Human-rights activist Lalita Ramdas has been termed “anti-national” by those in power, and it’s not a label she has earned just for standing up for India-Pakistan peace and demilitarisation in her latest role as co-founder of South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN), a recently launched people’s initiative to boost South Asian solidarity.
The anti-nuclear activist, founder of Greenpeace India and former chairperson of Greenpeace International could have qualified similarly as an “anti-national” when she testified against the Congress government in the 1984 Delhi riots, which she terms a pogrom.
She was equally vocal in her criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s role in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, the Shiv Sena’s fanning of the 1992 communal riots in Mumbai, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s ‘absence’ during the 2020 communal riots in Delhi, even though she had herself served as convener of the Gender Justice and Women’s Empowerment unit of the AAP from 2012 to 2014.
Daughter of Admiral Ram Dass Katari (1911 – 83), the first Indian to serve as Chief of Naval Staff of free India, and wife of Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, who was Chief of Naval Staff from 1990 until his retirement in 1993, Ramdas has, in fact, ticked off political parties of all hues in India at some point or the other.
“It is not just the current government that has created this animosity in India towards Pakistan,” says Ramdas, who has been a member of the Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) since 1994. “Earlier regimes also did not discourage this, nor did they put forward another narrative,” she says, adding that it was only Atal Bihari Vajpayee, of all of India’s prime ministers, who demonstrated a genuine desire to promote peace between the two hostile neighbours that are inextricably bound together by history, geography, language and culture.
In her opening speech at a webinar titled ‘South Asian Solidarity in the Time of Covid: Sharing Grief, Inspiration, Hope and Strategies’ organised by SAPAN for around 200 members on May 30, Ramdas said, “Our community of peacemakers, human-rights workers, those of us fighting for a nuclear-free and a democratic India and South Asia, and those of us calling for people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan, the dissenters, the ‘seditionists’, the writers, the poets, the artists, the dancers, we the ‘anti-nationals’, we too are struggling to come to terms with a future where so many stalwarts we thought were invincible have moved on.”
The two-hour event included talks by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and various eminent academics, journalists, activists and doctors from South Asia and the diaspora, who called on South Asian societies to treat healthcare as a basic human right, increase healthcare budgets, collaborate to manage the pandemic and plan responses to future challenges.
The gathering – held in the backdrop of India and Pakistan reaching a landmark 100 days of ceasefire across the Line of Control this week – also adopted a resolution describing the pandemic as a wake-up call for regional cooperation, and pressed for equitable vaccine supply across the region.
“I draw my value system from the Constitution of India,” says Ramdas, who has lived in the village of Bhaimala in district Alibag in Maharashtra since 1993, on a plot of land gifted to her husband by the government of Maharashtra after he earned a Vir Chakra in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
“We grew up at a time when there was a very strong legacy of the Partition, and the Constitution that had inculcated a deliberate set of values in India’s armed forces, which was to build a consciously secular community. Every serviceman or servicewoman swears allegiance to the Constitution of India, and so we internalised and imbibed those values as children. Sadly, that has changed over the past few decades, which is something we need to identify, resist and challenge. These are values we must defend,” says the octogenarian.
The great Indian secular dream
Born in Kolkata in 1940, one of first key influences in Ramdas’s life was the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. “I was studying in Lonavala, where my father was posted, and was walking home from school with my best friend Nighaar Ahmed. We crossed Lonavala town and saw people running about in various directions, crying, and we wondered what on earth had happened,” says Ramdas, who was nominated for the 1000 Peace Women for Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Gandhi’s assassination left her with a deep sense of loss, along with fear about where the country was headed. Herself brought up in various convent schools, she admits she may have inherited a certain Nehruvian vision of India, which perhaps was not shared by those from less privileged backgrounds. “I realised later that this Western-educated vision had alienated many others, and what we see today is a result of that,” says Ramdas, who completed her bachelor’s from Miranda House, University of Delhi, and got married soon after.
The second life-changing moment for her occurred in 1971, but has nothing to do with her father being an ambassador to Burma then or her husband commanding a ship in the Navy. “My brother said he’s in love with a Muslim girl,” says Ramdas, whose mother staunchly opposed the match and even vowed her son could only marry over her dead body.
“I realised how wrong we can be about those closest to us,” says Ramdas, who convinced her mother to give her blessings, eventually. The couple have been happily married since. “It was a defining moment for me personally and for us as a family to address these deep-seated misconceptions and attitudes,” Ramdas says.
Later, at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, Ramdas noticed “nasty” communally tinged comments being made within the Naval community where they lived. She asked her mother to give a talk about her own prejudices born during her growing-up years in pre-Independence Assam and her more recent experience of having a Muslim daughter-in-law. “The women in the audience were in tears. This kind of sharing and expressing is not something we do enough of,” says Ramdas, who was president-in-chief of the Navy Wives Welfare Association from 1987 to 1993.
The most defining act of Ramdas’s life came in the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Then the founder-director of ANKUR, an NGO focused on education and literacy, she got involved with the rehabilitation of Sikh refugees whose families had been abused or decimated during the riots. “That’s when I saw the ugly face of the state,” says Ramdas, who helped compile the testimonies of the survivors. “It was traumatising. It was clear how political forces were cynically using communalism to play out their own agenda.”
Ramdas decided to testify in court. “I phoned my husband and told him people were dissuading me because it may be the end of his Naval career,” she recounts. Her husband replied, “Do what your conscience tells you to do. If it is going to have an impact on my career, so be it.” Despite her testimony and that of many others, the guilty have still not been punished, rues Ramdas. “I thought I had seen everything in 1984. Then 2002 happened. And it continues.”
Along the way, the question of India-Pakistan peace also became personal for the Ramdas family, when their firstborn, Kavita, then a student in New York, fell in love with Zulfiqar Ahmad, nephew of renowned Pakistani philosopher-academic Dr Eqbal Ahmad. Admiral Ramdas sought permission for his daughter’s “Indo-Pak” wedding from then prime minister V.P. Singh and then defence minister Dr Raja Ramanna, a physicist who gave the match his blessings saying, jovially, “As long as she is independent, she can marry Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for all I care.”
Years later, when the older couple narrated the story to the retired Indo-Pak Naval fraternity in Karachi, they were applauded and congratulated. “They told us, ‘This could never have happened in Pakistan. It could only have happened in India’,” says Ramdas.
She adds, wryly, “Today, I dare say, we are not going to see anything like that happen in India, either.”
An imperfect democracy
Ramdas says that while India-Pakistan peace can only be achieved through a combination of political and military will, the problem of increasing communalism within India is unfortunately adding to the hatred and divisiveness. “Because of hostility against Muslims in India, they are being tagged with a Pakistani identity, and that’s terrible. The media is playing along. Even a cricket match is looked at as a war,” says Ramdas.
Mother of three daughters, Ramdas asserts that women’s voices are not being heard enough and that women are an untapped resource for peacebuilding. “Women need to play a larger role. We need an army of women to go out there and stand up for peace, to confront and counter this ugly communalist narrative and the utter neglect that human beings are being treated with by the political leadership,” she says.
Ramdas believes that while fundamentalist groups of all faiths have successfully employed the religious card to mobilise women for narrow sectarian ends, “liberals or progressives have failed to reach out and build on the deeply spiritual energies of women for more visible roles in society and activism and to draw out their innate capacities for nurturing and peacebuilding in society”.
She also believes a compelling new narrative is called for, so that the existing communal one can be overwritten. “We have had a very imperfect democracy,” Ramdas says, while adding that she has hope for “bold, different and extraordinary leadership” from the new voices that are rising. “The farmers’ movement, the Dalit movements, and the Adivasi movements – these are remarkable new models of democracy we have never seen since Independence. Perhaps they can give rise to a reimagining, and not just restructuring, of the Indian model of democracy,” she says. “We must stay optimistic.”