Wash off each molecule of despair
By Chintan Girish Modi
It was October 2016 when I received a beautifully written email from Swarna Rajagopalan, Founding Trustee of Prajnya Trust, inviting me to participate in a roundtable discussion titled ‘Gender, Peace and Intersectionalities: A New Generation Works for Peace’. Scheduled for January 23, 2017, this discussion was to be part of the XV National Conference on Women’s Studies organized by the Indian Association for Women’s Studies, and hosted at the University of Madras.
Apart from being thrilled about the fact that this senior policy analyst, writer, gender and security expert had considered my work to be of value, I was happy to see the way in which she had outlined her vision for the discussion. Her concept note stated:
Peace activism is not new in India; moreover, it has always acknowledged intersectionalities to the point that it is genuinely hard to distinguish between peace and human rights groups in the Indian context. Nevertheless, the youngest generation of peacebuilders in India and around the region, bring new sensibilities, new issues, new approaches and new formats—as well, arguably, as a new level of visibility to peace work.
Work for gender equality and inclusiveness is a part and parcel of their agenda of peace activities and in this, they reinforce what previous generations have done. But their innovativeness and their ability to reach beyond the immediate alter their impact considerably. The participants in this panel share their work and experiences as a point of departure for an inter-generational networking and learning that can begin at this conference.
The ‘inter-generational’ aspect of the roundtable immediately struck a chord with me. In the five years that I have identified myself as a peace educator – with a special focus on conflict transformation in the India-Pakistan context, what has become absolutely clear to me is the sense of legacy. There is no illusion that one is doing something for the first time. In its place, there is deep gratitude for those who have set up Track II and III initiatives to keep the dialogue going, apart from programmes to train young peacebuilders like myself, and for the multiple channels of people-to-people contact that have been kept alive through the unflinching determination of the crazy ones who have stayed committed in challenging times.
I would like to record in particular my fondest appreciation for Shabnam Virmani, Meenakshi Gopinath, Scilla Elworthy, Sudha Ramachandran, Paula Green, Beena Sarwar, Peggy Smith, Baela Raza Jamil, Shreya Jani, and Zakia Sarwar – the women who have patiently held my hand, taught me, and shown me that I am capable of solid and substantial work, without sometimes even saying it in so many words. They have been teachers, mentors and friends at the Kabir Project, Women In Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP), Kulturstudier, SIT Graduate Institute, Aman Ki Asha, Seeds of Peace, Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi, Standing Together to Enable Peace Trust, and the Society for Pakistan English Language Teachers.
Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, the peace education, storytelling and social media initiative I run for Indians and Pakistanis to transform hostility into hate has benefited from what I have learnt by watching and listening to them. It is not a coincidence that they are all women. I say this with a large measure of confidence, particularly after my participation in programmes led by WISCOMP, and my involvement in the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development’s Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality, which also includes a Task Force on Partnerships with Young Men in Gender Equality. It appears that, while it is largely men who have been busy creating war, it is primarily women who have had to do the work of peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. Yes, it does sound a bit simplistic but I invite you to reflect on the connections between patriarchal culture and the thirst for war.
The incorrigible English Literature student in me feels compelled to recall T. S. Eliot’s iconic essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, although I am not sure if this is a good fit here. I think that some of Eliot’s advice to the poet could apply to the peace educator as well. According to Eliot, tradition is not a simplistic act of “handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes.”
He discourages such adherence, and recommends instead an awareness of “the historical sense,” which involves being acutely conscious of one’s place in time, and of how the past continues into the present. He warns against thinking of the past “as a lump,” and against forming one’s ideas “wholly on one or two private admirations.” He demands of the individual “continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable,” and “a continual extinction of personality.”
This extinction might seem at odds with the visibility that Swarna’s email mentioned. In a world where social media is a powerful tool of communication for peace educators, the focus often shifts from the message to the medium. I have found it necessary, on many an occasion, to bring the conversation back to peace, and deflect attention from the peacebuilder. I would not be surprised if Kirthi Jayakumar, Founder of the Red Elephant Foundation in Chennai – who was to be my fellow speaker at the roundtable – mentioned that she grapples with the same predicament. Her work in building peace and in providing support to survivors of sexual violence is phenomenal.
It was most unfortunate that Kirthi could not be part of the roundtable even after multiple attempts to reach the venue that were foiled due to a violent clash between the local police and protestors several days after the Supreme Court’s order to ban a traditional bull-taming sport in Tamil Nadu. Soumita Basu, Associate Professor at South Asian University, who came all the way from New Delhi to participate in the roundtable, and Swarna who conceptualized the roundtable, could not make it for the same reason as Kirthi.
Instead of scrapping the discussion, we decided to carry on under the inspiring leadership of Asha Hans who is Co-Chair of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, apart from being the Founder Director of the School of Women’s Studies at Utkal University, and Lalita Ramdas who has served as Chair of Greenpeace International, and been among the “1000 peace women” nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. We were also joined by Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas who has served as India’s Chief of Naval Staff before he got associated with efforts to demilitarize and denuclearize South Asia, and got the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace in 2004. There were some other scholars, activists and researchers who contributed to our discussion that ended up being quite lively and heartfelt. We began by sharing the personal reasons that brought us to peace work, and moved on to talking about the dangers posed by divisive politics in South Asia and beyond, before affirming a collective resolve to build and expand solidarities among people, initiatives and organizations committed to human rights and peace for all.
One of the questions that I was asked had to do with my definition of peace. The one that I gravitate towards was offered by Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung. He made a distinction between negative peace – which simply means the absence of war or physical violence – and positive peace, which is a broader construct aiming towards the elimination of structural and cultural violence in addition to physical violence. I would like my work as a peace educator to focus on positive peace, for it also involves an engagement with questions of social justice, and does not equate peace merely with stability or status quo. I know that Galtung has been criticized for not engaging adequately with gender but I also believe that the construct of positive peace can be broadened to include robust articulations of peace from feminist perspectives.
Though I was not able to articulate this clearly at the roundtable, I think it needs mentioning that I tend to identify as a peace educator, and not a peace activist. I see these roles as complementary, not opposed to each other. The area of focus, and the manner of engagement is perhaps where the distinction lies. At the moment, I think that my work is located more in the classroom than in the street. I engage directly with students and teachers at schools, colleges and universities through peace education workshops.
I chose this because I love teaching, and I know that this is how I can serve best. I have no background in political organizing. I have an M.Phil. in English Language Education, and am trained to develop curriculum. I have been a school teacher and teacher trainer, and it gives me tremendous fulfilment to curate learning environments that develop skills in critical thinking, non-violent communication and conflict transformation. I am also a consultant to the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development on a guidebook for textbook writers interested in embedding ideas of peace, global citizenship and sustainable development into subject-specific textbooks. It seems incorrect to describe this work as activism, which seems to be a lot more explicitly public and confrontational.
The other word that I use to describe myself is as a peacebuilder. From the formal academic training I have received in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, it is evident that I have the added responsibility of engaging especially those whose ideas clash with mine, despite the temptation of naming and shaming – a strategy often used by the peace activist but not feasible for the peace educator or the peacebuilder intent on restorative rather than retributive approaches to justice. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong. I am just beginning to develop and navigate different conceptual universes with some degree of certainty, and could certainly benefit from constructive feedback.
If I remember well, it was in Grade 1 that I first articulated the desire to become a teacher. It was not a minor dalliance with the idea, I now realize. The possibilities for human connection that lie in the classroom are mind-blowing. Unfortunately, we do not utilize them much because we are caught up in structures and methods that we do not feel personally invested in. We forget that the student is the most important person in that environment. Without students, there would be no classroom, no teacher, no textbook, no school or college, and certainly no workshop facilitators or smartboard-selling companies lining up outside the principal’s office.
I gave up my stint as a school teacher after two years because I felt a profound need to reinvent myself as an educator, and engage with children, teenagers and teachers in ways that a full-time teacher cannot because of the administrative tasks heaped on their tired shoulders. I began offering workshops in peace education. At first, they were focused mainly on healing the rancour that has messed up the India-Pakistan relationship. Their scope has now expanded to include stereotypes and biases at large, but with special attention to themes of gender, bullying, and inter-faith dialogue.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for this work. Every day, there is some news about people being hounded for their food choices, their sexual identities, or their political convictions. This is not the India I learnt about at school. The national anthem I was taught to sing with pride was to be a reminder of our cultural diversity – something to appreciate, and be grateful for, not fear or hide. I do not hold on tightly to identities but I do cherish the opportunity to walk in and out of them, to inhabit multiple ones simultaneously.
The India that I cherish in my heart allows me to do that – speak different languages, visit holy places of faiths that I do not practice, even celebrate traditions that are not part of my family’s cultural inheritance. I want people younger than me to be equipped with the resources to lead a life like that, to know how to keep themselves sane without wasting their time in shouting matches on social media or blood baths in the bazaar. Peace is not what you settle for in a peace accord. It is an approach you choose every day of your life, even when it seems terribly difficult to be hopeful. You head to the shower, wash off each molecule of despair, and get back to work.