Bridging Communal Divide: Initiatives of Peace Centres Solidarity Network

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Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) organised peace centres review meeting in Mumbai on 26th and 27th November 2021.

Peace centres train youth to understand diversity and communal harmony intervene during communal conflicts to build peace, monitor and document communal violence.

NEHA DABHADE | Clarion India

CENTRE for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) organised peace centres review meeting in Mumbai on 26th and 27th November 2021. Peace Centres from three regions- Ahmedabad (Hozefa Ujjaini), Bhagalpur (Rahul Rajeev from Paridhi), Kolkata (Subhopratim Roychowdhury, Mohit Ratnadip and Sominder Sarkar from AAMRA) and Saharanpur (Iram Usmani) were represented by peace activists working in the respective regions.

CSSS has been facilitating and supporting the network of peace centres which work with the aim of highlighting cultural diversity and composite culture in their respective areas and act as a bridge between communities. CSSS holds regular review meetings to plan, to strategise and to evaluate the work of the peace centres.

There is a network of peace centres partnering with CSSS which work relentless on the issues of diversity, composite culture, peace building and monitoring of communal violence. These peace centres are situated in regions prone to communal violence. These peace centres are run by team of committed peace workers. They train youth to understand diversity and communal harmony intervene during communal conflicts to build peace, monitor and document communal violence.

The peace centres focus on highlighting cultural diversity and towards this end undertake cultural festival to revisit composite culture through the mediums of dance, poetry and music. Over the years, the peace centres have been successful in highlighting composite culture and mediating in communal conflicts to establish dialogue and peace between communities. They have also been playing an important role filling gaps in data on communal violence by undertaking fact findings and bringing out reports.

The objectives of this meeting were as follows:

1.      To understand the achievements, challenges and best practices of the peace centres in the year 2020-21

2.      To plan for the future and establish synergy in the programmes of the different peace centres.

The two-day meeting begun with the Prof Indra Munshi addressing the meeting. She emphasised on the significance of diversity and democracy in a plural society like India. Her insights inspired the group. Dr Ram Puniyani addressed the meeting next and laid in front of everyone some of the concerns facing peace work in India. He urged the participants to engage in consolidating peace network and social media.

Each peace centre then reported about the work and processes that have taken place in their peace centres. Their presentation and reports included an overview of their work, their achievements, best practices which yielded good results for them and finally the challenges faced by the peace centres. The exercise of revisiting the desired impact and impact indicators was also undertaken and some relevant changes made in the impact indicators.

In the last two years, during the pandemic, the peace centres contributed immensely to the relief work during the lockdown. They reached out to the most marginalised groups- migrant workers, labourers, students, internally displaced persons, casual workers from the unorganised sector, poor women and riot victims. During this process, some of the peace workers from Kolkata and Ahmedabad contracted Covid. In a glimpse of their indomitable spirit, after recovering from the illness, they resumed relief work. The peace centres are focusing on a range of activities to meet the objectives of the peace centres. The activities range from celebrating festivals with a message of inclusion, observing important days related to constitution, revisiting freedom struggle icons and their ideas, organising poetry and song programmes and organising lectures on relevant topics.

The peace centres exchanged some best practices to learn from each other. The peace centres reported that some practices have worked out best for them to inch towards the desired objectives. For instance, the Ahmedabad peace centre found the poetry programmes – “Shaam-e- Aman” have helped it to reach out to the youth with a medium of expression which they use to build solidarity.

Bringing out reports on the status of communal violence in the state of Gujarat has also provided the peace centre with an opportunity to initiate a discussion and discourse with the necessary data. The Report titled, “Peaceful Gujarat: An Illusion or Truth” got wide media coverage. Bhagalpur peace centre has found benefits of celebrating festivals in an inclusive manner and giving a positive message of solidarity and unity. Kolkata peace centre has organised riot affected women from both Hindu and Muslim communities from Telanipara into self help groups who interact with each other in a positive and meaningful way building peace between both communities post violence. The youth group consisting of both the communities also perform together. All the peace centres felt that fact finding into communal violence and building solidarity networks has helped their work overall.

The peace centres have against all odds worked tirelessly to achieve its objectives. However, there have been some challenges plaguing the peace centres. The biggest challenge has been the Covid pandemic which has posed restrictions on meeting physically. This pandemic has also rendered the vulnerable sections more marginalised due to loss of employment, housing and expensive healthcare.

Thus, they felt need of the community is employment and other livelihood issues and not diversity. Thus, it’s getting difficult to mobilise the community for programs on diversity or organising them around the issues related to diversity. The pandemic has equally affected the team members and volunteers of the peace centres who have to fend for their families in the face of loss of employment. The organising of cultural activities has suffered. The dwindling financial resources have also been a concern to scale up the activities of the peace centres. While before the pandemic, the community were contributing towards the activities of the peace centres.

The obstruction of the state in terms of discriminatory laws and institutionalised discrimination has posed a formidable challenge to peace work. These laws have lent legitimacy to discrimination and emboldened vigilante groups to indulge in hate crimes and openly intimidating peace workers and human rights defenders. Another major challenge has been the limited outreach of the peace centres through its activities. One of the ways to increase the outreach is to showcase its objectives and impact through social media. Drawing equal participation of women in the decision making of the peace centres and its leadership also has been a perennial concern.

The peace centres despite the challenges have achieved some remarkable achievements collectively. Firstly, they rose up to the challenge of the pandemic and immense human suffering. They distributed relief material at the cost of their health and safety and gained the confidence of the community. This has earned the peace centres respect of the communities and given the peace centres much needed presence in the communities. AMMRA in particular has been able to form self help groups for peace building. They have been able to form cultural groups who are performing together notwithstanding religious polarisation.

Due to the cultural walk undertaken by Ahmedabad peace centre, youth are getting a perspective on composite culture and heritage sites and intervening positively in conflicts involving reclaiming of sites of composite culture by right wing. This youth also participated in a fact finding and attempted to stop violence. AMMRA and Ahmedabad peace centre have undertaken fact findings in the past two years and created alternative discourse on communal conflicts and bringing facts to light which are not covered by mainstream media.

Future Direction

The second day of the meeting was spent in planning for the future of the peace centres- individually as well as collectively. The peace centres agreed that activities like lecture series on “Idea of India” must continue as before. Additionally, cultural activities must be resumed with emphasis on dance, music, poetry and theatre highlighting composite culture and diversity.

  • In terms of programmes, it was suggested that peace centres should wherever possible organise cultural festivals involving dance, music poetry, theatre or food and participate in larger cultural festivals. Thus there should be one national level cultural festival every year.
  • Paridhi in Bhagalpur organises the Nav Varsh Mela on 1st January every year which is attended by nearly 2000 people. It has been very popular over the years.
  • Similarly, Srijan Mela is organised in the month of February in Allahabad and been a cultural attraction. The peace centres can bring their cultural groups/ troupes to perform at these festivals. Similarly, the peace centres can organize festivals at their state level or district level with the resources- financial and human resources already available. AAMRA is already planning to participate in the Allahabad festival.
  • AMMRA will also try to organise cultural festivals in three districts of West Bengal.
  • It was also felt that each region has very rich examples of syncretic traditions and composite culture which bears testimony to the harmonious co-existence and enriching give and take between communities for centuries. These examples should be documented and popularized by publishing them.
  • Organisationally, the peace centres collectively believed that steadily the number of peace centres should increase across India.
  • In this direction, Hozefa Ujjaini volunteered to find peace activists in Gujarat who can potentially set up a peace centre.
  • Similarly, AMMRA will attempt to identify someone from Northern part of the state of West Bengal as well as in Kokrajhar in Assam.
  • Paridhi and AAMRA volunteered to identify an organisation/ activist in Jharkhand. At state level, Paridhi will attempt to include organizations from five districts of Bihar into the Paridhi peace centre. Similarly it will organize a State level Convention to expand the network of solidarity organizations and identify possibilities of setting up peace centres in other parts of Bihar.

The meeting provided much needed motivation and sense of solidarity to all the peace centres to resume their activities with renewed rigour. All the members appreciated this meeting in person and urged to organise the next one in Bhagalpur.

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Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), Mumbai. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India.

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