, however, cannot bank on individual interventions. So, it was the visionary Gandhi who suggested setting up a peace force, the Shanti Sena. The 1938 riots in Allahabad, the headquarters of the Congress then, prompted him to formulate this proposal in his journal ‘Harijan’:
“The Congress should be able to put forth a non-violent army of volunteers numbering not a few thousands but lakhs who would be equal to every occasion where the police and the military are required.… A non-violent army acts unlike armed men, as well in times of peace as disturbances. They would be constantly engaged in activities that make riots impossible. Theirs will be the duty of seeking occasions for bringing warring communities together, carrying on peace propaganda, engaging in activities that would bring and keep them in touch with every single person, male and female, adult and child, in their parish or division.” Of course, after independence the Congress limited its agenda to parliamentary politics, but Vinoba Bhave, as “spiritual heir” to Gandhi, revived the idea and set up a Shanti Sena in 1957 as part of his Savodaya movement. Under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and Narayan Desai (who remains active to this day), about 6,000 people signed up to act as peace volunteers. During the 1969 Ahmedabad riots, the Sena’s volunteers worked individually during the first couple of days and then in a more organized way, restoring peace.
After the riots, they continued to help the affected people for months. JP, as well as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, visited their camps (irony was that it was time for Gandhi’s birth centenary celebrations, which had brought the “Frontier Gandhi”, as Khan was known, to Ahmedabad). Unfortunately, Shanti Sena did not survive the 1970s. (Those interested in this experiment can do well to read Thomas Weber’s “Gandhi’s Peace Army”).
But is another Shanti Sena the need of the hour? A non-idealistic, hardcore-empirical social scientist too suggests so. Ashutosh Varshney, whose “Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India” is the richest empirical study of communal riots in the country, concludes that “inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic networks of civic engagement” that build bridges between communities act as agents of peace. An organized and proactive version of such networks would have a shape similar to that of Shanti Sena. A peace constituency, matching the communal elements’ proactive zeal, is the only way out. But this project is neither politically attractive nor easy. Not attractive, because unlike communal politics (from either side of the divide) which is an efficient way of catching votes (you don’t need to read Paul Brass to figure that out), peace politics apparently has no dividends to offer in terms of votes. If the majority of people are supposed to be peace loving, a way will have to be found to make them translate their aspirations into votes. Not easy, compared to the cakewalk task of the other camp — of appealing to imaginary insecurities and animalistic instincts with demagoguery.
• This article was written for Governance Now