(Today is the 25th anniversary of the barbaric demolition of the Babri Masjid in India — an event that is difficult to forget because of the fear, hatred and revenge it spawned in South Asia. In retaliation, over 30 temples in Pakistan were torched, demolished or attacked. My words cannot bring back the people who were killed in the ensuing violence but here is an effort to salute those who crossed difficult borders, and sought healing. The following article was first published in The Hindu on January 18, 2016, and appeared subsequently on the website of the Vipassana Research Institute. It was commissioned by Roli Srivastava. What you see below is the unedited version.)
While the suspense over National Security Advisor level talks between India and Pakistan continues, a citizen-led initiative for cultural exchange is quietly bridging communication gaps between the people of both countries. Harsh Narayan, a Delhi based filmmaker, is coordinating this effort, with institutional support from the Vipassana International Academy in Igatpuri, Maharashtra.
“A group of 16 Pakistani nationals, including four women and 12 men, have just completed a ten-day Vipassana course at the Dhammagiri centre in Igatpuri. They are from Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Rawalpindi,” says Narayan, who has been facilitating cross-border exchanges between artists, musicians, youth groups and intellectuals from India and Pakistan for several years in collaboration with Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPICMACAY), and the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).
The ten-day residential course is offered free of cost at Vipassana meditation centres established by Satya Narayan Goenka in over 90 countries. It is open to people of all religious and spiritual persuasions, including atheists and agnostics. However, there is no centre in Pakistan. Those interested in the courses have to travel to other countries.
Premji Savla, Chief Trustee of the Vipassana International Academy, states, “The people who have come from Pakistan have shown tremendous dedication. We would like to continue hosting groups from there. The reason is simple. Every living being breathes, and experiences pleasant and unpleasant sensations, regardless of religion or nationality or gender. Why do we see only differences?”
Karachi-based Wahid Karim, who was majorly involved in putting together this Pakistani delegation, says, “In 2003, we had invited a teacher from Nepal to conduct a course in Pakistan. It hasn’t been possible to organize anything after that because of security issues. All the Vipassana courses I have done in the last 15 years have been in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, the UK, and the US. It feels great to be able to send a group to India. This happened thanks to the support we received from well known Pakistani artists Noorjehan Bilgrami and Salima Hashmi, and Vijay Shah from India. I was born in a village near Junagadh in 1940, so India has a special place in my heart. I hope this course will help remove the hatred that has grown between the people over the years.”
The course lasted from December 31 to January 10, after which the delegation arrived in Mumbai. They were hosted at the Global Vipassana Pagoda near Gorai beach in Mumbai, and spent two days enjoying places such as Marine Drive, the Gateway of India, and Juhu beach. They also met Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi and his mother Yashodhara Oberoi at their residence. The latter has been closely associated with the Vipassana International Academy.
Almas Bana, one of the senior members of the Pakistani delegation, says, “I was amazed by people’s genuine interest, empathy and curiosity in relation to Pakistan. The course design itself was very thoughtful. The key idea we learnt was to maintain equanimity — not to take success to one’s head, and not to be depressed by failure,” says Bana, former CEO at Habib Education Trust, Karachi.
Another delegate is Lahore-based Saira Muneer, who offers yoga classes at Faiz Ghar and Lahore Gymkhana. “My father was born in Amroha. He moved to Pakistan after the Partition in 1947. However, he would come back to his house in Amroha for sometime every year. 30 years ago, coming and going was much easier between our countries. I used to come with him, and learn yoga with him. Yoga is in my blood, you can say. I had a deep longing to come and learn Vipassana as well. My dream is to have a Vipassana centre in Pakistan.”
Her son, Umar, who is also part of the delegation, offers yoga lessons to foreign nationals residing in Lahore. He is studying to be a chartered accountant. “Those ten days of silence were like a break for my mind. I had not meditated before, so it was new to me. But I was glad to give away my phone. I cannot describe in words the sukoon I felt,” he remarks.
Other delegates include 3D animator Muhammad Jawad, yoga teacher Iram Khan who likes to watch Baba Ramdev’s videos on YouTube, and Zaheer Butt, who aspires to study filmmaking at the famous Whistling Woods film school in Mumbai. The youngest member of the delegation is 19 year old Ubaid Khiyani, who is accompanying his visually impaired sister Qurratulain Khalid who teaches Islamic Studies at a school in Karachi.
“In the early days, I found it very difficult. I would wonder why I had left the comforts of Karachi to come to India. Later, I realized how valuable my experience was. I also noticed the similarities between Islam and Vipassana. Living in the present is very much a part of my religion. So is the idea of looking within. Jisne apne aap ko pehchaan liya, usne rabb ko pehchaan liya,” says Khalid.
The delegation is now in Delhi, visiting places of historical and cultural significance. On January 14, they enjoyed listening to qawwali at the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. On January 16, they will participate in a SPICMACAY meeting at Delhi University’s Hindu College, to discuss how cultural exchanges can help foster peace and harmony in South Asia.