Archive | November, 2006

2006 Peace Award: Shabana Azmi

Screen legend Shabana Azmi receives International Peace Award for poverty and human rights work.

Omar Hayat, Shabana Azmi, John Rowley

Actress Shabana Azmi has become accustomed to receiving accolades for her ground-breaking performances on stage and screen ever since 1974 when Satyajit Ray first called her “the finest dramatic actress in the country”.

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However, she is equally well known for her decades long work to empower the slum dwellers of Mumbai. As chairperson of Nivara Hakk (Right to Shelter), Shabana Azmi along with documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and three slum dwellers undertook a five-day hunger strike, demanding and finally getting land for the slum dwellers of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar.

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Nivara Hakk opposes demolitions, arguing that demolitions serve no purpose, they only create worst slums out of already existing ones. Guaranteeing unconditional land tenure to the slum dwellers, upgrading the civic amenities around them and ensuring rural employment (70% of India’s people live in her villages) are some of the means by which the mushrooming of slums can be arrested.

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Twenty years after the hunger strike in 1986, Nivara Hakk functions in more than 40 slums of Mumbai and runs schools, health centres and employment generation activities. In a tripartite agreement between the State government, a private builder Sumer Corporation, and Nivara, 13,000 tenements have been built for slum dwellers who were ousted off the National Park. The 1st keys will be handed over to the slum dwellers in the first phase of the programme on 2nd Oct. 2006. This will be simply the largest resettlement project in all of Asia.

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Throughout her life, Shabana Azmi, has followed the principles and practice of Nonviolence that Gandhi advocated. This has included a passionate and fearless opposition to religious fundamentalism of all hues. Under attack by both Muslim and Hindu extremists, Shabana Azmi believes that the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory is a construct. The fight is not been East or West, between Hindus or Muslims but between liberal values and intolerance of the extremists. She believes the fastest way to bring about change is to get women involved in the process of development.

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It is for this over-arching achievement in becoming a true practitioner of what Gandhi called Satyagraha [truth-force] that the Patrons and Trustees of the London based The Gandhi Foundation decided to give her The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award for 2006. She also delivered the prestigious Annual Lecture. News of this has been reported in every major newspaper and television channel across India.

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Azmi is the latest recipient of the Gandhi Foundation peace award given yearly to outstanding peace activists. Previous recipients have included the International renowned human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith and Denis Halliday, former Assistant General Secretary of the UN who resigned over the Iraqi sanctions. Annual Lecturers have included His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Mark Tully.

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It will be no coincidence to many that 2006 also marks the centenary of the speech that Gandhi gave in Durban, South Africa, on 9th September [i.e. 9/11] 1906 in which he advocated Nonviolence in all aspects of our living and being and in which he presented his audience with his newly-coined term “Satyagraha” for the very first time. A Satyagrahi is one who has achieved total Nonviolence, both inner and outer, a state of mind to which, he said, we should all aspire. The Trustees believe that Ms. Shabana Azmi is an exemplary Satyagrahi.

2006 Annual Lecture: Kamalesh Sharma

We were extremely privileged to have The High Commissioner for India, His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, deliver the Lecture.  He read English at King’s College, Cambridge and has served over 20 years in the Indian Foreign Service.  He was India’s Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-2003) and then Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to East Timor (2003-04).  He was appointed UK High Commissioner in 2005.  He is currently involved in many forward thinking organisations including The Loomba Trust, The Ditchley Foundation and The Imperial War Museum.

Often quoted, he came to fame when he said, before the Afghani Taliban actually destroyed the huge Buddhist rock carvings in Bamyan, that:

“If [they] did not wish to retain the country’s inheritance, his Government would be happy to arrange for the transfer of the artifacts to India, where they would be kept safely and preserved for all mankind, in the full knowledge and clear understanding that they were treasures of the Afghan people themselves.”

In The House of Commons, he announced his Lecture as “Encounters with Gandhi”.  His articulate and eloquent talk ranged over many of our global crises pointing out where and how Gandhi’s exemplary model of courteous diplomacy and deep respect for his opponents had been successfully applied in our own times and when, and sometimes why, it had failed.  These were the telling insights of a diplomat at the peek of a very distinguished career.  He made it very clear that he had advocated and practised non-violent approaches to resolving differences throughout.  We ignore at our peril the wisdom that such experience has clearly brought.

Shri Kamalesh Sharma spoke to nearly 200 people packed into Committee Room 14 of The House of Commons.  This had been organised for us by The Prime Minister’s envoy on inter-faith matters, John Battle MP PC.  The meeting was chaired by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a Patron of The Gandhi Foundation.  Bhikhu spoke concisely of Gandhi’s actual and potential contribution to the 21st Century.  Lord Parekh’s family trust, The Nirman Foundation, sponsored this year’s Lecture and will do so again for a further 2 years; this will allow The Foundation to expand its horizons and your suggestions for this year’s Annual Lecturer will be gratefully received.

John Rowley

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