Wednesday, September 27, 2006

From the Indian heartland


I am on a tour of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in search for some answers. I am going to different districts meeting social and political activists to understand local issues, perspectives these people have on state and national issues and, above all, what is the guiding force behind their political activism? Why is that important? It is so because we at Young India feel that only a nation whose polity is in tune with the issues of the people, thinks about policy solutions and their implementation will be able to sustain democracy. A polity that exhibits intellectual letharge will perish. And these facts are in evidence here.

One reads about law and order situations being bad in northern India. Today I visited a district just outside the state capital, Lucknow, and asked a group of political activists what they did on a daily basis. I was expecting that they would mention certain issues that they work on or do some organizational work. Invariably the response that came back was that we help people get out of trouble from the police. The activists took pride in their connections that they had with the police to get innocent people free. It is a very telling commentary on the real problems being faced by the people of India. Most political workers are involved with their parties for self-promotion and to increase their sphere of influence. Work on issues like education and employment generation is scarce. That has been left to the NGOs, who surprisingly are loathed by the locals.

Young India had consulted the National Advisory Council (NAC) in India on many pieces of legislation last year. The NAC is the body that reviews important legislation before it is introduced to the Parliament for debate. We were pleased to see the progress policymakers and policyshapers had made to create laws that would truly impact people's lives. Two of the most prominent among these laws were the Right to Information Act and the Rural Employment Guarantee Act. These two laws address two fundamental problems - corruption and employment for the poorest. In Uttar Pradesh these laws are not even close to being implemented. Funds that have been released by the Central/Federal government are languishing with State authorities. I can now understand the frustration of activists with the government structure here.

We don't believe in suspending optimism. There is a new breed of leaders emerging, albeit very slowly, who are genuinely interested in addressing problems more than they are in getting a post in a party hierarchy. But overall the political activists do not believe in any meaningful intellectual exercises. They want the top leadership to guide them. That may be fine in matters of state-wide and national importance. But the local political activist must address the local issues. This lack of desire to do so is disturbing. They want leaders to come to their districts, do a show of power so that they can impress upon local authorities that they are associated with someone important. Patronage is still the name of the game here. Hence, our challenge to get the locals involved in policy discussions is tough. But we like such challenges.

My tour will continue for another week. My internet access will be sporadic but I will write as and when I get a chance. Before I close I want to share with you the most positive experience I have had so far. This was far removed from the glitz and glamor of politics. I visited a shelter/home for destitute children where my local host's wife runs a school for these children who have no guardian and no home. These kids were filled with love, hope and ambition. I talked to my friend's wife about the larger education scene in Lucknow itself and I was very troubled to learn that the access to public education is so terrible that they have a school running in one corner of a cemetary! If this is the condition in the state capital then I don't want to imagine the situation in the interiors. There is a tremendous battle to be fought here. And we hope to be a part of it.

Till next time...


Monday, September 18, 2006

A Tribute to My Inspiration

Dear Friends,

Today I am writing in an individual capacity. Often I have come to you as a representative of Young India but today I feel that I must share my personal inspiration with you. Over the years I have developed a kinship of sorts with you. Through your encouragement, support and civil opposition. At the very heart of all my initiatives, of which Young India is a critical part, lies the inspired life of one individual - my grandfather, Shri Hardas Sharma. He passed away yesterday. He was 90.

My grandfather was born in April of 1916 in the village of Piprai at the border of the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. He lost his mother at the age 1 due to the plague. At age 12 he ran away from home to join the Indian independence movement. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi he spent his entire adolescence and early adulthood fighting the British. Like many of his generation he suffered through imprisonment and torture. But his spirit could never be broken.

In 1947, when India was about to win independence Mahatma Gandhi called on the Indian National Congress to disband itself to focus on socio-economic issues of the masses. Many heeded the call and quit the party and devoted the rest of their lives to furthering Gandhi's social mission of equality, peace and just economic development. My grandfather was one of them. But this path exacted a severe personal cost from my grandfather.

As the problem of dacoits grew in many parts of India our village too was not spared. Following his principles my grandfather urged commercial establishments in the village to boycott the dacoits. Over a period of time his efforts grew more and more intense and so did the hatred the dacoits had for him. The dacoits in one rampage destroyed every single thing he owned forcing him to flee the village overnight with 7 children. Then began a stretch of unimaginable hardship.

At a time when the girl child in India was considered a burden my grandfather raised one son and eight daughters. Living through deep poverty he produced 3 PhDs and 4 post-graduates. He imbibed a tremendous sense of self-respect in all his children. He taught them to be proud of whom they are not what they have. He instilled the same principles in his grandchildren. He himself never had any formal education beyond the 4th grade but I am yet to meet a person more knowledgeable than him about world affairs, political theory and religion.

I have not known a more religious man. I have also not known a man more welcoming and loving. His religiosity embraced all faiths. He was way ahead of his times. He loved children. All children were dear to him be they from the upper caste, lower caste, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, rich, poor, boy or girl. He vehemently fought discrimination in any shape or form be it in the name of caste, class, religion or gender. Above all, he had a passion for life. He respected life. He maintained excellent health throughout his life through a simple diet and exercise. Every aspect of his life was inspiring. He was also the greatest environmentalist I know. A farmer by occupation he was one with nature.

He passed away with my father beside him in the early hours of September 18th, 2006. He was on a train from his village to New Delhi. He left his body 12 km before the New Delhi station. His body was brought to my home in New Delhi and cremated later in the day. His ashes will be collected on Wednesday and immersed in the Holy Ganges. Some will be taken to Gandhi's Ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra and immersed in a river there. That's where my grandfather met Gandhi. That's where his life changed forever.

I was supposed to meet political and social activists with him on September 30th in our home district of Lalitpur. Now, I shall be speaking at his memorial on that day.
Friends, life is truly a gift and my grandfather cherished it every moment. He showed that simplicity in matter and sophistication in thought is the key to longevity. He always wore hand-spun, a Gandhian trait he followed all throughout his life. Even at the end the sheet that his body was wrapped in for his final journey was hand-spun. And right next to his body was placed a flag of India. This was the flag for which he fought. It meant more than cloth to him. It symbolized the collective aspirations of a nation. His dreams for a great nation and a better humanity will be carried out through all of us. He belonged an incomparable generation of Indians who changed the course of its history by changing the country and , above all, changing themselves.

May my grandfather's soul rest in peace and may we all rededicate ourselves to the missions that we all feel passionate about.

Thanks for reading.


Rohit Tripathi
September 18, 2006

Friday, September 15, 2006

Taking it from both the Right and the Left

We never imagined our 9/11 posting would inspire equally vicious responses from both the Right and the Left. Our understanding of history, current affairs and politics in general have been ridiculed in emails we received. There is a view that if you get equally attacked by the Right and the Left then you're most likely saying the right thing. We sure hope so although we don't claim any exclusive possession of the truth. After all, we are not fundamentalists.

We would like to assure our readers of two things that, however, are dedicated to: A) Resisting fundamentalisms that desire to perpetuate intolerance through exclusivity and cultural elitism, and B) Nonviolently engaging citizens and policymakers alike with whom we agree AND disagree to further people-centric policies. That is our unequivocal commitment.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Five Years Later – Remembering 9/11

It was a beautiful day. Who knew that nature’s beauty would provide an indelible contrast with man’s ugliness? In the span of an hour the psyche of a nation changed forever. More important than the actual number of souls that perished on that day is the fact that this act of cowardice and murder has become a symbol of intolerance and extremism.

We at Young India firmly believe that religious fundamentalism which is based on a worldview of exclusivity and elitism is the biggest hurdle to human development. This ideology of superiority blurs people’s view of the real problems of poverty, a dignified living, education, basic health care and religious freedom. Fundamentalisms brush aside any talk of moderation and inclusion. Their followers place a misconceived and shallow notion of identity at the center of their ideas and propagate them through coercion. Fundamentalists wreak havoc with a “missionary” zeal not knowing that in doing so they do grievous damage to their own religion. They must be resisted.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: Our goal should not be convert [proselytize] the other person but to make him/her a better follower of his/her own faith. I wish Al Qaeda truly embraces Islam for its own good first. Such self-righteousness pervades the religious spectrum so fundamentalists of other shades should not feel any sense of superiority.

Whenever we look back at that dreadful day and remember the incomprehensible pain and suffering our hearts fill with sadness and anger. 9/11 was not the first time that senseless violence had orphaned children or created a community of widows or snatched promising lives but it was an awful reminder of how misguided and inhumane fundamentalism can be. Our hearts go out to the families and our prayers will always be with them as they are with every victim of intolerance and hate.

It is essential to confront one question that some of our misguided friends pose – what about America’s exploitation of the rest of the world? It is hard to deny that some American policies have had an adverse impact on other nations. Yet, murdering innocent civilians is an utterly unacceptable way of registering that protest. And for the record let’s look at the reasons behind the specific act of murder committed on 9/11. The hijackers and their sponsors have never uttered a word on how they plan on dealing with the poverty, lack of education, feudal structures, suppression of women and lack of employment afflicting the millions in whose name they claim to fight! This utterly disingenuous argument that these people somehow represent all forces against American policy must be out rightly rejected by people of all ideological persuasions no matter how opposed they are to American foreign policy.

There are numerous ways to take a stand against policy positions of the United States, if one so desires. If a physically feeble man like Gandhi, who weighed just 107 lbs when he died, can take on the British Empire then those who truly believe in their cause can take on unjust policies if they deem them so. Of course, we at Young India firmly believe in engaging those with whom we disagree. We understand that such forums are not readily available to all who may feel victims of American hegemony or corporate ambition but violence will never solve any of their problems. Never. If there are people who want to organize and fight the right battle the right way then please visit our page devoted to the Gandhian Method of Nonviolent Transformation.

We do not intend to defend all of America’s policies. When we disagree with them we engage its policymakers to chart a different course. And our efforts will continue. We understand that fundamentalisms are dangerous but they must be resisted culturally and politically. In India, fundamentalism had become a majoritarian force threatening its very democracy. Our efforts, no matter how small, were tireless in countering them on both the cultural and political platforms. We learnt that fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. When one religion tolerates the rise of intolerance within its ranks it invites intolerance to grow in other faiths. Hence, on this solemn day let us promise those departed souls that we will persevere to fight fundamentalism and intolerance in our own faiths till either we or this ideology perishes. It is apt to close this piece with Mahatma Gandhi’s words who always reminded us to detest hate not the person who hates. As long as our moral vision is clear we will collectively win this battle for peace, justice and freedom.

Team Young India.