Manithan was 21-years old on June 14, 1989, the last day he ever took a step in the forward-facing direction. Since then he has spent the past 28 years walking in reverse, and his odd style of promenading through the streets of the Indian city of Tirupattur makes him an instantly recognizable figure.
Long, wavy black hair, white robe and sensible sneakers adorning feet skillfully being guided through the urban bustle while a serious face glimpses over a shoulder? It’s Manithan, and if it’s a recent spotting chances are good he’s on his way to the cell phone kiosk he operates as part of his nine-to-five routine.
Or maybe he’s on his way to the airport, where he might be heading out to be a guest lecturer at events in cities like Japan, where in 2014 he spoke to a nuclear non-proliferation group about global unity. He walked onstage backwards, of course.
What strikes some as a bizarre behavioural oddity actually has a very serious message behind it: human beings need to get along, sooner rather than later. Manithan, who holds post-graduate degrees in English and Sociology, is passionate about his oath.
When his backwards approach to transportation started in 1989 he doubled that up with a vow of silence, which he held for seven years with the help of the constant presence of a writing pad and pen. It wasn’t until 2006 that his words were sonically heard again, when he decided the best way to get his message of peace, love and understanding out to the people of India would be to run for the office of president of the country.
Although Manithan’s name never made it onto the ballot due to filing issues (there’s paperwork, and then there’s ‘I wanna run for the highest office in the land’ paperwork), Manithan continued to voice his ongoing directive to anyone who would listen.
The cynical amongst us might just dismiss Manithan (who read books on Mahatma Gandhi growing up) as a head-in-the-clouds peacenik, a pacifist who doesn’t understand how the world really works.
But the events that lead to Manithan’s crusade are disturbing, and they were making India a country that had blood on its hands almost daily. Consider these few examples:
- The Mandai massacre,June 8, 1980: The killings took place at the hands of tribal insurgents in and around the village of Mandai in the state of Tripura. Eyewitness and foreign press accounts put the number of dead, all of them Bengali Hindus, at 350-400.
- The Nellie massacre, February 18, 1983: The official numbers of Muslim dead is at 1,819, with unofficial figures putting that tally as high as 3,000. The massacre occurred in central Assam, and involved gun and machete-wielding mobs rounding up men, women, and children from over a dozen villages and slaughtering them as their homes and fields burned to the ground around them.
- The Hashimpura massacre, May 22, 1987: Forty-two Muslim men were shot and killed by police. in 2015, 16 police officers were found innocent after a lengthy trial that started in 1996. A Delhi court acquitted the men, giving them the ‘benefit of doubt’.
In 1989 his first public foray into raising world peace awareness was done against a backdrop of violence and genocide, and even though he completed a 300 mile (462 kilometre) trek not only backwards but completely naked as part of his new calling it was overshadowed by the very thing he was hoping to end.
Tensions had been mounting across southern India as a rumour spread of 200 Hindu bodies being discovered in the town of Bhagalpur. Although that number was later confirmed to be 12 the initial news caused rioting that lasted from the end of October to mid-November of that year and eventually spread across 195 villages and killed 1,000 people, 900 of them Muslim.
So the steps towards peace have continued over the years, even if they are sometimes missteps. A walking protest by Manithan against the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 lasted less than an hour, at which point a once-again naked Manithan was picked up by authorities and tossed in jail for three days.
Whether he’s facing backwards or forwards Manithan still vows to keep his eyes on the prize that is global unity, saying, “My life has been full of struggles, sacrifice, achievements and protest so I have no issue continuing my backwards walking until we achieve world peace.”