The year 2014 ended on a horrendously tragic note, with the Pakistan Taliban (which has killed 170 polio workers in 22 months) butchering 132 children in an army school in Peshawar. This barbaric act of shooting innocent children in their heads multiple times and at point blank range, and setting on fire a teacher before the eyes of the children, has taken the meaning and context of terrorism to a much darker level. A Pakistani poet said it best when he wrote “Phool dekhte thhey janazon pe hamesha Shaukat / Kal meri aankhon ne phoolon ke janazey dekhey.” (I had always seen flowers on coffins, but yesterday my eyes saw flowers’ coffins.)
The highlight of December was the Chennai Institute, and for me the polio sessions on the challenges faced by the Pakistani Rotarians in immunising children in the troubled FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) and KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) regions, proved captivating. Both INPPC Chair Deepak Kapur and Pakistan’s National PolioPlus Committee Chair Aziz Memon engaged the participants by describing their long experience. As Pakistan, once close to polio-free status, before the Taliban disrupted its polio vaccination programme, grapples with this virus, it was touching to see all senior Indian Rotary leaders assuring Memon that if India could do it, so could Pakistan. Kapur recalled how Rotary leaders in India were taunted that eradicating polio was “a midsummer night’s dream.” But with all his seniors — the two PRIPs Rajendra K Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee, PRIDs Ashok Mahajan and Yash Pal Das, Trustee Sushil Gupta — encouraging him to forge ahead, the magic day of March 27, 2014 arrived, when India was declared polio-free. Also heartening was Memon’s account that the killed polio workers’ families had resolved to give more volunteers for Rotary’s polio immunisation work, and the Pakistan Government was firmly committed to polio eradication. Pakistan’s National Assembly member Ayesha Raza Farooq said firmly: “We will defeat the forces of darkness who oppose either the education of girls or polio vaccination.”
That Indian Rotarians put their money where their mouth is was proved when Memon thanked RC Baroda Metro for donating 500 mobile phones to Pakistan’s polio workers, but said 5,000 phones were required for the whole country. As the session ended in 10 minutes, District 3131’s DG Vivek Aranha and PDG Deepak Shikarpur stepped up to announce a donation of $10,000 for Pakistan’s polio vaccinators!
The Rotary spirit of giving was encountered in the western corner of India in Mumbai during a delightful chat I had with octogenarian Rotarian Mohanbhai Patel who made light of gifting away crores of rupees to educational institutions and bright students. “When all your needs are taken care of, beyond a point what is the use of money,” he quipped, adding, “anyway I might have 2-4 more years to live and I can’t take my money with me!” The man who built up his fortune from scratch by his pioneering foray into aluminium packaging, also planned and built the huge Rotary Service Centre in Santacruz when he was RC Bombay West President.
Deeply disturbing is Lok Satta Party founder Dr Jayaprakash Narayan’s account on how the Right to Education Act has become a stumbling block in giving quality education to our children. By pumping huge funds into the public sector and discouraging private education through impossible guidelines, it has introduced a Licence Raj in school education, he says.
Moving to the border, it is interesting to watch the different shades of Indo-Pak relations. Periodic sharp tones at the Government level, to warmth, camaraderie and generosity at the Rotary level, to a spontaneous outpouring of grief and horror in Indian homes at the massacre of Peshawar’s children by the Taliban butchers. From IAS officers to young students in India … the resolve is not to celebrate the new year in view of the Peshawar bloodbath. Let us all pledge too … to introspect in the new year the true spirit and essence of religion. And, be unforgiving of those who twist religious ideology to spread hatred and violence.