Saturday, January 30, 2010
Week 8: War Resisters International Conference
These last 10 days have been too eventful to easily describe. After returning to Pala (Kerala) from Trivananpuram, we had just enough time to hand wash our clothes, repack, and set up to the War Resisters Internernational (WRI) Conference in Ahmadabad. This gathering occurs every 3-4 years at different locations throughout the world, this time drawing over 250 nonviolent activists from over 30 countries.
By far the most important person we shared with was our Indian sister, Dina Patel. In the featured photograph above, you see her and I meeting for the first time in 38 years. As a young man of 21, I had traveled India for six months (sponsored by the Gandhi Peace Foundation to interview those who had known Gandhi who were still living in 1971-72). During that period I spent two weeks in Ahmadabad at Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi had lived during 1915-1931 (and from which he had launched his famous Salt March that eventually would become the greatest civil disobedience campaign in the history of the world -- with over 150,000 people going to jail in one year). Among those I interviewed in 1972 at Sabarmati was C.N. Patel, Chief Editor of Navajivan Publishing House (the main publisher, even today, of books and literature regarding Gandhi).
During our many conversations together, C.N. Patel took a fondness to me and observed how he would have liked to have had a son like me. So it is that he became my Indian father -- and his only daughter, Nina, became my Indian sister. She and I kept corresponding for over ten years after that first sharing time in 1972. She would send me the Rakhi, a bracelet made of string that a sister traditionally gives to her brother, and I would use the postal service to keep her informed about my life as it evolved through graduate school and into marriage. Addresses then changed chaos entered my life as I entered a period of unemployment, and we lost touch with one another.
Fast forward to three weeks ago when, knowing I would soon be in Ahmadabad for the WRI Conference, I began using the internet to see if I could find Dina Patel. I was pleased to find she was not only alive but employed at Sabarmati Ashram as well as at Gujarat Vidyapith (the site for the WRI Conference)! Our email correspondence prior to our going to Ahmadabad clearly indicated the Cosmic nature of our relationship: Her father, C.N. Patel had died after a length illness on January 30, 2004. So it was that my Indian father had left this life -- on the same day as the death of my biological father: January 30, 2004 (booth on the anniversary of the death of Gandhi in 1948). When Dina and I finally reunited last Thursday, it truly was a spiritual moment.
In addition to spending as much time together with Dina, Kris, Shaman, and I also had a very fully experience provided by the WRI Conference. Hearing Arundati Roy (author of the God of Small Things) was certainly a highlight. Her analysis of how Globalization and an associated industrial development emphasizing production for export has impacted India was both eloquent and piercing. Mentioning the building of dams, for example (to produce electricity and supposedly improved irrigation), Arundati described how at least 33 million Indians (equal to the entire population of California or our state of Kerala) have been displaced and made homeless without anything close to adequate compensation. Over 60% of these represent the poorest sectors of the Indian population (Dalits = Untouchables, and Adivasis = Tribal people). So it is that the rich have often benefitted, while the poor have paid the price.
Of the 19 workshops conducted over three days, five related explicitly to India while the others focused upon general skills building or geographical areas ranging from Latin America and Africa, to Europe and elsewhere in Asia. At least half directly or indirectly involved globalization, as in the impact of multinational corporations in Paraguay and the state of Orissa in India, to the repression of indigenous peoples who resist these forces in places like Equador and the Indian state of Chattisgarh. Workshops concentrated upon militarism ranged from discussions involving counter-recruitment in Europe and elsewhere to the impact of small arms sales and land mines in places like Thailand and Eritrea.
My workshop on Gandhian Guidelines for Action was attended by About 20 people, mostly Indians, including Narayan Desai (son to Gandhis personal secretary Mahadev Desai). Narayan added much to the information shared in the workshop, as he (now age 85) had lived and worked with Gandhi throughout his youth to age 24 (when Gandhi was assassinated). It was an honor to have him in attendance.
Mealtimes supplemented the workshops as we were able to get to know personally activists who are engaged in struggles on the ground. There was Rosa from West Papua (New Guinea) whose territory is being exploited by U.S. based mining operations enforced by Indonesian military and paramilitary groups that are equipped and supported by U.S. military aid. Even the Red Cross has been denied access to areas in West Papua so as to more effectively repress dissent and prevent press coverage of atrocities. Another meal was spent hearing the story of Ahraham from Eritrea who, at age 12, lost his right arm as well as much of his eyesight to a land mine long dormant following the civil was in Ethiopia in the 1960s and 70s. Bill from UK informed us of how people as young as 15 are recruited into the British Army, though recent bad publicity now prevents them from being sent into combat until their 18th birthday. Patrick from the U.S. reminded us that the U.S. and its NATO allies now maintain a global network of over 1,000 military bases to protect economic interests against all those deemed a threat to them.
While the inherent seriousness of what was shared risked becoming overwhelming, the frequent good humor and optimistic attitudes of the Conference participants often showed through. Evenings could include outings to local establishments (like the Chocolate Place) or events (as when the three of us joined Dina Patel and two of her friends to see a Hindi film: The 3 Idiots). Two visits to the historic Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati provided a calming effect – with his prayer ground being a most peaceful place for me. Imagine a forty by forty foot space covered in sand, shaded by a very large tree, with the Sabarmati River in full view, and a beautiful sky overhead. Gandhi was once asked why he did not build a temple of worship on this spot: His response was that nature is his temple. This simplicity inspires others to live extraordinary lives, as indicated by our tour of the Gandhian community at Gram Seva Kendra, near Dethli Village, about 30 miles from Ahmadabad. Here several hundred school children and faculty live and work together in an ecological manner, growing what they eat (organically) and learning together.
A last highlight of the WRI Conference was the final talk provided by Narayan Desai, followed by Gujarati dancers moving to the lyrics of songs composed by Narayan. Dozens of conference participants soon joined in the dance, circulating about the auditorium in a kind of organic tribute to the common humanity that was clearly visible. Below is the translation of the first dance song:
With the sweat of my brow, I eat my daily bread,
The bread of dignity and honour.
I am the daughter of mother earth
Unpolluted by chemicals and pesticides.
Unperturbed am I by difficulties.
Those proud owners of the chemical factories,
Growing fat, feeding on dollars.
Unconcerned whether we live or die.
Raising their brows they threaten.
Piling mountains of armaments large.
Uninterrupted they play the war-bands of destruction.
Please tell me, brother.
How can I forget the debt?
That I owe to one who gave me a thousand
Seeds when I sowed only one?
With strength in my arms
And courage in my heart
Why do I need to possess
When I live a satisfied life?
I know no fear nor greed.