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India Independence day brings calls to end religious violence

Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Tad Walch is reporting from India this week with coverage of the World Peace Prize, Indian independence and on humanitarian efforts in the nation.

PUNE, Maharashtra, India — Religious and academic leaders called on the world Tuesday to unify in peace, using the backdrop of India's 70th anniversary to condemn violence.

At precisely 8 a.m. Tuesday, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a senior Mormon leader and his wife Kathy tugged sharply on a rope and, in concert with celebrations throughout all of India on Tuesday, raised the nation’s flag on its Independence Day.

It marked the start of a day calling for the end of religious violence across the globe and here, a place poised to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation in the next decade. It was a celebration of 70 years of Indian independence and comes at a time when Hindu nationalists have assaulted minority Muslims, and in America where violence surrounding white supremacists has dominated the week's headlines.

“The people of India know that independence will always require sacrifice and service,” Elder Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said. “Fight for your country by doing your best and by being your best,” he said, referring to India’s struggle against British rule, which ended in 1947. He was speaking to more than 5,000 students, faculty and staff gathered around the steps of the Shri Saint Dnyaneshwara World Peace Library.

The 1897 prediction of a prominent Indian leader that the 21st century would be India’s century weighed on Vishwanath Karad, the president of Maharashtra Institute of Technology-World Peace University, as he spoke.

“I feel a sense of duty,” he said. “Remember, our time has come.”

Karad operates a group of 23 elementary and secondary schools and five universities that educates more than 60,000 Indians, from kindergarteners to graduate students.

His World Peace Center promotes global harmony. Elder Christofferson is the center’s 2017 World Peace Prize laureate, an honor conferred here on Monday. Elder Christofferson accepted on behalf of the LDS Church.

Hindu nationalists recently have assaulted minority Muslims and lower-caste Hindus accused of killing cows. The former Chief Marshal of Indian Air Force, P.V. Naik, sat by Elder Christofferson on Tuesday and issued a strong call for religious freedom for all.

At the same time in a similar celebration in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to reject religious violence.

“The world has a tremendous fear complex,” the World Peace Center’s Karad said, speaking before Naik and Elder Christofferson. “The 21st century is the era wherein we are to emerge before the world, and it is our duty to show the way to harmony and peace to all mankind. We pledge to convey the message and culture of peace to the whole world.”

Elder Christofferson echoed Karad’s call to students to remember the struggle for freedom under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others

“India has a marvelous spiritual heritage and an enduring legacy of peace,” Elder Christofferson said. “The movement begun by Mahatma Gandhi influenced Martin Luther King Jr. in my own country in the civil rights movement. It inspired Nelson Mandela in South Africa in the fight against apartheid. This nonviolent resistance to oppression has been and always will be a beacon to humanity.”

He and his wife helped raise the flag at the start of the ceremony. They were joined by Naik, Karad, Karad’s father and grandchildren and Vidya Bal, a journalist who has championed women’s rights.

A Utah delegation of 50 joined the festivities on the campus of the World Peace University, including the presidents of three of Utah's colleges and universities.

Utah Valley University President Matt Holland said the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, and the world’s largest have a special relationship.

“Not only does India need you,” he told the students, “but as the largest democracy in the world, the world needs you.”

Westminster College President Stephen Morgan and Salt Lake City Community College President Deneece Huftalin were also in attendance.

The joyful celebration included dancing, a yoga demonstration and children singing in Sanskrit the ancient language of India. At the end, all chanted “Hail, Mother India” three times.

After the ceremony, Elder Christofferson visited the Rivka Sahil Akshar Institute, a special-needs school in Wai, a town outside Pune. He donated the peace prize’s cash award — 525,000 rupees, or about $8,200 — to the school.

A United Nations report this summer predicted that by 2024, India will surpass China in population. India now has 1.34 billion people. China has 1.41 billion, but the growth of its population has slowed dramatically.

India has progressed rapidly in the past half century. For example, the adult literacy rate rose from an estimated 17.5 percent in 1950 to 69 percent today. Life expectancy has nearly doubled from 37 years in the early 1950s to 68 years today, according to the Times of India.

Elder Christofferson used a portion of his speech to offering a blessing for India:

“On this wonderful anniversary of the liberty, independence and freedom of India, I declare and pray, God bless the people of India, and God bless India.”