The world is poorer today because two outstanding Champions of Peace, India’s KuldipNayar and Israel’s Uri Avnery, are no more. They were leading lights for sanity, tolerance and mutual respectin their societies and nations who always believed in the indivisibility of humanity.
KuldipNayar was born in Sialkot in on August 14, 1923 and died today, August 23, 2018. He like many others in those days, came to Lahore for his studies. He graduated from FC College and obtained his law degree from the Lahore Law College. I never had the chance to interview him formally for my book when I was researching the partition of Punjab. One reason was that he had already written extensively on his past, as well as the partition and Lahore. Delhi, especially New Delhi is a stronghold of West Punjabi Hindu and Sikh refugees. There is even a Lahore Corner in the restaurant and tea-coffee lounge of the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi. From 1999 onwards, whenever I was in Delhi I stayed at the IIC. I was made a member immediately and over the years I have seen so many of the old Lahor is who once sat in that corner depart from this world. My dear friend PranNevile is probably the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ of that group. Since KuldipNayar had lived and studied in Lahore he would also join in sometimes. The Sialkoti Punjabi dialect was still clearly discernible in 1999, and stood out as different from others who were from Lahore.
KuldipNayar was a highly respected journalist and newspaper editor. He was also the author of several books. He was a committed democrat as well as a minorities’ and women’s rights champion. He was one of those Indians who opposed Indira Gandhi during the Emergency (1975-77). and for a while also a diplomat serving as the Indian High Commissioner in the UK. In 1997, he was nominated a member of the Rajya Sabah or upper house of the Indian Parliament.
KuldipNayar also made many contributions to the Indo-Pak Peace effort. This was a life-long commitment for which his zeal remained indefatigable. Every year he would come to the Attari-Wagah border along with other peace activists with lighted candles in mid-August hoping one day the Punjab would normalise, and the Punjabi people reconcile with one another as a brotherly people, but now citizens of two different states. He visited Pakistan many times and had many friends on our side.
He was always critical of New Delhi’s high-handed policies in Indian administered Kashmir. Not surprisingly, he had to face the wrath of ultra-nationalists, some of whom accused him of being anti-India and much worse. Such propaganda never deterred him though, and he remained committed to his conviction that only when you treat your people with care and your neighbours with respect can you claim to be a democracy.
It is often forgotten that the worst feature of Hinduism, the caste system and its bizarre pollution codes, were first challenged in the Punjab as early as 1920. The Arya Samaj and BrahmoSamaj reform movements played a progressive role in changing Hindu attitudes towards the caste system. Unfortunately, the Arya Samajists and Sikh and Muslim counterparts also indulged in angry polemics and that created bad blood, but on the whole people like KuldipNayar and the late Justice RajinderSachar (brother-in-law of KuldipNayar) and many other Punjabi Hindus belonged to the left-wing of the Punjab Congress Party and had very good relations with Muslims.
Another great stalwart who died during the past week (August 20) was Uri Avnery, a veteran Israeli champion of Arab-Israeli peace. Avnery was born in Germany to a middle-class Jewish family. He joined the Zionist movement and took part in the armed struggle for the creation of Israel. However, over time he became disillusioned with Zionism but remained committed to the right of Israel to exist as an independent nation. Still, he became increasingly aware of the great wrong done to the Palestinian Arabs by the Zionists and eventually became an unrelenting champion of the two-state solution to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.
He was one of the founders of the Ghosh Shalom Movement of Israel, which always opposed the Israeli Governments’ policy of occupation and annexation of Palestinian land and property. Avnery preferred cremation over orthodox Jewish burial. A large Palestinian delegation attended his funeral rites. It must be said to the credit of the Government of Israel, that even during the most aggressive and uncompromising regime like that of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ghosh Shalom was never intimidated, assaulted or persecuted: sadly we can’t say that the same would happen in Pakistan.
Even when Pakistan is ruled by elected governments, our approach to criticism and opposition is to react like how Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb would have. Since both Pakistan and Israel are states based on a religious basis of nationalism we are ideological twins. From Israel, we can learn to keep religion within bounds and follow how Israel runs a civilised democracy on its own territory.
So long as the Palestinians live under occupation, I will continue to call Israel an ethnocracy: democracy for Jews and occupation for Palestinians on the West Bank and differential rights for those who are Israeli citizens. Uri Avnery always brought up this blatant contradiction and struggled for a just outcome for the Palestinians’.
With KuldipNayar gone, we have lost a Great Punjabi who represented the best traditions of a united Punjab which is no more. And with the departure of Uri Avnery, the Palestinians have lost one of their best Israeli friends.
The world is a stage and we all have a role to play. Whether we choose to repair it or wound it further is up to us. A salute to KuldipNayar and Uri Avnery