Shanti Sena (Indian Peace Brigade) intervenes in deadly Hindu/Muslim riots, Ahmedabad 1969

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Timing
Time Period:  
September
1969
to
January
1970
Location and Goals
Country: 
India
Location City/State/Province: 
Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Location Description: 
Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat and is the judicial and financial capital
Goals: 
"The aims of the Shanti Sena are three-fold:

1. To prevent any outbreak of violence in the country

2. If violence does break out nevertheless, to bring it under control by non-violent methods

3. To create in India such an atmosphere of non-violent strength that war may be outlawed from the international field, and the spirit of cooperation strengthened"

-Narayan Desai

 

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.

The Shanti Sena intervened in the Ahmedabad Hindu/Muslim riots of 1969. Ahmedabad was the largest city in Gujarat and had a history of Hindu/Muslim violence before independence. In events leading up the riots, nationalist Muslims were displeased by a lack of their own representation in the government after independence, and disappointed that pro-integration Muslims were admitted into the largely Hindu ruling party, the Indian National Congress. The nationalist Muslims therefore felt disenfranchised. Anti-Muslim Hindus, on the other hand, were outraged by the inclusion of Muslims in what they regarded as their party, the Indian National Congress.

A Hindu movement based itself in Ahmedabad and campaigned to ban cow-slaughter. (Most Muslims were accustomed to eating beef.) At the same time, Muslims organized processions to protest the damages to the Al Aksa mosque in Palestine. Another part of the context was anger left by the Indo-Pakistan Wars a few years before -- in 1965 -- and fear that Pakistan might attack across the Gujurat border near Ahmedabad. The accidental death of the state’s chief minister during the war also increased anti-Muslim sentiments in the area. Together, these events led to high tension, with anger on both sides.

Two incidents occurred that insulted both religious groups. A police jeep hit a hawker causing a paper copy of the Koran to fall to the ground, and uproar in the Muslim community forced the police officer to apologize. Later a Muslim officer allegedly trampled a copy of the Hindu scripture Ramayana while breaking up a Hindu festival. Although the government didn’t take action against the police officer at first, it later dismissed the officer after Hindu monks held a protest fast. However, some Hindus took this as an example of the government’s bias towards Muslims.

The turning point occurred during the Muslim festival of Urs. Sadhus (Hindu wandering monks) who were leading a herd of temple-cows had a fight with a group of Muslims who were allegedly hurt by some of the startled cows. Later, a group of Muslims purportedly attacked a Hindu temple with rocks, breaking the glass panes on the outside gates. Although no one was injured or killed in these minor events and prominent Muslims of Ahmedabad apologized the next day, angered people had already started riots across the city that involved looting, arson, and assaults.

Rumors made the situation worse, as the Urs cow incident and other rumors of Hindu/Muslim conflicts were exaggerated through hearsay, illegal pamphlets, daily newspapers, and even government radio stations. People began to believe the attack was intended to dishonor the entire Hindu community, that the temple cows were killed, the Sadhus were killed, or that the temple was damaged and desecrated. There were also rumors of women being molested and large scale killings by Muslims in other parts of town.

These riots in September 1969 were the worst in the decade, and resulted in 2,000 deaths as well as the widespread destruction of urban areas. Rioters plundered the shops, set buildings ablaze and attacked areas of the Muslim community as well as assaulted women on the street. Many were killed or severely injured, and thousands of people became homeless because of the wreckage done to the city. Throughout the violence, the government was generally ineffective at preventing the riots. It called in Special Reserve Police to use force to disperse crowds, but this proved unsuccessful. Indecision over whether the civil authority or military should intervene also prevented the government from intervening in a timely fashion.

The Shanti Sena unit was not well organized in Ahmedabad when the riots initially broke out, due to small numbers and lack of communication. The few Shanti Sainiks in the city worked individually at first to save lives and mediate the conflict. Two days after the riots began more Shanti Sainiks entered the city to work in a more organized fashion, mainly for relief and rehabilitation. They traveled to violent neighborhoods attempting to restore peace. Responding to a call from the Shanti Sena, groups of students from Gandhian Ashrams in Gujarat joined the campaign to clean up the city and mediate conflicts by talking to the local people.

The Shanti Sena’s main task was to mediate conflicts between the Muslims and Hindus and promote dialogue. The Sainiks stayed in riot-affected areas and made house-to-house contacts, organized group discussions, held street-corner meetings, and made speeches in mosques or temples advocating peace talks. Because the Shanti Sena had no political affiliation, it was able to effectively provide aid and work with the government. The Shanti Sena provided a crucial mediation role between the government, Hindus, Muslims, students, and the intellectual community to prevent violence and work towards rehabilitation. The government issued curfew passes for the Shanti Sena so that they could peacefully patrol the streets and prevent violence from erupting.

The Sainiks worked to distribute blankets, rehabilitate and work with women refugees, and clean up debris. They also created a popular biweekly journal called ‘Insan’ (human being) distributed by college students throughout town, which answered questions posed to Shanti Sainiks and sought to open up dialogue. The peace soldiers also started a program called ‘Ektane Panthe’ (out the way to harmony), where young volunteers wrote messages promoting brotherhood on wall boards around the city. A long term initiative of the Shanti Sena was providing small loans to rehabilitate hawkers and petty traders, although limited funds prevented much growth of the program.

The Shanti Sena also held camps for the local people where they underwent Shanti Sena training to learn to live together peacefully. Visits from influential leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Muslim leader Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, and others legitimized the group and eased tensions in the community.

The Shanti Sena concluded its campaign on January 30, 1970 after four months of work. Shanti Sainiks enlisted volunteers to organize a peaceful celebration to observe the anniversary of Gandhi’s death and commemorate Peace Day. Six large processions converged at a central spot in the city and held a public meeting, shouting “We may be Hindus, we may be Muslims, but above all, we are human beings”. Ravishankar Maharaj, an activist in Gujarat, led the group in singing hymns and held a mass prayer meeting.

The Shanti Sena was able to ease the conflict, provide relief and rehabilitation, and promote the power of nonviolent tactics in the city. However, weak organization of the Shanti Sainiks reduced their impact, and the horrific violence of the riots would overshadow many of the Shanti Sena’s peaceful efforts.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Shanti Sena was directly influenced by Gandhi and his teachings of nonviolent action. (1)

Sources: 
Charny, Israel W. Strategies against Violence: Design for Nonviolent Change. Boulder: Westview Press, 1978. Print.

Desai, Narayan. Notes on Shanti Sena (Indian Peace Brigade). N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

- - -. Towards a Nonviolent Revolution. Rajghat: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, 1972. Print.

Hare, A P, and Herbert H. Blumberg. Liberation Without Violence: A Third-Party Approach. London: R. Collings, 1977. Print.

Weber, Thomas. Gandhi's Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1996. Print.

Shepard, Mark. Gandhi Today: A Report on Mahatma Gandhi's Successors. Arcata: Simple Productions, 1987. Print.

Additional Notes: 
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Nancy Liu, 14/10/2011