Volume 17 Number 3
Healing Streams
01 June 2004

Zainab Bawa draws insights from a new Indian book on dialogue and reconciliation between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

‘Mine is the story of an ordinary person who,when thrown into extraordinary situations,acted according to the prompting of her heart.’

As I copy these words from Sushobha Barve’s book, Healing Streams*, I ask myself whether it is necessary to go through an experience of violence in order to understand the meaning of peace. What is peace? Does ‘peace’ differ from individual to individual, community to community, society to society?

Barve’s book is timely because it raises pertinent questions for the victims of violence, the perpetrators of violence and for those involved in efforts towards establishing ‘peace’. Healing Streams is more than an account of Barve’s personal experience of communal riots in India; it is also an exploration of her own inner journey of transformation and growth. Perhaps this is what makes the book special. She points out that it is as important to be at peace with oneself as to have peace in the external environment. Barve shows that neither internal peace nor external peace is static; both involve journeys of confrontation, of emptiness and of faith— constantly.

Sushobha Barve’s calling towards peacemaking began with a train journey in 1984. On the day of the journey, news broke out that Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, had been assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. Violence against Sikhs spread throughout India. In Barve’s train compartment, there were two Sikh passengers. Both men were dragged out of the compartment, beaten up, set on fire and left for dead. Barve and her colleague Sarla Kapardia, who were working with Initiatives of Change, witnessed this gruesome violence. And the incident followed them like a nightmare.

Barve (herself a Hindu) decided to initiate dialogue meetings between Hindus and Sikhs. In one such meeting, while narrating her experience on the train, she said to the Sikhs present, ‘I am deeply sorry for the hurt and humiliation we have inflicted on your community. Please forgive us.’

The recognition and acceptance of one’s identity is important; for, as Barve mentions, it leads to the answers to vital questions. Later, when Barve was working with the victims of the 1992-93 HinduMuslim riots in Mumbai, she was faced with questions such as: Why am I working with the Muslims? Is it because I am feeling guilty and repenting for the wrongs committed by Hindus against Muslims? In peacemaking, are we going to include only the victims? What about the wrongdoers?

This is where I have begun to trace my own understanding of dialogue, and, most crucially, of the processes I employ for dialogue. For some time, in my bridgebuilding work in Kashmir, I was engaged only with Kashmiri Muslims. Recently I recognized that no resolution to the bitterness inside each one of us is possible until we break the wall between Us and Them—Us, the victims, and Them, the wrongdoers.

As Barve explains, there is a need to be careful that dialogue does not itself become a process of exclusion. At times, it can be important to exclude ‘some’ people, but overall, our attempt must be to listen to all the parties. We need to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding where anger can be expressed without judgments being passed, and where an opportunity is provided to move beyond the anger.

Barve outlines in detail the issues that can arise while working with riot-affected communities. Throughout her book, she speaks about the question of rehabilitation and how it needs to be holistic—both psychological and economic. Without economic rehabilitation, the community is left vulnerable and wounds can become deeper. From her experience with the ‘Imamwada Mohalla Committee’ after the riots in Mumbai, she points out that it is critical to create opportunities for gainful employment, particularly for the youth, so that they are able to restart their lives and rebuild the broken community. In the longterm, building peace is also a matter of building sustainable economics.

Barve describes how the Mohalla Committee experiment demonstrated the importance of organic models of community/neighbourhood involvement for establishing peace within the city. If citizens can resolve internal disputes, then there is no need for the police or the government to step in.

She also examines the role of outsiders in facilitating the rehabilitation process in a community. She concludes that the process of establishing trust between Hindus and Muslims will have to be a continuous one, perhaps needing sensitive outside intervention. The skill is to know when to move into a situation and when to step aside. In the end, people have to grow and make their own discoveries in human relations. A facilitator’s role is to understand this and help people to find their own potential.

One of the most important threads that runs through the book is that of ‘historical wrongs’—can we seek revenge for a wrong committed by a community in one era by ‘paying them back’ in another? How can we emerge from our collective memories of historical wrongs?

Barve refers to the story of Rano Shazia of Nagaland, a former Member of Parliament, whose husband had been killed in an election meeting. At her husband’s funeral, Rano announced that her family would not seek revenge for her husband’s murder. Several young men in their clan expressed their displeasure, arguing that their tribal tradition allowed for revenge killings. Rano steadfastly countered them saying that though their tribal tradition accepted revenge, their religion, Christianity, was against revenge and she would not permit anyone to be involved in killings on her or her family’s behalf.

When Barve told this story to the women of Bhatodia (in the city of Bhagalpur), the women said that they did not want revenge for wrongs committed against them during recent riots, but sought a different kind of future for their children.

Choosing forgiveness over revenge, choosing between good memories and bad memories, moving beyond one’s identity and embracing the community—each one of these are choices that we have to make as individuals.

There is also a crucial need to sift through sources because, as Barve mentions, minor rumours can lead to most ghastly riots.

Today, our social fabric is extremely fragile. Developing a culture of peace is a matter of constantly being able to look inside ourselves, examine our own prejudices, communicate more openly and transparently within our families and our communities, and work towards resolving conflicts rather than ignoring them. Each one of us holds within ourselves an extraordinary power to transform ourselves and become a catalyst towards wider change.

Zainab Bawa is a post-graduate student in political science at the University of Mumbai.

* ‘Healing Streams: bringing hope in the aftermath of violence’, Viking Penguin, India, ISBN 0143029622

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0