Association For India’s Development North East Cell Newsletter, March 2005
A conference titled “Culture of Peace, Participatory Democracy and Mahila Shanti Sena” held on Feb 25 and 26th in Delhi, drew people from all over India and a strong delegation from a few universities in Canada. My deep interest in a unique social movement like the MSS (please see my previous write up for details) saw me as a grateful spectator to this conference, for I knew that I would get a chance to meet the founders of the movement and the women who were at the forefront of it. A great deal of inspiration, amazement and humbling experiences were in store for me.
I arrived in a hall packed with about 300 people on a chilly Delhi morning and sat spellbound to hear the 92 year old Acharya Ramamurti the founder of the MSS movement. His clarity and depth of thought coupled with a natural eloquence mesmerized me. He spoke of the need for developing a culture of peace where peace was not merely the intervening period between two wars but a state of affairs where people’s lives, thinking, spirituality and governance would be rooted in it. Switching effortlessly between Hindi and English he exhorted on the need for a creative and constructive revolution and for us to learn to live without enemies. Many luminaries who spoke throughout the conference stressed on particular areas like the education system or the legal system which needed a change in their very foundations. Sipping on a hot cup of tea in the short interval I realized how our lives needed to change at an individual, community, national and even global level.
The plenary sessions were punctuated by smaller interactive workshops where everyone got a chance to speak. I had vowed not to open my big mouth and be the best listener I had ever been in my life. In these workshops, I learnt about the first hand experiences of the women who were the agents of change in their villages. I also stole every opportunity to talk to the Shanti Sainiks (peace soldiers) about their activities and perspectives at the grassroots, although I had to assure them every time that I was neither a reporter nor a political leader – a stereotypical image conveyed by my khadi kurta pajama and my all purpose side bag hanging from the shoulder.
There were women from Bihar and the northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal, Manipur and Tripura. An exceptionally passionate and confident woman from North Bihar narrated an episode of how the MSS volunteers in her village brought a rapist to justice who was otherwise roaming freely on the support of his official connections and financial strength. On being pressured by the women of the entire village, the Mukhiya (the village head) offered a compensation of Rs. 5000. The response of the women to this proposal, I thought carried a very important lesson of resetting our yardsticks of evaluation – they asked the Mukhiya to bring before them a woman who would tolerate a rape for Rs. 5000. Through gheraoing the police station and leading a deputation to the District Magistrate, MSS volunteers got the accused arrested. This incident has led the villagers to approach the MSS before going to the police or getting involved in long drawn litigations. It might be hard to believe but even the police have sought the cooperation of the volunteers in settling disputes peacefully. Another volunteer from Champaran, Bihar shared her experience of being a part of the drive against a country liquor shop which was causing considerable damage to the families. In many other places in Bihar, MSS volunteers have helped the authorities in conducting a free and fair election in their area.
I had to break my vow of silence half way through the workshop and request the volunteers to come forward with instances where MSS had been involved in developmental work. A volunteer from Muzaffarpur, Bihar heeded to my request and told us how the lack of road access was causing hardship for a number of families. On verifying with the Circle Officer, it was confirmed that a 6 feet wide kuccha road was supposed to exist. Without any fanfare, the volunteers got together with baskets and shovels and started on the mission of building a 2 km. long road. This was not just making life easier for the affected families but also paving the road for future solidarity in the village. Many women are part of self help groups (SHGs) which help with micro-finance and employment generation schemes.
Activities of the volunteers in Assam had a different flair. In Nalbari, the focus was on creating a non-violent force to counter the violence that afflicts the region. Silent marches were taken out against the intimidation of Hindi speaking people who were spending the nights in the police station for safety. Such a massive show of support for the harassed population allowed them to slowly return to their homes in peace. Villagers refused to let their homes from being used as a hiding place for kidnapped hostages. The source of this strength was probably the counseling of the MSS members and the sense of standing up against injustice as a group rather than an individual. Such achievements are nothing short of miracles. The volunteers understand the correlation between violence and unemployment, loss of income and abject poverty. In parallel, they have helped form SHGs and worked on other employment generation schemes. In this context it might be relevant to mention that one of the person in the workshop pointed out that what ushers a culture of peace for the haves is quite different from that of the have-nots, at least in priority.
The movement is in its infancy in Manipur and Arunachal. Manipur has an established peace organization of women called Maira-Paibi (torch bearer) who work in the strife torn areas and have stood up against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA). Some of these members received the MSS training and are training other women in turn. I felt privileged to have talked to the women volunteers who were being the agents of change and not just dreaming of a more humane society.
Mahila Shanti Sena is a unique movement of the extraordinary rural women who we usually see as ordinary in a male dominated society. Acharya Ramamurti felt the latent power of our rural women to bring about a culture of peace in an era marked by greed and violence and collectively deal with any problems that affects their community. Like Dr. Graeme MacQueen, Professor of Peace Studies at Mac Master University in Canada said, “Even untrained women can decrease violence; these women are trained in peace making and conflict resolution”.