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Shanti Sena (Indian Peace Brigade) intervenes in Baroda language riots, 1965
After India’s independence (for example see, “Indians campaign for independence (Salt Satyagraha), 1930-1931”), tensions between Hindus and Muslims erupted in violent riots in the north of what was an undivided India. At that time, Gandhi had the idea of creating Shanti Sena, or the Gandhian Peace Army, an army of nonviolent soldiers that could keep the peace. Gandhi planned a conference in 1948 at his Sevagram Ashram to discuss the organization of the Shanti Sena, but he was assassinated before talks began.
Vinoba Bhave, an activist who was considered the spiritual heir to Gandhi, revived the idea in 1957. Bhave had organized the Bhoodan-Gramdan (land-gifting) movement to create united village communities that shared land. Concerned by communal riots near Gramdan villages, he proposed the formation of a nonviolent army that could protect the villagers from the rioting. It was an attempt to apply “Gandhian methods” in different conflict situations and historical circumstances after independence. Under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and Narayan Desai, the Shanti Sena became a group of about 6,000 Shanti Sainiks (peace soldiers) in the mid 1960s at the height of its membership. The Shanti Sena was an offshoot of the Sarvodaya (Uplift of All) movement, which sought to build a new society free of exploitation and oppression. The Shanti Sena was an attempt to provide the trained personnel that would be responsible for peacekeeping in the new society. Many of the Shanti Sainiks were regular rural Sarvodaya workers as well as students who would travel to nearby riot-stricken areas.
In 1965, violence erupted in Gujarat in large cities Ahmedabad and Baroda. Shanti Sainiks decided to focus on Baroda for several strategic reasons. Baroda was the second biggest city in Gujarat and considered the cultural center. Ahmedabad was considered too large and Baroda already had groups of volunteers working in the city under Nagar Padayatra, workers for Sarvodaya, which included Shanti Sainiks. Baroda was also where the Gujarat Bhoodan periodical “Bhoomiputra” was published, and Sainiks hoped that they could receive support from others within the Bhoodan movement.
The Shanti Sena, in alliance with the Sarvodaya movement, issued a public declaration on the riots, announcing a nonpartisan stance and urging reconciliation without violence. Baroda’s “language” riots erupted over communal tensions and disputes about reorganization of the State within the background of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. However, little is known about what events led up to the riots or what instigated the violence.
Shortly after the crowds and police became violent during the riots, the Shanti Sena created a Shanti Sena Jattha (platoon) of 32 Sainiks, including 5 women, headed by leader Shri Harish Vyas. The group had three tactics to promote peace: meeting the leaders of public opinion, rumor fighting, and patrolling. The peace soldiers first worked to meet with the city police and Congress to stop police violence on the streets. The Shanti Sena was able to meet officials because of their nonpartisan stance and because they took advantage of personal connections or relationships that the peace soldiers had with officials to negotiate. Sainiks first went to the city police and requested that the police not use firearms when dealing with crowds, while offering some alternative tactics to handle crowds that would not require violence. They also met with the leader of Congress, who was at first scornful of nonviolent tactics to control the city. However, the peace soldiers knew that the leader was the head of several civic organizations and also built up institutions important to the city, and was therefore proud and loyal to Baroda. They convinced him that using violence would damage the reputation of the city and that he should impose a curfew instead to curb violence on the street.
Sainiks also worked to negotiate with the two opposition political groups, the Socialists and Communists. The Shanti Sena was able to successfully convince the Socialist party that violence would be politically detrimental to them because it would hurt the party’s large support base. A Communist leader undertook an indefinite fast to protest the violence, so the Communists were eager to stop violence and save the leader’s life. The Shanti Sena convinced both groups to sign an appeal for peace in the city.
To fight the spread of exaggerated rumors throughout the city that inflamed violence, The Shanti Sena issued daily bulletins with reports from Sainiks working in the field and traveling around parts of the city. The bulletin included stories of bravery and nonviolence from Sainik reports, as well as from police and political parties. On the third day of full work, the Santi Sena organized a silent peace procession in the city. Sainiks as well as residents marched silently, holding placards and signs promoting peace and denouncing violence.
Sainiks had a key role in preventing violence by peacefully patrolling the city. Sainiks worked with the government to obtain curfew passes so that they could patrol the streets during curfews and stop any eruptions of violence. The peace soldiers stationed one group of volunteers at points of potential violence and another group moved around the city and maintained communications between the various outposts. These patrols mediated between crowds and the police force, often arguing against the use of crowd rock-throwing or police lathees. Sometimes, volunteers intervened directly into violent conflicts and faced injury from rioters and the police force.
A Shanti Sena initiative to encourage future peacekeeping was the organization of small and large community meetings to discuss the causes and effects of riots on the city. This would hopefully lead to the formation of peace committees to prevent and deal with future outbursts of violence. Even when many Sainiks considered the campaign to be finished, police officers and political leaders requested the Shanti Sena to continue operating in Baroda because it was effective at maintaining peace in the city.