Dr. N.N. Panicker is a former engineer and management trainer with a Ph.D. in Ocean Engineering. He has traveled extensively around India, organizing and participating in grass-roots development efforts and conflict resolution in the Gandhian tradition. In 1994, in Calcutta, he spoke on the Evolution of Science and Religion for Peace and Harmony at the concluding session of the Centenary of Swami Vivekananda's Chicago Speech. He has also participated in a work camp for rainwater collection in drought-stricken Rajasthan, and was involved in earthquake-proof house construction in Gujarat. In January 2002, Beliefnet asked him what role--real or perceived--religion plays in the India-Pakistan conflict, and for new approaches to resolving the issue.

Please explain your experiences in examining Indo-Pak relations.

Conflict and competition are natural characteristics of Indo-Pak relations. Harmony and co-operation should be the objective for any meaningful effort. This would be possible when the realization occurs that this objective is no longer an ideal, but a necessity for survival. My interactions with Pakistani friends at the South Asia Fraternity Camps convince me that people share this feeling, but they are still haunted by fears of domination, which have made it possible for opportunistic politicians to create an artificial partition.

You've traveled through Kashmir and spent time in Punjab during the early 90s. How do you compare Hindu-Sikh relations with Hindu-Muslim relations, particularly in light of the Khalistani and Kashmir disputes?

In the early '90s, the Sikhs had felt insulted by the 'Blue Star' operation violating the sanctity of the Golden Temple to flush out the rebels who used the Gurudwara as their base. These rebels had been nurtured for partisan political advantage, just like the Taliban was nurtured as a counter force and boomeranged. In other words, the problem with the Hindu-Sikh relations started from insensitivity to genuine aspirations and political opportunism. It was not deep rooted, because of the warmth and fraternal feelings that have historically existed between Hindus and Sikhs. Many families had members professing either or both faiths.

Khalistan was inspired by Pakistan both as a concept and as a violent movement. Appropriate actions corrected the situation. Last month, when we crisscrossed Punjab as guests of Sikh friends, the warmth we felt was even more than in any other part of India.

The same thing cannot be said about Kashmir. The problem is more deep-rooted. The Muslim majority was ruled by a Hindu king and dominated by educated Hindus. Such injustice existed in other parts of India also. The national freedom movement, although primarily against the British, had roots also in the princely states. The popular leadership in Kashmir under Sheikh Abdullah identified itself with the secular, democratic, federal vision of India. The 'two-nation' theory of Muslims forming a separate nation did not have a hold there. The situation changed because of wrong policies and actions of both the state and the central government. The relentless campaign from Pakistan and the propagation of Islamic fanaticism initiated and sustained by resources from outside gave a religious color to the popular discontent.

But even during this time I could see genuine warmth between local Hindus and Muslims even during my recent visit. This despite of the brainwashing that has been going on through Madrassas and terrorism affecting a whole generation, resulting in mass expulsion of people from their homes by religious fanatics. A much more basic approach than in Punjab would be necessary to pacify Kashmir.

I've noticed that Hindus in India, particularly urban youth, have become increasingly resentful of Muslim Indians in recent years. Do you think this indicates the partial success of the Hindutva agenda?

Resentment occurs when you perceive that your aspirations are threatened by unjust means, particularly by organized groups. Youth unemployment is rampant in India. Urban young people have greater aspirations and they perceive real and imaginary threats. Special benefits enjoyed by Muslims and different castes naturally enrage them when enlightened leadership does not provide the necessary guidance. Instigators of hate have a field day in India in the absence of enlightened leadership.

How has Gandhism adapted to these times?

Gandhian thoughts and activities have been somewhat subdued, but of late, there have been signs of resurgence. An example is the recent International Conference on Gandhian Alternatives to Terrorism and War, the first conference of that type after September 11.

You've suggested that terrorism is not exclusive to followers of any one religion. Do you think Hinduism is as vulnerable as any faith?

It is less vulnerable because it is not an organized religion. There is greater freedom and diversity in the practice of the Hindu religion. But such a comparison is meaningless, because it takes only a few people to take up terrorism and there will be enough in any group of people. Statistics and probability are irrelevant in the context of terrorism of modern age because of the easy affordability, accessibility and potency of the tools of terrorism.

Recently you met the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram about a plan to combat terrorism. What does it entail?

My objective is to project "Proactive Living" as a style of living for the present and the future in the context of the emerging trends of terrorism. It is no longer possible to survive oneself, leaving others to themselves. Anyone can become a terrorist; he or she needs to be prevented from becoming one through fraternal attention and care.

The Ayalkoottam concept--a society where neighborhoods share their resources freely as in one family--is relevant here. Its characteristic is 'paraspara anandajeevitham'--the joy of mutually complementary living. Neighbors live as if they were members of the same family, sharing resources and labor.

Muslims cite both the Qur'an and Hadith in upholding certain acts of war. What about Hindus?

Hindus have also plenty to cite to uphold acts of war, including the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita. But the apostles of non-violence, such as Gandhi and Vinoba, also cite the same texts. Peace (Shanti) is repeated in Hindu prayers more often than any other word. There is no concept of Jihad (war for religion) or proselytization in Hindu tradition. But attribution of religious texts as sources of war is somewhat at fault because wars are usually fought by the instigation of opportunists. If texts are not there to support, they will invent them.

Has Hindu thought been hijacked by politics? What would Kautilya have to say about managing the ongoing conflict?

Yes, attempts have been made and will continue to be made. But the freedom of thought characteristic of Hindus, and the religion's lack of central authority, can help in ensuring the exposure of politicians if there is a concerted effort to counter the attempt. Kautilya's Artha Sastra is an ancient text on statecraft. Kautilya's counsel to Chandra Gupta was to use strategy over direct confrontation. It is even more relevant now.

What are specific, creative ways of improving Hindu-Muslim and Indo-Pak relations?

The creative way for improving Hindu-Muslim and Indo-Pak relations is the natural way: to see religion and politics as entirely different and not club them together. India is a secular democratic country with the second largest Muslim population in the world. There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. So the identification of Muslims with Pakistan is a basic error. Even during the time of partition, more Muslims remained with India than with Pakistan and enjoyed equal opportunity in India with other people.

The Indo-Pakistan relationship will improve the moment the attributed religious identifications are removed. The complementary nature of the economy, the common heritage of the people, and the acceptance of reality as it is should lead to better relations. Pakistan should give up its claim to Islam and Indian Muslims for its better relations with India and for better Hindu-Muslim relations. The claim on Kashmir, based on a two-nation theory of Muslims forming a separate nation, should be recognized as outmoded. The anti-Muslim feelings of reactions created by them should also subside.

The recognition that religion is an accident of birth or a choice of faith--and not an instrument of politics--will ensure good relations.

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