Special Reports

Chishti Awards go to Shastri & Bilqees

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India Harmony Foundation, headed by Zafar Saifullah, former Union Cabinet Secretary, held a two-day cultural event at the Indian Islamic Cultural Centre on 18-19 July. The star attraction was the presentation of the Chishti Harmony Award for 2011 to two personalities which have spent a life time for communal harmony and community service. The first is Pandit Yugal Kishor Shastri of Ayodhya who has stood as a rock against communalists in Ayodhya and beyond and the second is Begum Bilkees Latif, wife of former Air Chief Marshal, Idris Latif, who has dedicated her life to serve the downtrodden in Mumbai. The awards were presented by Vice President Hamid Ansari in a function attended by Union minister of law and justice Veerappa Moily, Chief Election Commissioner Dr. S. Y. Quraishi and others. Hamid Ansari said in his brief speech that the Sufi Chishtia Order is the best example of the how human beings can do two things simultaneously: establish relationship with the Creator and serve humanity. The receipients of this award by their example have demonstrated the essence of Chishti teachings. It is the same old message which should be reiterated time and again so that human beings can live harmoniously with one another.

Here are brief life-sketches of the award receipients:
Pandit Yugal Kishor Saran Shastri of Ayodhya is a person of quiet but extraordinary achievements. Born into a poor Yadav family of Madhubani district of Bihar, Pandit Yugal Kishor, struggling against heavy odds, completed his MA in Sanskrit from the Varanasi University. Whereafter he took over the care of the Sarayu Kunj Ram Mandir, located opposite the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Following the demolition of the Masjid in December, 1992, this remarkable man devoted his entire life to defending the lives, the properties and the livelihood of the Muslim community in the region at great risk to his own life. Without money, privilege or power, he upheld the values of secularism and respect for all religions. He ensured that Ayodhya has not been afflicted by the communal virus. Targeted, both physically and psychologically, by forces inimical to his work to abandon it, he has defied all odds to continue what he has taken as his life’s mission, namely, to preserve the centuries-old tradition of total communal harmony within the families of Ayodhya - a name which itself means “a land without conflict”. He has now enlarged his vision and the ambit of his work, to extend the same message of harmony on a wider scale throughout the country. A commendable initiative which he has embarked on in conjunction with several like-minded social workers and organizations are two padyatras. The first one from Ayodhya to Sewagram (Wardha) in Gujarat and the other from Ayodhya to Ajmer in Rajasthan to motivate people along the route to work for national harmony.

Begum Bilkees Latif was born into a privileged Muslim family and is married to former Air Chief Marshal, Idris Latif. She chose to make her most distinctive contribution in social service, in Dharavi, India’s largest slum cluster in Mumbai. It was notorious as home to some of Mumbai’s most dreaded mafia dons, where children were employed in illicit distillation; and the area recorded Mumbai’s highest crime rate. Following her very first visit to Dharavi in 1982, she decided to work for the transformation of the lives of the families living here. She established SHED (Society for Human and Environment Development) along with a few prominent and public spirited citizens of Mumbai. So dramatic has been the impact of her work that Dharavi today has the lowest crime rate in Mumbai. SHED has set up 45 youth groups in Dharavi. Through them, Vocational Training Projects, eradication of Leprosy and Tuberculosis, family planning, immunization of children and national integration programmes have been systematically taken up with active help in most cases of many of the Mafia dons and their families, who have even assured them total security. So much so that when communal unrest raged in other parts of the city, not a single instance of any communal disturbance was recorded in Dharavi. In fact, the whole area joins in celebrating festivals of each others’ communities with their own funds. SHED has taken up this work in other slums in Mumbai and the neighbouring district of Thane. Their work has covered the most extensive range of social services leading to requests from the World Bank and several other multi-lateral international aid agencies to take up their programmes.   

As Chairperson of the National Bal Bhavans for two terms and of the Rajiv Gandhi Childrens’ Museum, she launched in November, 2005, a movement for children “to build the India of their dreams and secular values in nation-building”. Bilkees Latif is truly a role model for young Indian Muslim girls to follow.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 August 2011 on page no. 17

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