The journey of a peace artist from Ahmedabad’s National Peace Group

Gomtipur is located at a distance of 5.5 kms from the famous Lal Darwaja in Ahmedabad. In the 70s and 80s a large number of people in Gomtipur were employed in textile mills. The urban working class that emerged was ethnically and religiously inclusive. The riots of 1969 and 1992 caused minor religious divide. Communal polarization began in the late 90s. It led to insecurity and fear among religious communities that gave rise to ghettoization in housing. This was also the period when the textile industry collapsed and as a result, the working class solidarity deteriorated. The phase saw a sharpening of Hindu identity of Dalits and their mobilization to the cause of Hindutva. Gomtipur also witnessed communal riot during the state-wide communal violence in 2002.

The slow polarization resulted in formation of separate Muslims and Dalit clusters. In the part of Gomtipur that we visited the Dalit and Muslim clusters are situated adjacent to each other.  Muslims and Dalits maintain limited working relations but the fear of being attacked and general lack of trust prevents social intercourse between the two communities. A section of houses of Muslims in Gomtipur were burnt during the communal violence in 2002. These houses were located on the border of the clusters. In 2015 there was a communal clash in Gomtipur preceding the Municipal corporation election. Even today Gomtipur witnesses’ intermittent communal clashes when street fights are given communal colours. Having witnessed the conflict while growing up, Mushtaqueali a resident of the Muslim cluster in Gomtipur co-founded National Peace Group (NPG) in 2009.

National Peace Group works with youth, children and elders to bring about peace and communal harmony in sensitive/conflict areas in and around Ahmedabad. Through street plays they discuss gender, rights and development issues. NPG organises activities like diversity walks to culturally and historically significant places and religious sites in Ahmedabad, celebration of festivals, lectures, workshops and exposure visits that facilitate social interaction among participants from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds and enables well informed cross cultural and religious understanding.

The National Peace Group sends its message far and wide with original and symbolic activities. On 14th April 2016, NPG in collaboration with local Dalit organisations inaugurated and led the Ambedkar Day rally through the Muslim area with support of Muslim shopkeepers in the area. Such activities send a powerful message of unity in Gomtipur. In August 2015, Muslims, Hindus and Christians gathered for an Iftaar party at the 400 year old Jagannath Mahadev Mandir in Rajnath- Gomtipur, organised by National Peace Group. This went down as a significant event in the history of area.

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At the entrance of Divya’s home – from left – Divya, her mother, cousin Nisha and Mushtaqeali

Divya a college going girl from the Dalit community lives in the Dalit cluster adjacent to the Muslim cluster in Gomtipur. Fear, prejudice and lack of trust towards Muslims imbibed through her family prevented her from visiting the Muslim area. The local school having majority of students from similar community did not provide sufficient opportunity for interaction between Muslim and Dalit children.

Apart from college that is considered a necessity, her family did not see the value of extra-curricular activities like theatre and community involvement as an avenue for personal development.  Divya had to face restrictions being a girl; control by male members of the family was strong, limiting her movement, choices, decisions and associations.  There was demand from her family to demonstrate achievement and the challenge of her limited household income. She first got involved in a programme by NPG in enlisting students for the government minority scholarship.   The stipend she received for reaching out to minority students and assisting them in filing scholarship application forms was an accomplishment and a source income support for the family.

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National Peace Group performing the play ‘Abhishraap’ on Gender discrimination and ‘Hullad’ on Communal Riots at a Lok Seva Samjaik Sanstha programme on the occasion of Independence Day. Lok Seva Samajik Santha is a local organisation of Dalits in Gomtipur working for rights of marginalised.

In 2013 Mushtaqueali invited Divya to join NPG. After major persuasion she joined the group with hesitant consent of her parents. Her relatives were not pleased with the idea of having to stay outside home for several days for theatre workshops. Interacting and performing with boys in theatre was considered unsafe. Her mother was supportive but often came under pressure from the family to restrict Divya’s involvement. NPG opened up an opportunity for Divya’s participation in public space. It was through her involvement in theatre through NPG that she gained confidence to express herself fearlessly. It was also an income source for Divya. ‘Pehle mein bahar nahi jaati thi, ab jaane lagi’ (Earlier, I would not go out of the house, Now I have started going out), says Divya. Previously her family scolded her and forbade her from participating in NPG activities but now she takes part in the activities and even attends late evening rehearsals. She is happy that she has learnt to work with children while supporting NPG children’s activities as a volunteer.

Divya’s participation in a cultural walk with NPG had significant impact on her life. She visited several historical monuments in Ahmedabad that were built by Muslim Kings such as Sultan Ahmed Shah’s Bhadra Ki Killa, Lal Darwaja and Teen Darwaja. The monuments carried Hindu, Islamic, Jain and Jewish religious motifs carved by artisans of those times under liberty and patronage of secular kings. This experience enlightened Divya’s perspective of the past, the contribution of Muslim kings to city of Ahmedabad and opened the boundaries of her thought.

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Divya ( third from left ) receives an award on behalf of National Peace Group for the play ‘Vadu Apjo Baa’, based on the plight of the Valmiki community at the Sanskruti Saanj cultural evening organised by Janvikas, Ahmedabad

“The Dalits actually have nothing against the Muslims but they are made to believe that Muslims are against them”, says Mushtaqueali. “Earlier we would never go to the Muslim area, but things have changed now”, says Divya. Through NPG she interacted with actors from Muslim, Valmiki, and Hindu community.  Communication with youth from other communities established trust and familiarity vis-à-vis other communities. The religious exposure visits and the narratives of communal harmony, unity that were discussed during the activities informed her perspective on secularism in India. There was a significant change in her family’s attitude because of the interaction with other Peace activists and her involvement with NPG and they began to visit the Muslim area more often. She has performed key roles in plays like “Khel Paiso Ka’ on Budget and ‘Abhisharaap’ on gender discrimination in more than 100 locations in and around Ahmedabad.

Every theatre performance requires Divya to devote time and the limited permission allowed by the family. Today, she interacts with people post the performance, especially on gender issues drawing from her own experience of struggle against patriarchy. Her journey as a peace artist has been self- transformative. The transformation of self is a reflection of the transformation she is bringing in society and vice versa.

Rachel D’silva

National Peace Group is supported by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. To learn more about NPG visit the Facebook page at https://m.facebook.com/National-Peace-Group-459204034166038/