MUSLIM ACTIVIST DIGS UP HISTORY TO REVIVE COMPOSITE CULTURE IN CHAMBAL AND AYODHYA

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Shah Alam along with his friend composites and people of similar zeal, organised a people’s parliament on the banks of Panchnada last week.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE | SHAH ALAM

Meet Shah Alam, a self-sustaining activist, is busy digging up relics of composite culture that thrived and still survives in places like Chambal region and Ayodhya. Alam has documented many short films on local heroes and shown them in the annually organised Awam Ka Cinema (Cinema of common folks) festival. The festival is his brainchild.

Mohammed Anas | Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI — As communal clouds threaten to envelop Uttar Pradesh, Shah Alam, a self-sustaining activist, is busy digging up relics of composite culture that thrived and still survives in places like Chambal region and Ayodhya.

While Chambal is hitherto largely known for its dacoit-infested ravines, Ayodhya – the holy city – mostly finds mention with the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi dispute.

Last week, Alam along with his friends and people of similar zeal, organised a people’s parliament on the banks of Panchnada, a confluence of five rivers that flow in the Chambal region. The occasion marked the 160th anniversary of the 1857 rebellion against the British Raj.

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY…Shah Alam poses for a photograph in the Chambal Valley.

“Chambal, which unfortunately is known only for its dacoits, has a rich history also that has been largely neglected. Few people know that a large number of 1857 uprising fighters gathered here on the bank of the Panchnada on May 25, 1857 and waged a guerrilla war against the Raj forces,” says Alam, emphasizing the importance of such history lessons for the present generation, who are vulnerable to be taught only religion-oriented propaganda history in current times.

He added that warriors of the India’s independence were a mix of Hindu and Muslims, who fought as a unified force. There was not a single incidence of any rift on religious ground during the struggle. But sadly these heroes and their history remain buried, laments Alam.

“Sher Ali Afridi, who killed Viceroy Lord Mayo and was later sent to gallows, had taken shelter in Chambal ravines to escape the British forces. Jangli Mangli Valmiki, Ganga Singh, Teja Bai were other heroes of the freedom struggle but they lie almost forgotten in their hometowns. Similarly, Pt Gaindalal Dixit, who formed the Matradevi, a secret revolutionary group in 1916, and Ramprasad Bismil, who penned legendary ‘Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna Ab Hamare Dil Mein Hai’, are names who only some people from the area may be aware of,” says Alam.

Highlighting another historical facet of Chambal, Alam says majority of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj came from this region.

Shah Alam with reformed dacoits of Chambal.

Alam says that locals in the region know more about the history of their religious rituals and names of the dacoits than the recent history or the real heroes. “Hence, it becomes all the more important that the history of the region is documented again, and presented to the people in easy-to-understand new media,” says Alam.

Alam has documented many short films on local heroes and shown them in the annually organised Awam Ka Cinema (Cinema of common folks) festival. The festival is his brainchild.

Despite its rich history, Chambal has remained ignored by the successive governments after independence in 1947. Administrative apathy adds to the already rampant poverty in the region and according to Alam, it is poverty that produced dacoits in the region.

“Unable to meet their ends and fighting oppression by feudal lords, the region became fertile fields of bandits,” adds Alam.

Alam last year traveled a distance of around 2,300 km around the region on his bicycle and recorded stories of poverty. During his journey, he found only 2 kg of flour and few potatoes in the kitchen of thatched house of slain dacoit turned parliamentarian Phoolan Devi. Her sister and mother were found battling penury and barely meeting needs of daily existence. But, after Alam highlighted their misery in local Hindi newspapers, some helpers came forward to assist the family.

Similarly, Alam found a Muslim family starving in last Ramadan and that family too is now being helped by those who read Alam’s accounts.

One of the purposes of his social activism, Alam says, is to highlight the utter absence of development in Chambal that once produced national heroes. “In Chambal, you will find that it’s almost impossible to travel into the interiors on a vehicle. Thus, most of the government schemes don’t reach here and the region remains unattended and unnoticed,” says Alam.

But unfazed by the geographical woes of the area, Alam is determined to give a positive identity to it. “Many of my films and photographs shot in this region have been appreciated in various film festivals and exhibitions. During one such exhibition in Delhi, Ambassador of Venezuela was invited. Impressed by my work, he presented me a video CD which detailed how independent musicians in his country started educating poor citizens to play various musical instruments. Within years, Venezuela was full of musicians. That has become my inspiration. I want people in Chambal to hook to education and creative art like filmmaking and photography. And, I will not rest until I am able to establish some institutes for this purpose,” says Alam.

One more interesting fact Alam discovered about the region is that K. Asif, the famous director of epic Bollywood movie Mughal e Azam, was from Itawa, a town in the Chambal. “There would be no befitting tribute to the legendary filmmaker than to establish a film institute in his memory,” says Alam.

Alam also plans to open a photography institute in memory of Sunil Janah, a legendary photographer, who is best known for his stills that captured the tragedy of 1943 British-manufactured famine in Bengal.

He also wants to have a Chambal FM radio to broadcast information about the region and entertainment to the locals.

But how will all his dreams materialize? Alam says he has been working in the region for the last 10 years. Initially, he was mocked for his lonely pursuit with limited personal resources. “But then people started helping me. Someone lent me his camera, another gave me his mobile, then few came forward to provide me shelter during my travel… and then slowly my Awam Ka Cinema became an annual festival which attracts thousands of viewers, despite it being organised at a common public place in any UP town. I hope my proposed institute will gather infrastructure and staff support in a similar way,” hopes Alam.

Apart from ravines of Chambal, the temple city of Ayodhya fascinates Alam the most. He has found a home in the famous Ram Janaki temple, few yards away from the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi site. His Aadhar card mentions the temple as his address.

The chief priest of the temple Swami Yugal Kishore Sharan Shastri, who is 16th witness of the CBI in the Babri Masjid demolition case, gave shelter to Alam in 1999. Alam was a student then and had just taken interest in activism for communal harmony. “He is my patron ever since,” says Alam.

Apart from ravines of Chambal, the temple city of Ayodhya fascinates Alam the most. He has found a home in the famous Ram Janaki temple, few yards away from the disputed Babri Masjid-Ram Janmbhoomi site. His Aadhar card mentions the temple as his address.

“When I came to Ayodhya, the town was still in the grip of the Ram temple movement but because of some benevolent priests, the composite culture of the town was alive. As I started living in the town and befriended locals, we thought of making people aware of the history and mixed culture in the city. We filmed short documentaries, organised public talks and coaxed people to respect different faiths. People in Ayodhya are very receptive to such positive gestures,” says Alam.

Last December, Alam even organised an Ayodhya Film Festival of short documentary and feature films in the town. “It amassed thousands of locals and the city administration lent their full support. Several priests of temples gave their blessings for the event,” says Alam.

Alam sometimes is also questioned because of his Muslim identity. “Once I was trying to enter a police colony but as soon as I uttered my name, the officer posted there stopped me,” says Alam.

But, he avers that he is generally welcomed in all temples and mosques in the town.

“Can you believe a member of CM Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini treats me with breakfast and addresses me as bhaiyya?,” chuckles Alam.

The chuckle of Alam is one of those blinkering hopes in the otherwise fast vitiating atmosphere in the state.

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