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Extraordinary Indians: He works in India's MOST troubled zones

Last updated on: October 19, 2011 14:51 IST

Extraordinary Indians: He works in India's MOST troubled zones

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A Ganesh Nadar in Pune

Sanjay Nahar is the founder of the non-governmental organisation Sarhad, which literally means border. The NGO is based out of Pune and has worked in Punjab, Kashmir and Manipur among other places.

In a candid chat with Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar, Nahar spoke of the inspiration behind his NGO, the work he is so passionately involved in and the challenges before him.

Continuing our series on Extraordinary Indians...

My work started in 1980. At that time Punjab was in turmoil and we went there to try and bring peace in the region. Unfortunately, one of our activists, Gaekwad, was killed in Punjab. Gaekwad received the President's award posthumously. Around 25,000 people attended his funeral.      

In 1989-90 there was an upheaval in Kashmir, so we changed our focus from Punjab to Kashmir. In 1995 we started working under the name Sarhad, and we got the organisation registered in 1997. 

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Image: 'Sarhad' founder Sanjay Nahar with former President APJ Abdul Kalam

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'Name Sarhad inspired from a Gulzar poem'

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The name 'Sarhad' was inspired from a poem written by Gulzar. It read: Sarhad par kar ke aaye kuch mehman. It made me realise that there was always trouble at the border. Whether it was the district border, state border or International border, there was always a problem. It was then that my organisation decided to work in the border areas. 

We started taking Kashmiri children on all India tours, which we called 'know India tour'. The external affairs ministry arranges similar tours for non-resident Indian kids. We came to know that Kashmiris knew very little about the rest of the country and we decided to show it to the kids. 

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Image: Institutions built by NGO 'Sarhad'

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'Attitude towards life changed while working in Punjab'

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When I was a kid I was very violent. My icons were Shivaji Maharaj and Adolph Hitler. I used to use the Nazi flag as my own. We beat up Ram Jethmalani (lawyer) for defending the Indira Gandhi killers and beat up deputy chief minister of Maharashtra Ramrao Adik for doing something we did not approve of. 

We were hotheaded and hot-blooded then. However, this attitude changed while we were working in Punjab. Once while visiting a village in Punjab, a sardar questioned our presence there. We told him that we were there to teach them patriotism. He asked us how many of our family members had died for the nation. None of us replied. The man then informed us that every house in that village had lost at least one member in the service of the nation. Our pride crumbled, our violent ways stopped that day.          

The man asked us to leave the village. However, I told him that we cannot leave them because they were facing severe problems because of militancy. How could we ignore our countrymen in their hour of need? He finally relented. 

Once a policeman beat up a senior colleague of our group. In protest, our colleague staged a fast. The cop demanded why he resorted to a fast, since we were known to fight with people who tried to get tough with us. My colleague said that he was going on a fast because the cops were too tough to beat up. You couldn't win against them. They had the government behind them. We must never be weak. Fasting makes the mind stronger.

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Image: Sarhad' founder Sanjay Nahar with Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray

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'Children learn more from our tours than in school'

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Our first tour had 32 children, while in the last one there were 361 kids. In a single tour they learnt more than what they would have in ten years of school. 

What made these tours worthwhile was that people went out of their way to meet the Kashmiri kids and also gave them lot of love and respect. When Amitabh Bachchan was requested to meet these children he obliged. He didn't do this for kids in Mumbai. 

I started bringing children from Kashmiri to Pune and getting them admitted in schools and colleges there. However, getting admission was not easy. Principals used to ask me, "You think only Kashmir has problems? This entire country has problems. We cannot give admission to all of them." I had a big fight with the management of Symbiosis institute. They said you keep coming too often to get Kashmiri students admitted, we cannot entertain you. I told them that in ten years I would start an institute that will rival the best, wait and watch.

We got a plot from the government and we did not have money to even build a wall around it. But we decided that we will not ask anyone for money. Those who wanted to donate were welcome. We always checked their intentions.

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Image: Sanjay Nahar with actor Amitabh Bachchan and MNS chief Raj Thackeray

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'Warring factions in Manipur might listen to Anna Hazare'

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People had this idea that NGOs were big and good businesses. We wanted to change that perception. We wanted service and sacrifice as our watchwords and not the amount of money you had in your pocket. 

I took a loan from a bank and started work. Today we have a school and classes up to tenth standard. We also have a college with arts, science and commerce streams. 

The Kashmiri students study free of cost, which doesn't mean we overcharge local students. Every one pays reasonable fees and we pay our teachers' salary. Local students in the school and college are day scholars. Only the Kashmiri students are provided hostel facilities. 

We have also been working in Manipur for many years. I suggested that they should approach social activist Anna Hazare, as he has found wide acceptance after his fast against corruption in Delhi. He has a clean image and thus both the warring factions in Manipur might listen to him. The state and Central government have had no influence on them. 

We also have our teams working in Assam, Arunachal and Meghalaya. As a result of a meeting with Anna, RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal is going there on October 24. 

Former Union minister and social worker, Mohan Dharia,  has also promised to write to the prime minister about removing the blockade in Manipur. Mohan Dharia is being presented the national integration award this year. He said the award is pointless when one state is cut off from the rest of the country for almost 3 months now. 

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Image: Sonia Gandhi with Kashmiri students during a 'Know India Tour'

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'Music has a calming effect on people'

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I am still paying the bank loan I took for building the school. We have also purchased additional land elsewhere and also plan to start a music institute. 

I strongly believe that violence can be brought down with music, as it has a calming effect on people. I have seen militants in Manipur who carry a machine gun on one shoulder and a guitar on the other. 

I have seen people arguing heatedly, and when they hear music they both sit down together to enjoy it. 

We hold a Kashmir festival in Pune every year. It showcases Kashmir's art, music and culture, and exposes it to the locals here.

We also have plans to empower Kashmiri women. We are going to start an outlet like Fab India, which sells goods made by Kashmiri and Manipuri women. We have started a membership drive among women and soon they will start manufacturing and we will start selling. 

Whatever money they earn will be spent on them. We are not going to give them sympathy; we are going to give them respect. Once they start earning, their self esteem will go up. That is empowerment. 

I am not interested in politics. The biggest problem facing our country is militancy, terrorism and violence. Basically these are all conflicts. We are working in that area and have started a center for conflict management. 

The Manipur team came to Pune because of the initiative of our conflict management team. We also have a management institute. Genuine Kashmir students who need our help are always welcome to come and study here. 

I have made the same offer to the government of Pakistan and Bangladesh. We will make Pune the cultural capital of India. It is already a historical city. 

As told to A Ganesh Nadar


Image: Shahrukh Khan with participants of 'Know India Tour'

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