January 25, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Baba Amte

'Militants never conquer and militants are never conquered'

As is his wit, Baba Amte's memory is startling.

Lying on his back -- a spinal problem restricts him to either a standing or lying down position -- the 87-year-old legendary social activist takes a closer look and says: "I remember you girls had come to meet me on the bank of the Narmada."

Just back from his afternoon walk in an adjacent park in suburban Bombay, he is getting his toes massaged by a specialist. "Would you mind terribly if this man massaged Baba's toes while he spoke to you? It has done him tremendous good," the gentleman hosting Baba Amte had earlier requested. Sadhnatai, Baba's wife, meanwhile, spoke to other wellwishers, and fished out that elusive paper her husband wanted from a thick file that others could not find.

Passing through Bombay on his way from Delhi, India's last Gandhian spoke to Features Editor (News) Archana Masih about his cancelled peace mission to Pakistan, the chance for peace in Jammu & Kashmir and the hope for a better India. A Republic Day Special.

As India celebrates its 51st Republic Day -- as a veteran who has been witness to its history over five decades -- where would you place India today? Would you say it has been a success as a nation or has it failed in the eyes of its people?

The question whether India is a successful or unsuccessful nation means little to me. One thing I have noticed is the roaring of the young palpitating hearts of this nation. There is ebb and flow. No roaring can happen if there is no ebb and there is only flow. The 20th century is soiled with blood, violence, disparity. The 20th century was a century of confrontation. The 21st century will be a century of consideration and courage.

I have become very hopeful of the 21st century because while bidding good bye to the 20th century, I saw certain groups all over the world -- not only in India -- advocating a new trend of life and lifestyle. This itself is an indication that the 21st century is a century of consideration, contentment and new achievement.

I am more concerned with the youth of this country. We say the world rests on the breath of the youth and the younger generation is mightily convinced that happiness and contentment cannot be purchased by affluence. On the contrary, they think affluence has brought boredom. Those youth that are neither affluent or very poor have become very aware and they feel unless there is a change in lifestyle, they will not be able to enjoy life at all.

The world has gone in a moral coma. The intelligentsia is not raising its voice, it is as if they have become unconscious. And it is when this happens that certain groups can be heard in the valleys, on mountain tops and in the remotest parts of the world. They will deliver the goods in the 21st century.

At the same time, when you look back, what would you say are India's prominent achievements?

India has achieved a lot. But achieved for whom? The rich have become richer and poor, poorer. In the 20th century, we have seen there was a great struggle between need and greed and greed had an upper hand. The world did not bother about the existing disparity. They can no longer afford to do this any more.

Those who rule India this century must bear in mind that the Indian village, like an Indian woman, carries the nation's womb. And the pre-natal care of the nation's womb will be done by the youth. Because India is a young nation and the youth are detecting these vibrations of change. At the dawn of the new century, new horizons are beckoning the youthful generations.

To fulfill this, they have to be in continuous, creative activity -- which is also my definition of happiness. Not jingling coins, dollars or rupees. Like Gandhi said, a change in lifestyle will be the motto of this world.

We all know that youth proposes, old age opposes and middle age disposes. So I am a robust optimist.

You feel the poor in India have been continuously neglected.

But one must understand they are not so poor as they used to be. Those have become things of the past. At the same time, it is true that the existing disparity has to be bridged. And then, there should be long term planning by the government. Again I repeat this country will have youthquakes that will alter the outlook of life. Gandhi will be more relevant in the 21st century than even during my time.

See, I have with me a poem written by a young Indian soldier. It goes like this:

Where one end of the rainbow begins in India and the other in Pakistan
Where clouds come from India and rain in Pakistan
Where winds blow from India and take the fragrance of flowers to Pakistan
Where the Jhelum flows from India and quenches the thirst in Pakistan
Where the birds glide in India and sleep in Pakistan
Where the mountains divide India and Pakistan
Where enmity begins in both countries and ends nowhere

This is the heartache of a soldier facing death every moment on the frontiers of the nation. This shows the whole world is aspiring for peace, not for enmity.

You have changed your plans about taking a peace mission to Pakistan because of the restriction in movement being imposed upon you by the Pakistan government. What is the status of that visit? Has it been cancelled or postponed?

It's not the question of cancelling it. I have given an indemnity bond of Rs 20 lakhs. My passport and visa is lying there. You can't have a peace march with army and police vans! For me, if there is no security, there is no entry. Had I gone as an ordinary citizen, I probably could not have achieved my mission. They did not allow a special ambulance, they said Vajpayee's bus was there twice a week.

The Government of India wrote to them about my illness -- the problem of my spine and the awards I had received. But the Pakistan high commission told me they don't allow such a VIP without security. Suppose the peace mission was scuttled because of militants or any other reason, Pakistan would be defamed all over the world. So they took their precautions.

What were you expecting from this mission?

I was not going to Pakistan to carry on the political programme of any party to unite India and Pakistan. As two neighbours we should exist peacefully. Because in spite of Pokhran we have not achieved anything, because the victor of an atomic war always becomes a victim. People know this. After Pokhran, you have two men who enter the Red Fort and kill people. That sandalwood smuggler cannot be arrested by the might of two states put together. So the young generation feels more humiliated. They are not concerned with Pokhran. They are concerned with having human relationships. The queue for visas to India and Pakistan has increased after Kargil.

When was the last time you went to Pakistan?

I have travelled to Pakistan twice. I had gone with the youth. The gates had been opened and when the time for the lowering of flags came, the youth from that side were saying, 'Nafrat chodo, dil ko jodo (Forget hatred, unite the hearts).' and the youth from India were saying: 'Dharti baati, sagar baata, Mat baato insaan ko (You divided the land and the river, but do not divide the people).'

I was standing between the gate and the brigadier from the other side was watching my feet closely. I didn't know why. He came to me and said: 'Baba your toes are trespassing in Pakistan.' My toes were in Pakistan and heel in India. So the youth will not spill their blood any more. A sense of understanding will develop.

After Kargil, 20 people came to me from Pakistan to knit humanity.

The government has extended the cease-fire in Jammu and Kashmir by another month. During the cease-fire itself, more than 50 people have lost their lives -- there was an attack on Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's life and a bold attack on Srinagar airport -- in fact, there were 15 deaths in the first three days of the cease-fire. In the light of these incidents, what do you make of this third attempt at the cease-fire?

One must understand that militants never conquer and militants are never conquered. This is the intrinsic nature of terrorism. It has happened for years in Ireland. Israel and Palestine. Terror is always in a minority. People all over the world are fed up of terrorism. Whenever people try to profess peace, terror enhances its efforts. It has happened again (in J&K) and our prime minister hasn't succumbed to it. I congratulate him.

In fact, the J&K chief minister also said we must have a war with Pakistan. But that is not a sound judgement. That is not a solution.

There have been initiatives taken by the government in dealing with the problem in J&K. But far from achieving peace, the parties have not even made it to the negotiating table. In the light of this, what chances are there for peace in J&K?

The Government of India has never made any attempts on the people to people to front. That has never been encouraged. One one side there is talk of Pokhran, the other side peace. Nawaz Sharif was only allowed to go to Saudi Arabia and not sent to the gallows like Bhutto because he had delivered the Islamic bomb in response to Pokhran. That's why his life was saved, not because of any love for him.

People-to-people cultural programmes have not increased.

Why should such exchanges be encouraged with an enemy state?

The union of Germany took place, not by any such resolutions or ordinances but by the people. Sometime back, 20 intellectuals from Pakistan had come to Anandwan. Their visa allowed them to go from Lahore-via-Wagah border, New Delhi, and Anandwan. They could pass through Agra, but could not see the Taj Mahal. A generation born in independent Pakistan can stay for four hours at Wardha station, but cannot go and pay their tribute to Gandhiji! So efforts on this front are totally lacking.

Do you think India has paid far too heavy a price in keeping Kashmir?

We paid a heavy price in Kargil. We should not continue to do the same. There can be a solution to every problem as long as there is a national will.

Thank god we got J&K because Hari Singh could not keep it himself. The Muslims in Kashmir were most patriotic. There were riots all over India. All the rivers were dyed with human blood. There was no riot in Kashmir. Why? People forget this. Because of Sheikh Abdullah we are enjoying Kashmir. There was a Muslim majority in the state, they could have easily joined Pakistan.

Such a patriotic gesture is suspected by the ruling class. So many have been killed, that is the nature of terrorism, but that does not mean the common man in both the countries wants war. They are aspiring to come closer.

Do you think the Line of Control should be recognised as the international border between India and Pakistan?

I think recognising it is more human than what is going on today. Nobody is satisfied. So let us sit across the table. We were prepared to give passports to those people (the Hurriyat leaders). Then I don't know what happened. Why not sit across the table? For peace and prosperity it is worth trying again and again.

But the Indian government is adamant not to have talks with Pakistan unless it stops supporting the militancy in Kashmir. Pakistan denies this kind of involvement. Is this not a vicious circle?

In this situation pressure groups from both countries should force the rulers to come to the table. Diplomacy is a war without weapons. Don't give up your position, but let us sit together. After that the common man will raise his voice for promoting trade, communication etc. I think they will have to sit and discuss the whole thing. In both countries a national tragedy is going on at the borders.

Kashmiris want peace and prosperity.

As a cause, the Narmada Bachao Andolan was very close to your heart. How disappointed were you with the Supreme Court verdict?

Victor is he who even in defeat doesn't surrender. When the right to live is damaged by the judgment, that is not something that we say but the dissenting judge also said to stop the dam. Let there be total review of the environmental requirements.

There are three, four black judgments in the world that encroach on human rights. I know my responsibilities, I am a responsible citizen, but this judgment has done a lot of injustice to the tribals. The judiciary has also given the power of judging to the PM. In the judgment they say if they find something wrong, go to the prime minister -- whose home minister goes to the Sardar Sarovar Dam to perform puja only to increase the height. How can the tribals trust you?

Even the President of India says in a public address honouring Baba Amte with the first international Babasaheb Ambedkar award for change. He said the GoI should build dams, but the people should be looked after. I have invited him to the Narmada valley.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda. Design: Dominic Xavier

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