Peace activist who looks like a Sufi: An Interview with Sandeep Pandey

Militancy is a dangerous thing. What is more dangerous is that they feed on each other and it becomes a vicious cycle. Islamic terrorism provokes Hindutva terrorism and vice versa. Only strong democratic governments backed by solid mandate of people can curb the rise of fundamentalist forces.

Besides Anna Hazare, who has received media attention recently, there are other genuine social activists in India who have been

Dr. Sandeep Pandey

working for nuclear disarmament, education, justice and peace.

Sandeep Pandey is known as a social activist who is also pro-poor. He has devoted his life to fight against marginalization of the disadvantaged, social injustice, and exploitation of local resources by the wealthy.

He went back to his country after his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1992. Based on his impressive academic background, my mental image of him was of a well-dressed person, like other activists we have in Pakistan. To my surprise he came to speak at the South Asia Peace Conference at University of North Texas in a white kurta pajama and flip-flop sandals.

He looks like a down-to-earth Sufi rather than an engineer graduated from a prestigious American university. His simplicity speaks for his empathy and connectedness to the common people of his country.

He told his audience at the conference, how difficult it was for him and his team to work with bureaucracies in India and Pakistan who created hurdles in organizing peace marches in both countries.

In 2005, he and fellow activists organized peace marches from Karachi to Delhi and then from Delhi to Multan. In 1999 he walked over 1000 kilometers from Pokhran, the site of India’s nuclear test, to Sarnath, Buddha’s first teaching place, to create awareness about devastating impacts of nuclear armaments.

Here is his interview:

South Asia is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the world in terms of education, per capita income, health facilities and poverty. Yet with the current level of interstate conflicts, ethnic tensions and violence, there are less chances the overall situation will improve soon. In your opinion why the post-colonial South Asia has been in a continuous state of turmoil and unrest?

Because leaders have been busy with power games and have not really cared about the masses. Feudal mindset still dominates the political culture. Look at how even in a democracy like India sons and daughters of politicians become the unquestionable heirs. Corruption is an integral part of our systems so that the political leaders can fund their politics and also amass personal wealth.

Criminalization of politics further ensured that the system would be alienated from serving common people’s interest. The leaders now don’t have any qualms about subverting the interest of their people or their nation and secretly condone violence if it suits their politics.

With two nuclear powers, South Asia has become a highly volatile region at the verge of nuclear catastrophe. You have been promoting peace and nuclear disarmament through peaceful rallies in India and Pakistan.  Any success so far?

People are realizing the futility of arms race. We take consolation in the fact that when leaders talk they have to speak our language, even though they may not do anything substantial in the direction of establishing peace and friendship.

I think with the nuclearization of South Asia, India and Pakistan have no choice but to talk peace as any war can be catastrophic. 1999 Kargil War was the first in history where two nuclear powers were face to face. This is a potentially very dangerous situation.

Moreover, there is the danger that these weapons could fall in the hands of terrorists. With a number of terrorist attacks in both countries, their leaders now feel the need for peace more than even before. There also seems to be some serious efforts in the direction of resolving the Kashmir issue.

As you know the 17th SAARC Summit began in Maldives last week with the theme “Building Bridges.” Some analysts say it has become an ineffective organization involved in nothing significant beyond deliberations. Do you think SAARC has the capability to build bridges?

SAARC has become ineffective in the same manner as the UN. Like the US dominates UN, India and to some extent Pakistan dominate SAARC. It can become a viable organization only if it is run in a democratic manner with each country respecting the others equally.

Moreover, serious issues must be discussed and resolved. There should be an attempt to create a nuclear free and visa free South Asia.

There was much movement on the Kashmir issue during the last dictatorial regime of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and it was rumored that both countries have agreed to a possible solution. Although we have a democratic government in Pakistan now there has been no advancement on the issue of Kashmir lately. Your comments?

ISI and military hinder the functioning of democratic government in Pakistan. When Gen. Musharraf was in command he could negotiate with India more freely because of his autocratic power and because he had the backing of military.

The same is not true, unfortunately, for the democratic government in Pakistan. Moreover, the fundamentalist forces would not like to see Kashmir resolved amicably as it has given them an opportunity to whip up anti-India sentiments.

These forces also tend to weaken the democratically elected government when it takes steps to resolve issues with India. For example, Pakistan was not able to accord India the status of Most Favored Nation in trade because of the pressure of these groups.

With increasing militancy and religious bigotry, terrorism is the recent challenge which is becoming a real threat to peace in the region. Any thoughts?

Militancy is a dangerous thing. What is more dangerous is that they feed on each other and it becomes a vicious cycle. Islamic terrorism provokes Hindutva terrorism and vice versa. Only strong democratic governments backed by solid mandate of people can curb the rise of fundamentalist forces.

During the last 60 years democracy has not taken roots in the region except in India. It is only in the recent years that monarchs, military generals and dictators have been disappearing to give way to democracies as a result of grassroots movements. Do you see a bright future?

The future is bright with the awakening of masses. Return of democracy in Pakistan and Bangladesh, end of monarchy in Nepal and more recently waves of democracy sweeping through the Arab world hold high hopes for people.

Anna Hazare’s movement in India has begun a new era of assertion of people’s power challenging the corrupt governments. Sovereignty of people has been clearly established. This is good news for democracy in the region.


India and Pakistan dominate the whole discussion of peace and development in South Asia at regional and international forums while issues of other smaller countries are ignored. Do you think it is fair?

It is unfair. Other countries should also be given equal importance. On one hand we ignore the positive achievements in Bhutan and Bangladesh related to development and on the other underplay the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. We have to pay more attention to what is going on in smaller countries of South Asia.

India is becoming a political and economic power in the region. Any ideas on how it could promote peace and interstate collaboration in the region?

By trusting other nations and taking them along. India should give up its ambition of becoming a regional super power and play the role of facilitator in a democratic fashion in forging a regional cooperation. It’ll have to give up its attitude of being the big brother and stop being a threat to the smaller nations around it. Right now it is held in awe by most of its neighbors.

Thank you for your time in discussing peace issues in the region. Finally, please identify three issues that you consider threat to peace and development in South Asia.

The three threats to peace and development in South Asia in my view are:

(1) Interference of military-industrial complex of US, Israel and other developed nations

(2) Religious fundamentalists in India and Pakistan

(3) Failure of economic policies towards poverty alleviation.

(From Viewpoint Online)

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