Wednesday, January 5, 2011

AfL group meeting with Rajmohan and Usha Gandhi Two days before Rajmohan Gandhi ended his terms as President of Initiatives of Change (IofC) International, he and his wife Usha had a dialogue with 40 mostly young people from 20 countries, including Afghanistan and Iran, China and Korea, Sudan and Guatemala, Ukraine and Lebanon. They were participants in the Intern programme at Asia Plateau, and the international Action for Life leadership-development programme, which has been based for the past two months at this Asian IofC centre in western India.

Coming at the end of a year during which Prof Gandhi and his wife visited 14 countries on five continents as part of the Voyage of Dialogue and Discovery, it was an opportunity for this intergenerational group to share convictions, explore challenges, and to discern emerging potential for initiatives.

Alex Birnberg (left) with Usha and Rajmohan GandhiTo launch the conversation, Mrs Gandhi asked a series of probing questions about their months in India: ‘Has this time set you on a new path in life?’ ‘Has it shown you that change is possible – because you experienced it yourself and have seen it happen around you?’ ‘Has it opened your eyes, your hearts and minds to suffering, to injustice, and even ignited a passion in you to play a part in righting wrongs?’

Building on these questions, Prof Gandhi shared some initial thoughts from his current research on conflicts in the Punjab in the 18th and 19th Century, highlighting the cycles of ‘revenge and counter-revenge’ characterising that region. At lunch that day he had met a young Afghan, and intern at Asia Plateau, whose three close relatives had been killed by Taliban; but who told Gandhi: ‘I do not blame them.’ What if more would be prepared to stand up and say that, Gandhi asked? When people are willing to make this gesture -- finding healing through deciding to forgive -- we are presented with a ‘powerful antidote to the oaths of revenge’. Could these examples, he asked, be collected in a ‘Festival of Healing’, with ‘dark skies illuminated by fountains of fireworks and the rockets of healing’?

On another tack, he identified corruption as a further avenue for focus; ‘supposing even one of the corrupt admitted to it and accepted the consequences’. Many of those who were present have been involved in efforts to address corruption in various forms, for example through the Clean Election Campaign in Kenya.

Prof Gandhi also commended the Action for Life programme for the fruit of its work over the ten years since its inception. The programme aims ‘to develop a new generation of change-makers, equipped with integrity and faith, committed to transformation in the world starting with themselves’.

‘AfL has contributed new blood, new leadership to Initiatives of Change’, Gandhi said. ‘It is keeping alive the integrity and the purity of the movement’.

In the discussion that followed, he paid tribute to the visions that were articulated, both from the AfL participants and the Interns, as well as the reality of the challenges expressed; ‘How do we begin?’ ‘How can we keep the spirit and apply the lessons we have learnt?’ ‘How do we go about making a difference at a larger level?’

Heejin Choi, from South Korea, shared her hope for a meaningful reconciliation between the Japanese and South Korea. Although she now speaks fluent Japanese and has lived there for two years, working with young Japanese, she finds herself at an impasse: ‘How can we bring together two sides of a conflict when they don’t want to speak to each other?’

Dana Lazar was disillusioned by her experience as a TV journalist in Romania, but during her time in AfL has rediscovered a passion for her country, and yet feels overwhelmed by the challenges facing her society, where there is massive emigration among young people, borne of a growing deficit in hope.

In his youth, Prof Gandhi and many others were the driving force behind the creation of Asia Plateau, which now provides training to thousands of people each year, from top civil service officials, industry workers], to the police force and MBA students. Responding to Ms Lazar, he spoke of his early experience, frankly admitting that ‘we didn’t feel we could do it, just that it had to be done. It was not because we had no fear, but in spite of our fears that we acted.’

As others shared their convictions and hopes, but also dilemmas, around issues confronting Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and other situations, Prof Gandhi took several of the more specific questions on notice. But he was clear on certain fundamentals, including that ‘we have to be ready to pay a price’ and that ‘a committed life is where the timing of what one wants is not in our hands’. He acknowledged the challenge in discerning when, where and how to respond to needs in the world, but made the point that often, ‘when it seems one door may be closing, another opens’. And as for the ‘fog’ that often obfuscates that way, he deferred to Mahatma Gandhi’s simple thought; ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene – one step enough for me’.

The 30 involved with AfL will leave India this week, dividing into four teams to launch into the Action phase of the programme, travelling respectively to Eastern Europe, East Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific. You can follow their progress here