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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

To England with peace 

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

Lucknow: What makes Lucknow stand far above its equals in India? Well, there may be myriad answers but the paramount position anointed to Lucknow is certainly because of its inseparable tryst with secularism. This phenomenon could be achieved after centuries of blending of Central and Middleast Asian cultural ethos, and amalgamated in the Indian tradition and together paving the way for the proverbial Ganga-Jamuna culture, and thus, becoming the bedrock of Indian secularism. The result was obvious: Lucknow did not witness a single communal riot during the post-partition 1947 riots nor did it see any in the post-Babri Masjid demolition. The mosque at Ayodhya is situated 100 miles to the east of Lucknow, whereas, Mumbai, in distant Maharashtra witnessed one of the worst communal carnages, which left more than 900 dead. The mosque was demolished by Hindu fanatics on December 6, 1992.

Lucknow CMS students in UK

Lucknow CMS students in UK

Lucknow true to its spirit and tradition remained calm yet tense and, no doubt one of the major roles played to prevent the communal cauldron from boiling over in Lucknow was the undying secularism of Jagdish Gandhi — the sole architect of City Montessori School (CMS), Lucknow. His efforts in those days were duly acknowledged by a British NGO PeaceDirect very recently in London. PeaceDirect is based at London and they subsequently invited Jagdish Gandhi along with CMS Chowk branch Vice Principal Waqar Bano Shamama coupled with two CMS boys — Alok Dutt and Kiri Atri for a ten day visit to England mainly to speak on their experiences and initiatives taken to contain the communal tension from spilling on to the streets of Lucknow in Dec 1992.

"We reached Heathrow airport on Oct 14 in the evening and were driven straight to Chief Executive of PeaceDirect Ms Carolyn Hayman and the next day was our official meeting with PeaceDirect founding investors. It is they who provided funds to PeaceDirect and sponsored our visit," said Shamama. "We were asked about the vision and philosophy of our school and how the school has been working to bring about peace and the hurdles we had to face to bring it around," she further said.

Lucknow CMS children in UK, Shamama speaking

Lucknow CMS children in UK, 
Shamama speaking

" It was a nice session to learn of the views of Ms Hayman who informed us about how PeaceDirect has been able to mobilise 39,000 pounds as grants for regions under conflict within a matter of just two years! After this we were taken to Keighley, a suburb in London, and visited Keighley Shared Church Hall. Here it was an interactive session with the people from different communities as it had Muslims from Bangladesh, One Hindu, rest were Christians and a few Bahais too," she recollected. What did you speak? " I started the talk by introducing ourselves and then elaborated on our experiences during the tumultuous end of 1992.The District Magistrate (DM) Ashok Priyadarshi, who unfortunately is no more today, had staked a lot of confidence in CMS and requested us to play a role in curbing the volatile situation as most of the police was engaged in Ayodhya. The principal of Chowk branch invited religious heads of all the four religions and we impressed upon them the need for a peaceful atmosphere in the interest and future of our children and we got an overwhelming response and finally we organised a peace march on December 9, 1992. We took all of our senior students as it was cold those days and most of the areas were under curfew too," said Shamama. Shamama narrated her personal experience when she was coming home on a rickshaw and was stopped by a policeman on patrol, and when she did inform them that she was a teacher at CMS she was allowed to go. " Such was the impact of our drive," she chuckled.

Jagdish Gandhi, who took to the surname of ‘ Gandhi’ after Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead on Jan 30, 1948 has a history attached to his name. He was in class VI then and was so moved that he requested his principal to change his surname from Agarwal to Gandhi. Today his school boasts of 29,000 pupils and has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Record also the sobriquet of UNESCO peace Award 2002. Around one fifth of the total children are Muslims.

" I have always been working on communal harmony since the inception of CMS in 1959 with a motto of ‘Jai Jagat’ meaning ‘Hail the World’. We have an all religion prayer every morning in all of our branches in Lucknow, " said Jagdish Gandhi. "The diversity of India was shown up in England when I lauded the confidence and trust of a Muslim family to have given me their daughter, two Hindu sons and I myself am a Bahai," said Gandhi. CMS has more than two dozen branches spread all over Lucknow. What were the views of your hosts? " Yeah, I came to know that three years back riots broke out in Bradford but did not erupt in violence because of a lot of interfaith programmes already at work. In 2001, in Yorkshire there were riots between Asians and White youths. The presence of extremist groups belonging to BNP (British National Party) and a situation of segregation of different communities sparked the riots causing millions of pounds of damage and loss," told Gandhi.
What has been the role of BNP? "It is like an extremists party as we have in India like BJP, VHP etc. BNP often goes public with remarks treading close to racism and has a discriminatory agenda. BNP elements have been found to have admitted on tapes their excesses on Asians and Blacks," he informed.

Bradford Education hosted the first event by starting with a presentation from Mr. Gandhi. It’s emphasis was on how to bring communities from different religions together in the light of efforts of Jagdish Gandhi in bringing Hindus and Muslims together. Next was the turn of North East Council for Peace, Newcastle where information was sought about how CMS has focussed on peaceful conflict resolution and was able to respond to the crisis of 1992. In Oldham, Mayor Mike Jones had Gujaratis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans along with Bahais in his stride and Mr. Gandhi and Ms Shamama were made to elaborate on the vision of school, its aim and its history and e-mail links between local civic peace bodies and visitors from India were coordinated. The fourth party was at Loughborough, London which has a considerable presence of Bangladeshis and Gujaratis and their children were brought into focus. It was again the interactive session where both Lucknow lads shared their views with their counterparts in London.

In Slough, one organisation which complimented the guests from Lucknow was Aik Saath, which is dedicated to the promotion of peace and racial harmony through teaching conflict resolution and is engaged in raising self esteem of young people to become peer trainers. Slough is multi- cultural and multi-ethnic in its composition and has 36.3% ethnic minorities. Children from local schools, Slough Borough Council, community organisations and local MP participated in the talk and discussion centred around the preventive measures which need to be taken in order to prevent a repetition of Sikh- Muslim violence of 1998 again. The CMS team returned to London on Oct 23 and had a brush with the Conflict and Change Centre ( at Newham where strangely the Whites are no more in a majority and out of insecurity are often found to be resorting to hostility against different communities. Economic problems, unemployment, separation and suspicion between and within communities is found too. A presentation by Somali and Muslim Meditation groups was also put up illustrating their experiences and then- the next day we had to flying back to Lucknow.

" I was over awed as I was not even told about the format of the programme," said Shamama. She has been serving CMS since 1986, has two daughters and her husband is a scientist at Toxicology Research Centre, Lucknow.

What thrilled you the most in England apart from the sessions? " I made sure to visit Greenwich Mean Time and made it a minute before it was to be closed. I got myself photographed holding the time for a while," she said laughingly before leaving to prepare for tea. 

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