“It’s only the feeling of disconnect that separates people”: In conversation with Chintan Modi13 min read
Chintan Girish Modi is a peace educator and writer who has a special interest in healing the misgivings between Indians and Pakistanis. He is also a mass communication graduate from St. Xavier’s college Mumbai. His works have been published in leading newspapers, magazines and journals including The Times of India, The Asian Age, The Indian Express, The Friday Times and The Free Press Journal.
His journey into education for peace began in 2010 with working for ‘The Kabir Project’ at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. This journey grew further in 2012 with his visit to Pakistan as part of ‘Exchange for Change’.
He manages his initiative ‘Aao Dosti Karein: Friendships Across Borders’, a peace education, storytelling and social media initiative to celebrate cross-border friendship across India-Pakistan. On the third and last day of the second edition of the Manipal International Literary and Arts Platform (M.I.L.A.P.) on September 8,The Manipal Journal sat down with him post the session ‘Always at home, Never at home: Journeys through Bhutan, India and Tibet’ which was moderated by him.
Following are a few excerpts from the conversation –
Let’s talk about your association with Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru and the influence of the teachings of Kabir which seem to have a great impact on you.
Srishti School of Art has something called as ‘The Kabir Project’, run by Shabnam Virmani. She was living in Gujarat when the riots happened in 2000, and she moved to Bangalore as she wanted to make sense of it through art.
‘The Kabir Project’ has been important to me. But, there have been instances where I have been inclined towards working for these earlier. When I was in third grade, then in 1992 and 1993, riots happened in Mumbai. So, we grew up thinking Mumbai is a cosmopolitan place but we also saw that there were these Hindu-Muslim riots and schools were shut for a month at least. Then, when I was transitioning from school to college, the Gujarat riots happened.
So, from a young age there was a sense that this should not happen, like religion should not be a source of conflict and violence. Kabir really strengthened that belief. Related to this, another reason I got to know about Kabir was my interest in Pakistan.
When I was growing up and people would ask me, “Where would you like to travel when you grow up?” …and I would say Pakistan, and that is a really weird thing for an Indian kid to say. People used to think I am really crazy, they used to say why do you want to go to hell? I always had that desire and ‘The Kabir Project’ really fed that. ‘The Kabir Project’ has travelled across Pakistan finding how some of these spiritual traditions are common across the countries.
Closely related with the first question, Kabir, in his teachings, speaks a great deal about communal harmony but in the present scenario, there is a sense of uneasiness in the air where a section of our society appears to be dominating and issues like mob lynching, cow vigilantism are suddenly popping up. How do you see the situation at present, and how can they be overcome?
I think Kabir doesn’t talk so much about the communal harmony, as much as call out the narrow ways in which we practise our faiths. So he makes fun of the pandit and the mullah saying that you all do all these rituals and look at the way you treat people.
Now, the people may say that they love Kabir, but when Kabir existed they hated him because he would question everyone. He would be called anti-national right now if he was alive. Some police person would be doing a raid in his house, he would be put behind bars. He would be called an urban naxal.
You know what people do, they keep whatever suits them. There are people who would sing praises of Kabir but they would not encounter the politics in Kabir. What Kabir really does is to unsettle us, he says to live in harmony with everyone else, you should keep questioning yourself. It’s only the feeling of disconnect that separates people.
Given the conflicts and violence that are happening in the name of religion and culture, the Indian youth has slowly started to turn a blind eye towards it, and is getting influenced by Western ideologies now more than ever. Do you think the country is in the need for a literary movement where Indians could rediscover their heritage which attracted the Westerners in the first place?
I don’t think we have lost our culture. We like to create this idea of what is ‘western’ and what is ‘eastern’. The west and the east are very diverse. There is a strong tradition of mysticism even in Christianity and Judaism. I would agree that there are young people who are turning away from religion, but there are a lot of youths who being completely lost, have turned towards religion. Faith does play a psychological role, but the commercialisation of these ‘western ideologies’ is something which can be debated. In terms of a literary movement, the works of Kabir and Mirabai have survived for centuries in a time where there was no social media, which indicates that there is a strong oral tradition prevalent in India, through which these works have been passed on. Many of the poets and writers that you see at consortiums today might not be even remembered after say, ten years or so.
Your initiative, ‘Aao Dosti Karein: Friendships Across Borders’, was founded on Valentine’s Day in 2014, just before the formation of new government in India. Since then, noticeable efforts have been made by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to create a cooperative environment with Pakistan, but at present, as we see it, the relations are troubled. What difference is your initiative making in the present context?
I think the reality on the diplomatic front is always different from the reality on the people to people front. What you are talking about is changing reality, which typically sees reality from a security study perspective, where we are looking at what’s happening between the government and diplomats. This is different from friends, families interacting across the borders.
Now because of digital media, there are many Indians and Pakistanis who don’t require a visa to interact with each other because Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Skype make it possible. This happened on Valentine ’s Day because the first time I visited Pakistan in 2012 as a school teacher, our school was part of ‘Exchange for Change’. Through this, children from different countries interacted for a year and then Indians got to go to Pakistan and Pakistanis got to come to India. My History department head was supposed to go but he declined so I went instead.
One of the most astounding experiences in Pakistan was the assemblies that were happening in schools. These Pakistani children had learned our national anthem and sang that in front of us to welcome us. We as volunteers could not believe that children from another country would want to learn our National Anthem and sing it for us. When I came back, I started doing workshops with children in different schools because I felt that the experience I had was really special. That’s when it started.
Right now, what’s happening is it is continuing to do interactions with schools, colleges, universities, doing talks and panels. I don’t have any staff, there is no grant of money but I really love this work, so I want to continue doing it.
I find it really weird to say that I helped these many people, that over the years I have impacted the minds of so many people…because it seems wrong, right? Just because 10,000 people have attended your session doesn’t mean it impacted the hearts and minds of 10,000 people.
What I have done is placed a seed of freedom, thinking differently. The conditioning of hatred has happened over the generations, of years and decades of time, and one session is not going to be enough. You have to first give a chance to people to understand why they are so angry. So, for me, I think my work is quieter, slower and I don’t think you can measure it because you can never ever measure the amount of hard work. You can just feel it.
You have been a propagator of peaceful solutions to resolve conflicts with Pakistan. However, with each soldier killed by the militants at the border, the nation is pressurising the government to adopt violent measures such as the infamous surgical strike. Do you think in such a hot-headed climate, your method would be accepted by people?
So, I do acknowledge that people are dying at our borders, but there are people dying on the other side too. It is our tendency to read the coverage only by our media. It is war that killed soldiers, not the Pakistanis, or the Muslims for that matter. When I first held my discussions, I had a lot of people from the army background, and that really resonated with them. They are more invested in peace than us, because they know what it is to have someone in your family at the border. Ordinary citizens like us don’t actually know, even though this is heavily used in debates. They don’t want to lose someone in their family.
Peace is a word which is directly opposite to War. You, being very vocal about the peace in Indo-Pak relation, don’t you think what we are witnessing daily in Jammu and Kashmir is nothing less than a war? With soldiers getting killed on both sides and worse, the civilians staying near the border area are also being targeted. In one of your articles for ‘The Indian Express’ called ‘The Great Game’ about a trapezium board game that explores the region’s story, it is mentioned that one among the five people who migrated from Kashmir to Pune describes Kashmir as ‘a strategic military game.’ Further, a fifth story in the game speaks about the disappearance of a seventeen year old youth. So how do you see the situation in Kashmir and the phenomenon of enforced disappearance in the valley?
Enforced disappearances have been happening not only in Jammu and Kashmir but also in North-East and I think also in the Naxal areas. I have not researched this, but I think all citizens should have legal rights to protest the illegal process like enforced disappearances. What it basically means is that you are taking away their human dignity without the due process of law.
I have an acquaintance, his name is Raza Khan, associated with the India-Pakistan peace initiative called ‘Aaghaz – e – Dosti’. He used to organize conversation between Indian and Paksitani children. He was the victim of this phenomenon called enforced disappearance and he disappeared for seven months. Nobody knew where he was. Of course, everybody knew he was in captivity, thanks to the ISI, but we didn’t have any location so that we could retrieve him. Then he came back after the seven months. I think enforced disappearance is opposed to freedom in a democracy.
I met Parveena Ahanger. an activist in Kashmir for enforced disappearances, when I went to Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 post a few months of the death of Burhan Wani in an encounter. There were a bunch of us across India who had gone on solidarity or a fact finding mission. So we met her and she told us about what was happening. I think there is visibility about enforced disappearances since she has spoken about. Both countries use enforced disappearances to supress, whether this being India doing it in Kashmir or Pakistan doing it in Balochistan. I think there would be difference if more common people start taking an interest in these.
Talking about the communal harmony about which the poet Kabir has also spoken about, there was sudden unrest in the valley when a petition on Article 35A was filed in the Supreme Court. Famous and considerable number of people like Anupam Kher, Subramanian Swamy have spoken about the cultural amalgamation of Kashmir with rest of the country to promote brotherhood and for inclusive development. What is your stand on it? Do you think it is a good step?
I think it is for the Kashmiris to decide whether it is a good step or not, because the person whose house it is gets to decide who should come in. It’s not for people like me living in Bombay to decide.
Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory. India and Pakistan are not the only countries having stake in it, China also does. There is still a conflict between India and Pakistan. You and I talking about it is intellectual masturbation.
There should be Kashmiri voices deciding over it and not you and me. Also, Kashmiri women deciding it. There are too many men who are not letting their women talk about what should happen.
Patidar leader Hardik Patel is on an indefinite hunger strike demanding reservation for the members of his community in Government jobs and institutions. With the recent rise in the rat-race to get one’s caste included in the ‘Other Backward Classes (OBC)’ category, does it significantly fracture your ambition of celebrating communal diversity and oneness?
The word ‘harmony’ can be used as a front to stifle all resistance movements. While it is equally important to celebrate people living together in the country, it is also equally important to know where people have been marginalised, whether it is the aadivasis, Dalits, Muslims, or people from the LGBTQ community. ‘Harmony’ can also be interpreted as to stay together and keep quiet, to portray that everything is ‘hunky dory’ in India. That just serves interest to the majority. It is important to see that the Dalits are still oppressed even after everything that is done for them. Untouchability, for instance, was something which was abolished long ago, but it’s still there. The same is with caste discrimination. I mean, it is very convenient for people to say there isn’t any discrimination, even when there is, because it serves as a fuel to the fire of progression.
The Supreme Court recently gave a landmark judgement to decriminalise homosexuality. A lot of people who have supported Section 377 to be unnatural in our culture. However, ancient texts such as the Kamasutra never decriminalised homosexuality. We have lived in a land of bisexual Sufi saints and transgender Hindu women. Why do you think is the Indian diaspora going wrong on matters like these, where word of mouth is preferred over literature providing hard facts?
Firstly, the India which existed in the time of the Kamasutra is not the India we see today. There has never been the concept of culture as a whole in a country like India, culture differs regionally and demographically. In terms of literature, it is important to see who gets to write and publish literature. About the organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who claim homosexuality to be something against the supposed ‘Indian culture’ and nature, I would not seek legitimacy of who I want to love or be with. I mean, that is the last legitimacy I want to seek. None of the political parties and organisations have actively worked towards this judgement. It’s just this thing which everyone wants to take credit for. Close to 2019, we will see the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) claiming the judgement to happen in their rule. The Congress would claim that they made this happen, because of Shashi Tharoor introducing the Private Members’ Bill in the Parliament. There are also rich gay people like Keshav Suri, who you see on the cover of The Times of India, taking credit for what others have been toiling for, for years.
Edited by: Niharika Nambiar