Walk of Hope: 7,500 km, 500 days, 11 states, 86 districts, 10 million people — so reads the banner, and it’s enough to impress those who understand the power of padyatras or journeys on foot, in India.
What’s perhaps more interesting, even for those who don’t, is the person who is leading this unique walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Some know him as the only social reformer in India who is both Muslim and Hindu; others know him as the author of the best-selling book, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master: A Yogi’s Autobiography. Some address him by the name on his passport, Mumtaz Ali Khan, but most — and this includes a follower base of millions in the south of India — know him simply as Sri M.
The 67-year-old social reformer originally from Kerala but now based in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, has been on a unique mission since January 2015. He and 70-odd followers from his Satsang Foundation have been on a Manav Ekta (Unity of Humanity) mission, walking from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to spread the message of harmony especially in places that have seen communal violence in the past. At various stops there have been discussions on harmony and cultural or fusion performances.
The Walk of Hope has traversed the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and entered Delhi-NCR yesterday. Amid growing talk of intolerance and the cyclical communal polarisation fuelled by politicians, Sri M has the rare distinction of having had his apolitical padyatra flagged off by chief ministers across states, regardless of the parties they belong to.
These have included Kerala CM Oommen Chandy and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah of the Congress, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted about the padyatra being a great initiative for peace and brotherhood, Aam Aadmi Party chief minister Arvind Kejriwal will be joining the walk on Thursday in Delhi, from where it moves on to Haryana, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir, to end its trail at Srinagar in April.
Ask him about having managed the unique feat of finding support from the leaders of warring political parties and Sri M laughs. “What I am doing is for interfaith harmony. It is not about any religion. I am not about any religion,” he says. “Why won’t the leaders understand the basic thing about ‘manav ekta’ or harmony among humans irrespective of caste, religion or beliefs? I am glad they have, and have all been so supportive.”
After a brief pause, he adds, “In fact, please do mention the fact that my yatra is not even funded or sponsored by any corporate body. It is purely a group of volunteers who decided to make a point about the desperate need for communal harmony by walking across the country. When we started out from Kanyakumari with around 70 people, we were worried about how we will manage their stay, their meals, and other things needed. Like a miracle, all these things got sorted by the local people, wherever we went.”
In Mandya, Karnataka, for instance, a coconut vendor refused to charge after providing fresh coconut water to the entire group. “He called it his small contribution,” says Sri M. “Although we have a few cooks travelling with us, rarely have they ever had to cook. Local leaders from various religions make arrangements for us to stay at community centres, guest houses or school buildings. Everywhere we have gone, we have been offered more food than we could consume. And at all these places, locals have joined in the walk. Although 70 people have been with me from the beginning, there are about 270 walking with us on any given day.”
The original group of 70 is as interesting as the man leading it. They range from an 80-year-old retired Navy commodore to the high-flying CEO of an ad agency, a former director general of police (who suffered a heart attack mid-way, was operated upon and rejoined the walk), a doctor from California and a Lithuanian lawyer.
“I might be 80 but everyone calls me the youngest walker in the group,” says (Retd) Commodore V Raveendranath, laughing.
Leading the walk with the tricolour in hand, he jokingly calls himself the bumper of the Walk of Hope vehicle. “In service, people aren’t distinguished upon based on caste, creed, religion or anything. We just look for efficiency in work. That’s about it. It’s only when I came out of service that I realised there is a lot of conflict based on caste and religion. By being a part of this walk I want to do my bit to eliminate these differences,” he says.
Adds retired IPS officer Ajai Kumar Singh, former DGP of Karnataka and an active volunteer with the group: “I’m walking because I have no doubt of the intrinsic worth of the intent. That’s the reason that in spite of having a heart attack nine months in, I returned to the walk after three-and-a-half months of rest, against the advice of most of my doctors and all my relatives.”
Also walking for peace is Dr Christine Joseph, an emergency medicine specialist from California, and her husband Matthew, who have been walking with Sri M and the Walk of Hope from its beginning on January 12 in Kanyakumari last year.
“I attended a discourse by Sri M in San Francisco in 2014, in which he spoke about his plan to walk through India to spread the message of peace. I knew at that instant that I wanted to be a part of it,” says Joseph. “Many people from India and my own family and friends have asked me how I have managed. I can’t say that it has been easy. Actually it’s probably the most difficult thing I have done in my life. When the walk finishes this year I will have made five trips back to the US and walked about 12 of the 16 months.”
The youngest of the walkers is Sijo George, 20, a videographer who was initially hired to record the padyatra as it made its way across Kerala.
“After hearing Sri M talk, I decided to stay on till we reach Kashmir,” he says. “I feel it was an opportunity for me to do something for my country. I was 19 when I started!”
Sri M is gratified to be getting support from such diverse quarters.
“When I see people, whether they are 18 or 80, leave their work, their livelihoods, their homes, to walk for the cause of brotherhood, I realise how deeply people care for communal harmony in the country,” he says. “When we stopped at Godhra in Gujarat, we had religious leaders from both Hindu and Muslim communities telling us how they support our effort. At the end of the day, everyone wants peace.”
WHO IS SRI M?
Mumtaz Ali Khan aka Sri M is 67 years old and describes himself as a social reformer who is both Muslim and Hindu. Originally from Kerala, he is now based in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, where he heads the Satsang Foundation. He has millions of followers in the south of the country, and is known to others as the author of the best-selling book, Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master: A Yogi’s Autobiography. His mission, he says, is to promote harmony among the human community.
(To view a detailed itinerary, go to walkofhope.in)