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Gandhi's grandson appeals for Pak flood victims

By Suman Guha Mozumdar
September 04, 2010 09:47 IST
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Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, has appealed for world solidarity in response to floods that had devastated the lives of millions of people in Pakistan.

"We have to get the conscience of the world working on this jointly," Gandhi, a research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois, told correspondents during a press conference at the United Nations.

Gandhi addressed the press conference along with Pakistan's Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon.

Calling for more widespread, generous and long-term assistance for the 'hundreds of thousands of Pakistani men, women and children who had lost all they had built over a lifetime', Gandhi said that the poorest were once more the prime sufferers.

He said he hoped that the flood would help all of South Asia to reorder its priorities to extract some good out of the tragedy, including the end to the divisions between people in the region.

Gandhi noted that ordinary Pakistanis were helping each other, with young people displaying astonishing leadership, including Pakistani student groups abroad.

That, he said, should be seen as a proof of the strength of Pakistani society, despite the country's negative image in the world media. He said he was glad that Indians, both individuals and the Government, had provided aid.

Asked about the possible positive effects of Indian aid, he said that such aid could lead to more rapprochements with Pakistan, or could be forgotten as a stand-alone goodwill gesture. It was 'up to all of us' to take a profoundly human moment and help reshape the relationship between both peoples. 

He said that an awakening of common humanity was indeed possible and could produce some reconciliation between peoples. He, however, said that he could not predict how it would affect the controversy over Kashmir and other big issues.

Haroon said that the joint press conference was historic and spoke of the friendship between his own grandfather and Mahatma Gandhi, who, he said, was extremely concerned over the welfare of Muslims on the subcontinent.  He welcomed the outpouring of aid from people of all faiths and ethnicities.

He called for the world to step up to the enormous humanitarian challenges, warning of disasters yet to come, pointing out that 90 per cent of victims were still drinking dirty water.

In response to questions, he said that there was a risk of destabilization in Pakistan, and that yesterday's strikes against religious minorities had shown that militants were certainly willing to take advantage of opportunities. 

The people who had been most affected, however, were not militants. 

The people most affected were the 'uncomplaining hard core' of Pakistani society.

Gandhi said that the disaster could increase unrest, but so far he had noticed a strong reaction against the latest violence, with people asking how anyone could carry out attacks in the middle of such an emergency. 

There was also the possibility that people would come together, across ethnic, religious and class lines.

He said within Pakistan, the elites have to decide where they stand. If the response was unsatisfactory, however, deeper divides could be created.

Asked if he was satisfied with the response of the United Nations to the floods, Haroon said there was a "strong burst of activity" before and after the Secretary-General's visit, but the momentum had flagged a bit, even though, 'the worst is yet to happen', due to filthy water and food, a lack of some 900,000 tents and other shortages.

There were still only 15 helicopters available to cover the affected area.  In that context, he said that assistance from the Chinese military was not a threat; they had, after all, built highways in Pakistan.

He said that the Secretary-General had raised an initial, substantial amount and the world was helping, but domestic assistance capacity had been exhausted. India had a great role to play there, provided more people like Gandhi who came forward. 

Gandhi thanked all Indians who had helped thus far, but said the Indian heart could do so much more. Everyone in the world must feel accountable for what they did, or did not do to help the victims, he said.

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Suman Guha Mozumdar in New York