What made you get involved in public life leaving a lucrative career?
The decision to get involved in social activism was taken long back when I was doing graduation from Benarus Hindu University. I always read life stories of Gautam Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi and his autobiography, Experiments with Truth made me decide to take up full time social work but then I was not very confident to take the plunge. I was biding my time until I had the opportunity to do my Masters from Syracuse and PhD from University of California, Berkeley, USA. It was after my return when I was teaching at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur I realised it was opportune for me to take my most desired plunge.
What made you concentrate so deeply on education?
Way back in 1991 a book was published by MIT, USA called ‘The Child and the State in India’ which had statistics on how many children go to school and their drop-out ratio. After going through the book we found half of our children don’t go to school and are in a child-labour kind of a situation. We decided to raise funds and to let those funds help those children to get proper education as we all have. We have an ashram, 60 kms from Lucknow in a Dalit [untouchable] village. We have about 35 kids from Dalit families and we have health-care programmes as well.
Tell us about your de-nuclearisation agenda?
After the Pokhran 98 nuclear tests by India we took out a Global Peace March [March 11, 99’] from Pokhran to Sarnath. It was an 88-day covering 1500 kms march and we collected 18,000 signatures protesting for global nuclear disarmament and this we deposited at the embassies of all the seven nuclear possessing states.
Whom to do you find responsible for the nuclearisation of Subcontinent?
Well, it is obviously India because India tested it as early as 1974, even if we were told that it was meant for peaceful purposes but now it is very clear that the blasts are a part of a weapons programme. It was quite foolish to carry out the blasts because it gave Pakistan an opportunity to flex its nuclear muscles. No one can buy the argument which was forwarded that since Pakistan possessed it. Therefore, we have done it.
Perhaps, Pakistan did not go on record to claim nuclear capability?
That’s what I mean to say. It was an open secret that India, Pakistan and Israel had nuclear capability but the BJP government gave an open chance to Pakistan to conduct it. We talked to Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and he told us that Pakistan was just forced to perform it because it cannot let the impression prevail that Pakistan was a weaker state than India in any way. Pakistan had always been saying that if India would do it then we would also follow, that is why I say we made a mistake into letting Pakistan become a nuclear state and just after six months Kargil happened and one cannot use a nuclear weapon during the actual war because nuclear weapon has a zero military value, except in 1945 when America brought the inconsolable agony to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We should know that America did not use nuclear bombs to win a war because Japan was by then on a point of surrendering and the US president did it because he was under tremendous pressure and had to justify millions of dollars spent on the nuclear programme.
You have also been instrumental in bringing children from Pakistan to India, tell us about it?
Yes, we are a part of campaigns for promoting peace between India and Pakistan at the people to people level. I am associated with Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy and on their invitation I am visiting Karachi on a three day visit between Dec 12-14 along with 250 other delegates. This is chaired by Arun Mitra from the Indian side and Mubasshir Hasan from Pakistani side. The children’s visit to Lucknow could happen after a request was made by Khaldunya School in Islamabad and we gladly agreed to play host. Ten students and three teachers were here for about a week and it was the same time when Musharraf was visiting Agra. The children could freely interact and I am told that some of them still exchange e-mails.
You have often suggested the example of Nepal which does not have an army and is fully secure?
Yes, because I feel that the more weaponisation pragrammes are encouraged the more insecure we become. We have to break the created myth that once after acquiring a nuclear weapon we can sit home pretty secured as it is flawed logic and in fact it is quite the opposite because until a few months back we were having more military lined up on our borders with Pakistan. We had more guns targeting against each other and all the dialogue was stalled, trains and buses stopped and there was even a danger of a nuclear war. Fortunately some wisdom prevailed over Vajpayee and he has made the April 18 offer and has signaled a change in the perpetual fuming relationship with Pakistan.
Can India and Pakistan really trust each other?
Why not when the worst of enemies like US and Soviet Union can mend their fences and East and West Germany could become one country. I know that the thorn in Indo-Pak relationship which is Kashmir can only be solved through tripartite talks. There can be no military solution and once if it gets solved India and Pakistan will have nothing to fight over. The dialogue should have all political voices of Kashmir along with India and Pakistan.
Which of the two countries has been found in your experience to be more keen in solving this problem?
Well, both the countries have made mistakes over Kashmir. India has always maintained to talk under Shimla agreement and has stressed for bilateral talks and Pakistan has tried to internationalise the issue. But of late Musharraf has been more forthcoming asking for talks on Kashmir and I think India is evading that question by asking Pakistan to first stop cross-border terrorism and cross-border terrorism happens from both sides as Pakistan intelligence agency ISI is active in India while India’s intelligence agency RAW is active in Pakistan and for the conducive atmosphere- for- a dialogue this cross-border terrorism from both sides has to be stopped. Moreover, Pakistan has from time to time asked for a ‘No War Pact’ with India but India has never accepted it.
Should the government engage in dialogue with militants?
Government should become more serious about the peace process in Kashmir and involve all the voices of Kashmir, however militant they might be. It is after all their land. It is neither Indian nor Pakistani land and the final decision to decide their fate will lie with Kashmiri people. The sooner the problem is solved the better because then we might have a situation like that of Manipur where out of 20 terrorist groups 18 have economic interests into sustaining terrorism as they collect money from people and in-turn are running their buses and hotels and once this economic interest gets developed the problem will never get solved. As long as it is political there is still some hope of getting it solved and 50 years have already gone past with our young soldiers from both sides getting killed on a routine basis and women becoming widows while the people of Kashmir are sandwiched between military and militancy and the life in Kashmir as well as in the North-East has become extremely miserable.
VHP had demanded POTA against you for allegedly pro-ISI and anti-national remarks?
Actually, my statement has been quoted out of context. What I had said [Aug.6 2002] was that in my experience of working on nuclear disarmament I had found Pakistan government more open and accessible to dialogue than Indian government. My Pakistani colleagues and I had drafted a treaty before the Agra summit. While Musharraf personally accepted the same the PMO showed no interest in it. I being a Gandhian can never justify a terrorist organisation. What all I had said was that it was the work of parallel intelligence agencies carrying out missions and counter-surveillance measures on each other. What ISI does here RAW carries out there. There has been no attempt by me to justify whatever ISI does here. All this misunderstanding happened because of a mischief by Times of India which wrote that I had justified ISI activities. The legal case for sedition against me has been quashed by the Allahabad High Court, UP.
You have been accused of advocating Kashmir's independence?
I have never advocated independence of Kashmir. I have stood for a dialogue with all the possible groups in Kashmir and if the people of Kashmir either in the process of dialogue or by any other means decide for independence then India and Pakistan will have to grant it. You cannot keep Kashmir or for that matter any part of the world under the gun. It takes nearly two-thousand rupees more per month for a single army employee in the North-East to just keep him there besides militaries kept always on alert.
How do you gauge India’s relationship with Israel particularly after Brijesh Misra suggesting an Indian-Israeli-US axis against terror?
This will be very bad because all the successive governments of India have always maintained a respectable distance with USA. USA is known for always legitimising Israeli aggressions against Palestinians. USA is the biggest evil power on earth and has displayed it by the aggression on Afghanistan despite no one knowing till date as to who brought down those twin towers in New York on Sep 11. Ariel Sharon’s visit should not dilute our support for the Palestinians who all have had a very bad deal with Israel. This is our first government which has bent its knees totally before USA and we should know that we can never have a relationship of equals with America which wants small countries to abide by the international norms but scraps them when it comes to US. US is essentially a bully state. We should follow the path of NAM which has been left since the BJP came to power.
How do you analyse BJP four years at the Centre?
BJP can be proved to be more anti-national than any political regime or any political outfit in India. They have gone back on every single of their principle. They came on the swadeshi slogan and have invited more multinational companies and have compromised the interest of the nation very seriously for example in an agreement like Enron. They are selling even the natural resources like rivers to private water companies. They claim to be patriotic but are so shameless that they have been caught taking commissions in defense deals and even on the coffins meant for our martyrs. They came with the slogan of preserving the Indian culture but the newspapers have become increasingly pornographic. They would say that there can never be a communal riot during their rule but the Gujrat experiment proves that state sponsored riot can really bring rich political harvests for BJP.
How many times have you and your wife as well been to jail?
[Laughs] My wife has been with Medha Patkar and when she was in jail for the fiftieth time it was my first time. I have been in jail five times. Last year in Ayodhya, UP when we were sitting in a room discussing that people of Ayodhya should come forward to solve the Ayodhya problem we were caught and interestingly the same charge was imposed against us as was leveled on Pravin Togadia in Ajmer. We were caught for disturbing the communal harmony.
What is your ultimate aim?
It is to solve Kashmir political problem, Indo-Pak borders to be de-militarised, nuclear weaponry to be dismantled and the way Indians and Nepalese travel between each other should be the way of travelling between India and Pakistan and in the entire SAARC region. Next year I am planning for a march from Delhi to Karachi and I would impress upon authorities in Pakistan to grant us the permission to walk on the streets of Pakistan.