Thursday, September 28, 2006

Conversations With Faisal Khan, a Muslim Social Activist

[Faisal Khan is a social activist to whom the interviewer was introduced during the just concluded hunger strike of Medha Patkar in Delhi]

Since past few days I have seen you protesting with Medha Patkar in Jantar Mantar. You were also seen in news channels, besides having your pictures splashed in newspapers.

Yes, I also saw those pictures.

So you do it for publicity? To have your pictures appear on front pages?

That may be your opinion. I do not see them as 'my pictures being printed'. Anyway I was photographed only as one of the many protestors.

But I will not say that we do not want publicity. We do. We want people to know about horrible things happening in our country. We want to spread awareness. We want our causes to be publicized. We want support. We want people to recognize that we are struggling for a just cause. What's wrong with that?

Did you too sit on fast along with Medha Patkar?

No, that was not possible. There were other matters to be taken care of. But there were Jamsinghbhai and Bhagwatibai from Madhya Pradesh with her.

There still is confusion over what exactly you people are demanding. Do you want the dam to shut down? Is it that you do not want Gujaratis to have water?

My reply is a clear 'No.' Locking the dam is not a good idea. Crores of rupees have been spent. We only want that proper rehabilitation of the displaced must be done before further construction work is followed.

As to the second part of your question, we are not against Gujaratis. But do you know that the canals which are supposed to carry water from the dam to villages have still not been constructed? So even if the dam's construction is complete the water will still be unavailable. Why the government is lagging behind? We also demand that water should first reach the villages of Gujarat and then only in the cities. But is that the intention of the government? No.

Many critics argue that Medha Patkar has made this habit of sitting on bhookh hartals. She makes an entire nation hostage with her dramas?

How can you say so? Do you want us to take arms instead? Was Gandhiji doing dramas? It seems the government gets serious only if one follows the ways of ULFA or Maoists or Kashmiri terrorists. Please, there is no drama about our agitation.

I was there in Jantar Mantar when Ms Patkar ended her fast. As an individual who support her in this struggle, I was a tad uncomfortable when she distracted herself from Narmada by speaking against Narendra Modi and his kind of politics. What was the point? There are people sympathetic to the cause of displaced people but would be put off by this 'communal' talk. What is the point of mixing two very different issues?

Listen, we weren't the ones to talk about it. Better go and ask Narendra Modi. After the three Union ministers submitted their mainly-negative report on the rehabilitation, Modi did not target Meira Kumar or Prithviraj Chauhan but only at Saifuddin Soz. Why? Because Saifuddin happens to be a Muslim name! That too from Kashmir!

Again when Rahul Bose and Nandita Das came to support us at Jantar Mantar, he did not utter any word against either of them. But the moment Aamir Khan entered the scene, all hell broke loose. Modi kept on repeating the names Saiffudin Soz and Aamir Khan so to give a communal color to the whole thing. Remember during the Gujarat elections he used to call JM Lyngdoh with his full initials of James Michael in his campaign speeches to emphasize Lyngdoh's religion . Modi was playing the same tricks again. We only condemned this communalizing. We were not the one to mix Narmada with communalism.

Anybody who has seen Medha Patkar could not deny the impressive aura around her. I was overwhelmed by that physical and emotional pain that was reflected so starkly through her face. But sometimes I have a feeling that this all is a trick and that leaders, particularly smart intelligent leaders, are great performers who know where exactly to strike a chord to win admirers. They are very shrewd with their gestures.

When Medhaji was still not arrested and was lying weak in Jantar Mantar, a press photographer requested us to move her face slightly so that it is more visible. She refused saying, 'Inse kaho ki mein drama nahi kar rahi hoon'. Do you call it drama? Were you there when she was vomiting on an empty stomach? Did you see her body shaking in spasms? Was that too a drama?

Can you please share with my readers some moving moment concerning Ms Patkar during the Jantar Mantar hunger strike?

There were so many but there was this afternoon when few of us had to go for a demonstration in Soochna Mantralaya. I had bought lunch from home and I asked my saathis to wait a few minutes but just then I heard Medhaji say, 'Faisal, agar sab khaane ke liye time nikalenge to andolan kaise chalega. Raaste mein kha lena'. I had tears in my eyes. She is a kind of woman who is never bothered about even her own food and clothes. She is very selfless.

Permit me to slightly shift the topic. I understand from our earlier conversations that you do not devote all your time only with Narmada Bachao Andolan. Please tell us more about your activities.

I work for India-Pakistan peace. Infact in 2005 I had participated in the Bharat-Pakistan Shanti Padyatra that was led by (Magsaysay awardee) Sandeep Pandey from Nizamuddin's Dargah in Delhi to Sufi saint Bahauddin Zakaria's Mazaar in Multan. The same year I had led the Shanti-Sadbhavna Padyatra for communal harmony from Kannauj to Ayodhya. We had planned to conclude it on December 6 there. I'm also looking after quake relief efforts in Kashmir. In Malwa village in Haryana...

You sound like a professional activist.

Do you imply I do it as an employment? Let me inform you that I do not make any money in it. Perhaps I must be thankful that I have come from a relatively well-off family and so I can afford to work without caring for money or jobs.

You misunderstand me. I meant that why are you into so many causes. Why don't you fix yourself into one issue and concentrate yourself there?

Listen, I am not here to make activism a career. One-cause things are handiworks of NGOs who need foreign funding. I don't need money. My family has enough of that. I will make every cause mine where I feel atrocities are being commited, or the poor being denied their rights.

Listen, have you heard of Mahatma Gandhi? One day he would write in Young India newspaper about the good effects of drinking bakri ka doodh and on the next day he would have an article on boycotting British goods. One day he would go to Champaran for the sake of farmers and another day he would be fasting in Naukhali for peace and harmony. He was not spending all his time in just one issue. Kya Gandhi professional tha?

You have a point.

Actually professionals are people who set up NGOs for one particular cause and then they spend the rest of their efforts in raising funds for it. There are many NGOs in Gujarat who apparently works for women upliftment but not even one of them whimpered when women were raped and killed during Gujarat riots. Their defense was that their area was only women empowerment.

There is this very famous NGO in Rajasthan which is acclaimed, quite rightly, for working towards water harvesting. But this organization is not raising any voice against the harassment of Christians there. They say, 'yeh hamara kaam nahi hain'. I don't believe in this philosophy.

I too happened to encounter several NGOs during my recent trip to Pakistan. I understand you were also supposed to go to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) in Karachi. But you did not. Why?

I was occupied with Narmada agitation in Delhi. Besides I think events like WSF have now graduated to NGO-networking sessions which are funded by agencies like ActionAid. It is all about money! But I should not generalize it.

As mentioned earlier you led a Padyatra that culminated in Ayodhya on December 6, the day when Babri structure was demolished. Why did you choose that controversial date for communal harmony? That too in Ayodhya. Isn't it odd?

I think that was the day when a deep fissure appeared between Hindus and Muslims and it is that gap we want to close.

But what happened that last day of our Yatra was very interesting. Earlier nobody had hindered us during the entire route which started from Haji Sharief Chisti's Dargah in Kannauj. We had planned to conclude it on December 6 in Ram ki Peri in Ayodhya on the banks of Saryu. Unfortunately we were not able to proceed with our plans.

We were arrested on the morning of 6th December. The administration said that we were causing tension. On that very day two other events too were being organized - Shaurya Diwas and Shoak Diwas. Many people, most probably Muslims, observed Shoak Diwas by hoisting black flags on their roofs while Shaurya Diwas had a completely different flavour. Bajrang Dal leader Vinay Katyar was organizing Ramleelas in the streets of Ayodhya. We, who were singing Hum kehte hai Insaano me insaano sa pyaar rahe; woh kehte hain hatho me trishul rahe talwar rahe were arrested. All this under the chief ministership of Mulayam Singh Yadav! Can you believe it?

Yes. Absolutely. No Neta can surprise me.

That is your view. Politicians may deserve such an opinion but still one must not confuse politics with politicians. People like Medha Patkar should no longer be shy about power and politics. Activism is one thing but it can carry us only so far. If you really want to change things, if you really want to change the world, you need to be in politics. You need to have a share in power.

Faisalji, I will not take much more of your time. Our views may differ but I'm glad to meet you. I hate to mention this but it makes me feel good to see a Muslim like you peddling in causes that not really concerns his community alone.

Thank you.

Here I have a complaint to make. I'm of the opinion that while Hindu extremism is vehemently opposed by Hindus themselves, we hardly hear voices of Muslim liberals speaking against their in-house fundamentalist leaders.

But you do not need only Muslims leaders to lead Muslims. It is a relief that there are people like Sandeep Pandey who do much for my community.

Do Muslims lack liberal leaders from their own community? I don't know?

Here you must understand the plight of community liberals. Every time some horrible thing takes place like a Muslim women is raped or unjustly divorced or treated badly and before liberals can say anything, politicians like Ashok Singhal or Sushma Swaraj will appear on TV screens and start castigating the entire community while demanding for Universal Civil Code and then no Muslim leader worth his salt can do anything.

So it is a vicious circle.

Sahi hai aap.

Faisalji thanks very much for the interview.

Thank you.

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