Born Mumtaz Ali Khan, the crusader and educationist is on a walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Ahead of reaching Delhi, he tells AMRITH LAL why
It’s a walk about peace, and hope. Sri M, born Mumtaz Ali Khan, has been on the road since January 12 when he started from Kanyakumari to spread the message of inter-religious harmony. Leading a small group, Sri M, spiritual guide, social reformer, author and educationist, has travelled through seven states to arrive in Gurgaon last week and will walk into Delhi Wednesday, en route to Srinagar, where he hopes to conclude The Walk of Hope in May.
Sri M, 67, lives with multiple religious identities – “People can’t figure out what I am,” he gleefully says. A family man with two grown-up children, Sri M speaks many languages and in an idiom that seeks to transcend the religious divide. He believes people need to talk if peace has to prevail; he wants students to be taught about the mind.
Hence, the padayatra.
Excerpts from an interview:
What prompted this journey for inter-communal harmony now?
Inter-communal harmony has been something I have been thinking for long. India is unique. We have so many religions, sampradayas, traditions. We have lived well together, more or less. Sometimes, this fabric ruptures. My reading is it has nothing to do with religion; religion is just a façade. I felt someone must take responsibility and address it. People who are comfortable in their bungalows and ashrams are unlikely to do it. Since I am not a sanyasi, I thought I should try. Three years ago, I felt if I don’t do it now, I may never be able to do it. I do yoga and keep myself fit, but it is the body… First, I thought I would walk alone. Then many persons became interested.
It is better to prevent than allow something to happen. When something happens, the aftershocks are there for very long. There may not be an immediate impact as we walk, though people have been responsive.
My first argument is we are all human beings first. And every one of us wants peace, including those who occasionally create trouble. Then the idea of nation. Within all this diversity, there is core. With this idea we started the walk. A nation’s movement forward depends on the unity of its people. Youth are the seeds of a nation. So we speak with them. However, they need to be nurtured. So, we meet teachers, elders. We say loka samasta sukhino bhavantu. But we have to start at home before we talk to the world.
We expect to reach Srinagar in May and wind up the physical walk. But the walk in the mind will continue. So I hope to return, visit places where we stayed and speak to people we met to take the idea of communal harmony forward.
What did you see, hear during the walk?
When we walk, we don’t miss a single temple or dargah or masjid or church or gurdwara, if they are on the way. It is not easy to tell people to discard their narrowness. What we do is discuss the commonalities. In temples and ashrams, I speak about the Gita, the Upanishads. At the church, when I stand in front of the cross, the words of Jesus come to me: ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’. I tell them everything is there in the Bible, you only need to follow it.
There is a feeling of rising intolerance in society. Do you sense it?
It’s been going on. Now, it is presented more openly. Life of an animal is important. But the human being’s life is equally important. After all, it is the human being who takes care of the animal. We mustn’t lose hope. My intention is to bring people to the table and talk. And, people are amenable. In Kannur, people from the Left and the Right walked with us. They said the yatra has no politics. But we say this ability to walk together has to come into their lives. We spent two days in Godhra. A Muslim gentleman said if more people are like us, they will not suffer.
You are a Muslim speaking about Upanishadic wisdom. How have religious groups responded?
There are Hindus who come to debate and they go back — and I am not boasting —when they realise I know more about the Hindu thought than them. I love the Hindu system of thought and ethics. Why should I hide? You find similar thinking in Buddhist philosophy and early Christian religion. I don’t like the word fundamentalist, it is not the correct term. If you know the fundamentals of your religion, you will not commit violence in the name of religion.
Unfortunately, some religious texts are amenable to misinterpretation. People also take them out of context. There is a mindset, which may belong to any religion, that is prone to violence. I won’t call it orthodox. I know a lot of orthodox people, Brahmins and Muslims, who will not take to violence.
What about Muslim groups?
Overtly, no one has expressed any resentment. When I notice that people are uncomfortable, I shift to Arabic and talk about the Quran and so on. Hindus or Muslims, the good or bad thing about me is people can’t figure out what I am. Religion is a huge influence among people. What we are trying is to use it for positive purposes, take it away from negative things. The intent of religion is what Jesus Christ said: ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath’.
You mentioned the greatness of the ancient Indian systems of thought. What explains violence in the society?
It is a great tradition, not an actuality. The dissatisfaction comes out of frustration, anger. If we were practising the tradition this would not be the case. Take the saying ahimsa paramo dharma. Who practises it? We want to practice tradition in the context of power politics. I would say it is not too much of religion that is the problem, the real problem is the absence of true religiosity. There has been a thorough degradation of the ancient Indian systems.
Caste, for instance, was about capacity not quality. When religion enters politics, it becomes politics of religion. Discrimination comes in. There are religions which were intertwined with politics from their birth. Hinduism was not made that way. Politicisation of Hinduism is like the talibanisation of religion. Ironically, the word taliban means one who knows. Hence, my point that we need to talk.
RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi was among those present at the start of the padayatra. Has communal harmony come up in your interactions?
I don’t discriminate with whom I meet. Bhaiyyaji Joshi came to meet me and found me interesting. There are two ways of looking at it. The usual way is to openly talk about it. Then people may not open up. When I interact personally, on one-on-one basis, it is a different matter. When you openly criticise, people become protective, people become defensive. The first method has been tried and it has not worked. When we talk person to person, some seeds of thought are sown. The roots of the Hindu system of thought are not violent. Somewhere along the talks that comes in.