Sunday, August 28, 2011

Indian Democracy at a Cross-Roads

Yesterday, I went back down to Ramlila Maidan and watched as two girls - one Muslim and one dalit or untouchable - gave Anna Hazare a cup of coconut water sweetened with honey. After 13 days, he broke his fast. The crowd cheered, Indian flags waved, and "victory of the people" was declared. Parliament had passed a declaration that they would accept the conditions of the Lokpal, an ombuds office to investigate official corruption, that Team Anna made. "I hope Parliament won't go back on their promise," said Anna from the stage. 

This is a fascinating time to be researching and teaching in India. India is the biggest democracy in the world, and yet the coalitions that emerge from the multi-party system can challenge the greatest of yoga gurus. It has growth rates that any country would envy, and yet there is a huge gap between wealth and poverty that is apparent in the streets and villages of this vast land. And right now, there is the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare which I view as a brilliantly complex case study in how civil society can effect change. The timing of my visit was fortuitous because my greatest interest is in how individuals and movements from civil society can bring positive change to communities. This blog entry will reflect on both the power and the danger of these movements, concluding with some thoughts on how the recent events in India might inspire other democracies. [NOTE: I have submitted a slightly different version of this article to Diplomatist magazine here in India.]

Power of Civil Society
Anna Hazare mobilized millions on this issue of anti-corruption. It was an amazing display of charisma, inspiration and, ultimately, power to persuade others. Why was this movement energizing to so many? And why was Anna the man to mobilize them?

The movement energized people because all lives seem touched by this issue of corruption at some level. There was a heart-wrenching story in the news of a young man lamenting that his first act as a new father was that he had to pay a bribe to a low level bureaucrat in order to receive his son’s birth certificate. A friend told me a story of his brother-in-law who was paying a bribe for a job and in a meeting the politician justified this bribe by telling him that “half would be going to god” because the politician always made donations to his temple. Everyone I meet can tell me some instance where they or those they know have been asked to or actually do pay a bribe. (Although interestingly no one has told me that they asked for and received a bribe.)

The issue of corruption is deeper than just bribes, of course. It affects the economy in very real ways, as some corporations might shy away from doing businesses in such an environment and those that do have added costs. It affects the development of talent, as some students might enter schools or universities and workers might be hired by government or corporates when better candidates should have got those positions. It affects the delivery of public services, as some low level bureaucrats may not give to citizens in a timely manner what they rightly request. It affects the moral character of society, as people don’t quite know who to trust and, therefore, end up cynical about all politicians, public officials, business owners, educational institutions, etc., etc.

Along comes Anna Hazare calling for an end to this cancer on society. Francis Fukuyama, made famous for his article then book titled The End of History, later wrote a more relevant book called Trust (1995). In it, he wrote that trust is nurtured when there is a “prior moral consensus [that] gives members of the group a basis for mutual trust” (p. 26). I would argue that Anna tapped that prior moral consensus by using the language and methods of Mahatma Gandhi, the one Indian in history that all look to for moral leadership, to carry out his cause. Anna’s fasting, his nonviolence, his calls for changes in personal behavior, all recalled the moral principles of Gandhi and so energized the conscience of Indians by engendering their trust.

Anna declared a “fast unto death” in order to fight corruption. Although he was clear on his end game – namely, passing the Jan Lokpal bill – others who joined him in the streets may not have been. In the beginning, most of his followers were simply angry about corruption. One former Speaker of the Lok Sabha with whom I had the honor of meeting told me, “Ninety percent of the people out on the streets don’t know the particulars of the Lokpal bills being debate. They are just angry about corruption and this is the way to show their anger.”

Giving people a way to vent their anger is important. Studies in the field of conflict management have shown that without feeling that they have been heard, people will not feel satisfied with any resolution. How people in the streets and the leaders of this movement channeled that anger into action is the more interesting part of the story. Eventually, the political leaders and Team Anna negotiate a comprehensive resolution that passes both houses of Parliament, although there are details yet to be worked on by the Standing Committee before final passage.

What I have seen in my two visits to Ramlila Grounds is a huge diversity of people across lines of rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young, men and women, and all religions, castes, and classes. Although there was a political agenda – to pass the Jan Lokpal bill – it is not a partisan one. True that certain (opposition) parties have tried to align themselves more closely with this anti-corruption movement, getting as much political advantage for themselves as possible, yet the movement is still clearly coming out of civil society. And that is a large part of the power of the movement.

Drawing on the work of the great sociologist Max Weber (1947) and later Domhoff (2002), I define power as a group’s ability to use resources to achieve desired results. And Team Anna and his followers did just that. They used the resources at their disposal – mass gatherings of people, media coverage, political back-channels for negotiation, and most persuasive of all, the fast of a Gandhian icon – which were instrumental in getting Parliament to pass legislation that they wanted. No matter what you think of the techniques or outcomes, that is effective use of power!

People are feeling like their voices are heard between the casting of votes every few years. There is an outpouring of emotion around this issue. And while no one is going to go on record as a supporter of corruption, there were more than a lak at Ramlila on the day after the victory of the passage of the Lokpal that publicly pledged with hands raised, “I will not take bribes. I will not pay bribes.”

In the end this is the greater power of a movement such as this. The Lokpal is only an external system for regulating against corruption; and one legitimate critique is that creating a huge new bureaucracy runs the risk of possibly becoming corrupt itself or ineffective in policing of others. While the systemic change is crucial, the real change in corruption is when people no longer accept or practice it in their own minds, hearts and actions.

Danger of Civil Society
Tonight people are partying on the streets of Delhi and throughout India. And well they should. Today is turning point of Indian democracy, a proud moment for this proud nation. Other turning points are certainly the Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi; the JP movement against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, led by Jayaprakash Narayan; and, as told to me in a recent meeting by a retired IAS officer who served as Union Cabinet Secretary, a crucial moment in Indian history that upheld the democratic process was when on April 17, 1999, the ruling BJP handed over control of the government when they lost a vote of confidence by one rather questionable vote. So, today’s triumph is another turning point in Indian democracy. But even as we all celebrate Anna and the people’s victory, it would be irresponsible to see this without also considering the potential dangers explored below.

There were a number of points when the anti-corruption movement could have turned and the power of the state might have come down hard. In fact, one might argue that the arrest of Anna Hazare on his way to start his fast was just one point. Almost all commentators now say that was a political mistake by Congress Party. Another mistake may have been Congress trying to blame this citizen’s movement on a “foreign hand” (read the U.S.A.) instead of the legitimate will of a fed-up people. And a final mistake may have been waiting until the 12th day of Anna’s fast before finally resolving the issue, thereby risking his death which could have turned this nonviolent mass into a violent mob.

Next time there might not be an Anna calling for restraint and things will turn violent. Actually, as his health worsened on the 10th and 11th day of his fast, I started to think about the dire consequences if he were to die. But Anna was very clear throughout his fast in instructing his followers to refrain from violence. A social worker from Bihar who I met at Ramlila told me, “If there is violence, the movement will end. Only with peace, as Annaji tells us, we will succeed.”

Maybe it took a man such as Anna, perceived to be righteous and a devout follower of the Mahatma, for this movement to be a success. Still, there is a danger when only one person personifies a whole movement. A friend who is in his eighties and fought for independence with Gandhiji in his youth, said something profound to me recently, “We are a nation of man worshippers. We need a mascot. There’s no alternative to Anna right now. But our hope is that every person will feel empowered to make a difference.”

On the other hand, there are critiques of Team Anna too. There were some moments when media relations could have been more deftly handled, especially as the negotiations between the two sides were taking place. There could have been a clearer plan for next steps after the Lokpal bill was passed. Having mobilized millions is the next best thing really to campaign against those politicians who voted against the bill, thereby turning a positive people’s movement into a negative electoral movement?

Then there what I think is the more significant critique, and that is how Anna and his followers ‘blackmailed’ Parliament into doing what they wanted by circumventing the constitutional process of representative government. Other commentators have compared Mobocracy versus Democracy. If you believe that Members of Parliament are legitimately elected – and that is a big “if” in the minds of many I talk to – then it is up to them to make laws of the land and not up to agitators from outside government. But let’s be truthful in this analysis and admit that various interest groups, especially those with money, influence legislation to benefit themselves all the time. So, why should the claims of civil society not also be brought?

This raises the tricky question of how to deal with the ongoing demands of so-called civil society. There will be all sorts of interest groups that will bring their causes to the pundits, politicians and parks of New Delhi. Some causes may be important, but others may be crazy. In the end, this Anna Hazare movement may just shake the political system enough to demand creation of a legitimate and formal way that the government seeks citizen participation in decision making.

Of course, citizen participation takes many forms in India and other democracies. Gandhi’s vision of a panchayat system is the ultimate in citizen participation. In the U.S.A., there are neighborhood associations, town hall meetings, electronic polling, citizens’ juries and local advisory commissions that may (or may not) have actual decision making and budgeting power. And, as we have just seen with this anti-corruption campaign, there are protest movements that put public pressure on political leaders to take certain actions.

One final danger of this successful movement is that it will raise expectations of the people that they may always be listened to, only to have that hope dashed in the future.
A classic work in the area of citizen participation is by Sherry Arnstein (1969) in which she uses the metaphor of rungs on the ladder of citizen participation. This typology includes:
  •          Nonparticipation in which citizens are “educated” by the politicians and their technical experts.
  •          Tokenism in which citizens are “heard” by those in power, but they are given no real power to affect decision making.
  •          Citizen Power in which citizens are actually making decisions that affect policy, budgeting and implementation.

At which rung of the ladder does citizen participation in India usually take place? How has this Anna movement changed the way citizens participated and will in the future expect to participate?

Lessons for Other Democracies
India is seen throughout the world as a model of democracy. For all the challenges to governing a vast and diverse population, it has succeeded in so many ways. I believe this latest people’s movement against corruption will challenge other democracies to look at the power of their people to participate in governance. When a Star News reporter at Ramlila asked me what I thought of the gathering, I answered, “This is democracy in action. I think that Americans should learn from India – the world biggest democracy – about how civil society can play a role in social change. This is an amazing people’s movement.” 

Although many have made the analogy between India’s anti-corruption movement and the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East, I don’t think they are comparable. In one place, you have deep democracy already in place and the people are protesting a change in policy through legislation. In other places, there was no democracy and the people were calling for revolution against the rulers.

There are many ways that change comes about. Multi-track diplomacy, as explained by Diamond and McDonald (1996), suggests that there is legitimate and necessary diplomatic work that goes on outside of Track One, or government-to-government, international relations. Taking this idea into the national context, the conclusion would be that there are many different stakeholders, not just elected officials, who have legitimate and necessary voice in the process. As Barber (1984) envisioned, it is this participation that makes for strong democracy.

So, how one includes those citizens, especially those who have traditionally been left out of the process, in the decision making of governance is a multi-track approach. Some may only want to protest in the streets, while others want to sit at the table and negotiate the intricacies of legislation; some may want to attend in-put sessions with the technocrats, while others may want to log onto a website where simple questions ask for opinions of the average citizen. I believe that this multi-track approach is the key to success. One size will never fit all when dealing with a country as vast and diverse as India.

Let the people celebrate this amazing victory of democracy for a time. But soon, they need to look at what else, beyond the Lokpal bill, needs to be done on a personal or legislative basis in order to root out corruption from our lives. And the ongoing question is how to channel the momentum we are all feeling from this victory into lasting change in the way democracy works and citizen’s voices are heard. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Democracy in Action: Tuning Into Movements Part 2

Well, I just had to go to Ramlila Maidan today to see the anti-corruption protest movement led by Anna Hazare for myself. I wanted to see democracy in action; plus, this was international news being made and everyone in India is talking about. My students at University of Delhi were fired up when it came to the corruption issue. And soon I learned that many, many more were fired up too.

As I departed the New Delhi Railway Station Metro Stop I was not sure what direction to head to get to Ramlila Park. I saw a man dressed in a simple white cotton outfit and so I asked him. K.K. Kashyep turned out to be a social worker and Gandhi follower who was, indeed, going to the rally. He is from Bihar state and runs an NGO that teaches the dalit (untouchable) girls to paint a special kind of art that was reserved for only high caste Brahmin women. (For more on his work see this link

We walked together to the site of this great “civil society movement” and then spent the whole day together talking, sharing (his) lunch, napping, shouting slogans and tuning into the anti-corruption movement in a way I never could have done if I only read about it in newspapers or seen it on TV.

When we arrived at the site, there was a short line – maybe 10 minutes wait – to get into the park where this rally is being held. When I left, six hours later, there was a long line that took an hour to get in. Bags were scanned and people – cuing in separate “Gents” and “Ladies” lines – were run through a metal detector and frisked by police of the same gender. People in the line were shouting slogans in Hindi and others in line were echoing the calls. These were not political slogans for one party or against another, but rather they were calls for unity of all Indians. Later I learned that three basic slogans were shouted throughout the day:
  • “Salute to Mother India”
  • “You go, Anna. We are with you!”
  • “I am Anna. You are Anna. India all is Anna.”

When we first entered into the grounds around 9:30 a.m., we wandered around to see what was happening. Anna dressed in white with his signature Gandhi cap was stretched out on a white couch seemingly sleeping on a stage up front. We could get within 50 yards of the stage, from which various speakers (all “Team Anna” supporters) spoke throughout the day, but there were police officers blocking access to the stage. When I departed the rally, I saw Delhi police officers stationed everywhere around the Park, a hundred more marching up the main boulevard just outside, and a dozen buses filled with 50 to 60 police each with riot gear close-by parked just outside the grounds.

The place had the spirit of a huge carnival. Families were there; parents very conscious that children “will remember this for the rest of their lives,” said Kashyep. Rich and poor, educated and illiterate, high caste Brahmins and untouchables, students and teachers, the diversity was wonderful. “We are all united as one family,” said a man next to me. One lak (100,000) people were present at the site over the course of a day.

It was like a state fair, but without the rides and fried food on sticks! Some people dressed up in costumes. The tri-colors of the flag of India were everywhere. Many wore the Gandhi caps with “I am Anna” printed on the sides. There was a large operation of volunteers who were passing out water, packages of cookies, bananas and other small foods to the crowd. And in the afternoon, long lines formed to get food dished up from huge vats of dal and two little flat breads called roti. While there is an NGO, India Against Corruption (, which has done some of the organizing and publicity for this rally, much of the volunteerism is spontaneous. A group of doctors roamed the crowds and gave out free medical care to anyone who asked.  Students stepped up to pass out water. Everyone had a generous spirit of cooperation.

Anna Hazare, who has pledged a fast-unto-death until the Lokpal (citizens’ ombudsman who will investigate government corruption) bill is passed, was front and center on the stage today. It is the 6th day of his fast. This 74-year old Ghandian activist has lead the movement to pass a more robust Lokpal bill. He sat up from his horizontal position a number of times when the speakers who were addressing the crowd from the stage were particularly inspired. He would press his hands together and do a slight bow to the speaker. Thrice in a day, Anna will speak, morning, noon and night. When he spoke, the crowd went silent. “Bring the Jan Lokpal bill or go,” Anna demanded from the politicians.

People ascended the stage and gave speeches, but they veered away from the partisan politics. This was a cause-oriented rally. Anti-corruption was the cause. Kashyap said, “Everyone says in different words, but they mean the same thing,” then he raised his finger in the air and dramatically shouted, “CORRUPTION MUST GO!”

Later, Kashyap said something echoed by others throughout the day, “After Independence [from the British] this is the biggest movement of the people.” He said that this forum is the only one for the voice of the people. “There’s no other place where the people can be heard. They’ve come here so their voices can be heard.”

Others have joined the cause by fasting along with Anna. A group of young men, all IT students at a local university, sat down under the tent with us at one point and one told me he was on the fourth day of fasting. They were interested in America. “Obama is a good man. He is a friend of India,” one said. Another asked, “Why is America bankrupt?” My simple answer was that our government needs to cut spending or raise taxes… or probably both.

A Star News TV reporter was wandering through the crowd and saw me, the one obvious Westerner in the sea of Indian people. She approached me and, after getting some basic information on me, asked with microphone in hand and camera rolling, “What brings you here today?” I answered, “This is democracy in action. I think that Americans should learn from India – the world biggest democracy – about how civil society can play a role in social change. This is an amazing people’s movement.” She looked into the camera and satisfyingly declared, “Well, you heard it hear, India is inspiring America.” My own 15 minutes (well, 15 seconds) of fame!

At one point, just behind where Mr. Kashyap and I were sitting, a fight broke out. It was interesting to see what happened next. A few women gravitated to the fight to make sure it didn’t devolve into further violence, positioning themselves between the disputants, but a large number of people calmed the situation by saying, “Please sit down,” in Hindi. By avoiding a rush to see this conflict up-close, the non-violent protesters present were clearly calling upon others to channel their anti-corruption sentiment to make for social good. Kashyap said, “If there is violence, the movement will end. Only with peace and nonviolence, as Annaji tells us, will we succeed.”

I am awed by watching the huge nation-wide groundswell of support for this anti-corruption movement. Similar rallies are happening in other cities. It is pressuring politicians to pass a Lokpal bill, with news reports saying there are mediators working on a compromise between Team Anna and the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance. One piece of literature being passed out at Ramlila was a four-page pamphlet with a letter from Anna Hazare and a side-by-side comparison of the Government’s Draft Lokpal bill and Team Anna’s Draft Jan Lokpal bill. At one point in the day, a white Classic Ambassador with curtains on the windows and a flashing red light on top (the tell-tale Indian government official car), came slowly through the grounds and made its way to a tent just behind the stage with a “Meeting Space” sign on top. Anna disappeared from stage shortly afterwards.

This is an extraordinary time to be in India. Much more than the passing of some a bill, this is about people feeling empowered to change society. I feel the spirit of a Gandhian revolution is sweeping the land. Victory to Mother India!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tuning into Movements Part 1

It seems that “movements” are everywhere in India. Now what actually constitutes a movement, as opposed to just a group advocating for a cause, is open to debate. But people here frequently use the term. I am going to select a few movements to write about: anti-corruption, which is very much in the news today; community foundations, which I am studying; and, body movements. 

Anti-Corruption Movement
Anna Hazare is a Gandhian activist who was arrested two days ago in Delhi as he was about to begin a “fast unto death.” Today, tens of thousands of people are protesting. Tomorrow, he will depart jail and take his fast and followers to a park in central Delhi. At a U.S. Embassy sponsored party for Fulbrighters two nights ago, we were warned by Embassy officials to stay out of the protests lest they turn violent. While Anna Hazare is employing non-violence in his protests, the police may decide to break up the crowd using other means.

The U.S. got sucked into this conflict when a State Department spokesperson said, “As you know, we support the right of peaceful, non-violent protest around the world. That said, India is a democracy and we count on India to exercise appropriate democratic restraint in the way it deals with peaceful protest.” This inflamed Indians who saw it as interference in its internal politics. Today there are claims by some in the Indian government that “outside parties” (read the U.S.?) might have a hand in the mass protests that are mounting.

For months, Team Anna, as he and his followers are called, have advocated for a bill to fight corruption in the public sphere. The bill would set up a Lokpal, or citizen’s ombudsman, to investigate claims of corruption by public officials. Team Anna proposed a “Jan Lokpal bill” with far-reaching powers, including the ability to investigate the Prime Minister and other top officials. The current Government of India, ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and led by the Congress Party which holds the most seats in Parliament’s lower house, called the Lok Sabha, has proposed a “Lokpal bill” that would not have quite so far-reaching powers.

Tonight, I had dinner with Omahan Vin Gupta and his wife and son, plus two retired high-level Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers and the son of a former President of India. Every one of this group did not think the Team Anna version of the Lokpal bill was good. “The Prime Minister cannot operate under the constant cloud of investigation,” said one. Another said, “No one who has really studied these bills agrees with the Anna version. It is just not realistic to implement.”  

While the differences between these draft bills may look small to us outsiders, there is more to this debate than simply the scope of an ombuds office. As I read it, albeit from a foreign perspective, two other important subtexts are part of the discourse currently playing out on the streets of Delhi and other Indian cities where protests have mounted:

  • We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take this anymore. The people of India, especially the young people such as those students with whom I interact, are simply fed up with corruption. They don’t know what to do about it, but by wearing the protest slogan – “I am Anna” – they think they are making a difference. Today I had the amazing honor of going with my friend B.K. Goswami to the home of former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, P.A. Sangma, to discuss my playing an advisory role in a new university he is setting up in his home state of Maghalaya in the Northeast. I asked him what he thought of the protests going on. He answered, “The Government made a big mistake by arresting Anna…. Ninety-nine percent of the people out on the streets don’t know the particulars of the Lokpal bills being debate. They are just angry about corruption and this is the way to show their anger.”
  • We’re a democracy and citizens have the right to protest. The reason given for the Anna’s arrest was that he was about to break a law by gathering a group for his fast at a place and in a manner that was not approved by the Delhi Police authorities. However, the arrest has raised a whole different issue playing out in the media and among citizens asking why a peaceful protest should not be allowed. One editorial asked if India was becoming a totalitarian police state. After Anna’s arrest, the Congress-led UPA Government backpedaled, clearly seeing the blunder of arresting this 74-year old activist and, thereby, rallying many more people to his cause. They negotiated with his Team when he refused to leave jail upon his release and, essentially, gave in to all his demands. Tomorrow morning he will march from his jail cell to his fasting place.

While the smell of jasmine makes many see this Twitter and Facebook fueled movement as Indian’s Arab Spring, I am not convinced that either version of the Lokpal bill will end corruption in India. To fight for change in institutions is an important step. To fight for change in the hearts and minds of individuals, which is where corruption is rooted after all, is a more difficult undertaking.

Stay tuned to further developments on this fascinating story. And stay off the street of Delhi, as the U.S. Embassy advised American citizens.

Community Foundation Movement
The primary research project I am undertaking here in India is on the community foundation movement. I will do a comparison of different case studies of community foundations. While I plan to write more on this later, I have some initial stories to share after recent site visits.

Mewat Community Foundation & Mewat Foundation Trust
Mewat is a predominantly Muslim region of the country where the Meo people live spanning four states: Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Last month, I made a site visit to two community foundations in this region with the staff of Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy.

The Mewat Community Foundation is a newly formed CF that has a dynamic executive and some energy around the potential programs. When we arrived for a community meeting hosted by MCF, I was greeted with garlands of orange flowers draped around my neck as if I was some dignitary. I think they misunderstood my role, thinking I was related to the Global Fund for Community Foundations which has made grants to CFs in the past. They had a proposal ready for me to review, but I made it clear that I was only there to do research. Still, they graciously hosted our visit, took us to meet with the elected leader, called the Sarpanch, of a nearby village, then to another village to see a women’s Self Help Group which produces milk from water buffalos then sells it to a dairy.

The Mewat Foundation Trust ( on the other hand is an older CF that received a $15,000 grant from GFCF a couple years ago. SICP acts as the fiscal agent for this grant because MFT does not have Foreign Contributions Regulations Act status that allows it to accept donations from non-Indians. There was palpable tension between the MFT folks and the SICP staff. MFT feels that the GFCF grant money belongs to MFT to spend as it likes and that SICP has not been clear about what is needed to release the funds. SICP feels that MFT needs to meet some basic standards of accountability and transparency in order for it to release those funds.

The young Executive Director of MFT followed up our meeting by emailing a detailed proposal for spending the funds. The SICP responded that MFT needs to put some clear governance structures in place, as well as the programmatic activities being proposed, before funds will be released. This struggle is not what SICP wanted when it took the fiscal agent responsibility. And I doubt that SICP will ever again play that role for a community foundation.

Bombay Community Public Trust
The Bombay Community Public Trust ( is the oldest CF in India, having formed in 1991. It is one of the few CFs in India that is making grants. The Managing Trustee, Harsha Parekh, is a former professor of library science at a women’s college in Mumbai. She has a real heart for the community, especially issues affecting women and girls, and comes from a well-connected family in Bombay. Her uncle was the President of a major bank and the founding Chairman of the BCPT Board of Trustees. She invited my family over for dinner in her beautiful apartment in a high-rise overlooking the Arabian Sea.

The real visionary behind BCPT was Russi M. Lala, an author, professional philanthropist and amazing inspiration to everyone with whom he comes into contact. I felt honored that he invited me to his home in Parsi Colony in South Bombay. At 83 years old, he sees very few visitors these days. When I arrived he was finishing a thrice a week massage. “Helps the blood flow in this old body,” he said as he was wheeled by a nurse into a small sitting room overlooking the park with the Zorastrian fire temple at one end. He reminisced about the founding of BCPT which was during the 18 years he spent as Executive of the Tata Trust, the biggest foundation in India. The Ford Foundation sent him on an investigation mission to look at other CFs in the USA and Asia. “I saw the New York Trust and thought, we need one of those too.” He returned to propose that Bombay should form its own. And with the initial support of some big corporate leaders and the Ford Foundation, the BCPT was launched.

Navam Community Foundation
The Nav Maharashtra Community Foundation or Navam ( works in rural Maharashtra state. The founding director is a talented woman named Nirmala Pandit. She is a former human rights lawyer who worked for the United Nations then returned to Pune to start Navam. She was proud of the women’s cottage industry that Navam supports through marketing and selling crafts that village women make. I bought some while at their offices in Pune.

They have re-granted funds they receive from corporate or individual donors to village-based projects. The overhead for Navam’s administrative costs has come entirely out of Ford Foundation grant money. However, they will soon exhaust these funds. Ford Foundation has changed strategic direction and no longer funds community foundations in India. So, Ms. Pandit lamented that she was going to have to start taking a percentage out of each grant to the village projects in order to cover the cost of Navam’s operations.

Body Movements
I miss my family who left last week. I especially miss the entertainment of our daughters moving to music. Maybe joining a folk dancer onstage in Rajasthan or dancing to music in their own minds. To watch them is to see freedom of expression, creativity of movement and beauty.

I also miss the “Poopie Reports” my girls gave upon emerging from the bathroom. We were certainly tuned into movements of that sort, having experienced some early problems. And toilets in India are of two kinds: Western, meaning a proper seat and toilet paper on a roll next to it; and Indian, meaning a hole in the ground over which you squat then take a small bucket of water to wash yourself with your left (always the left!) hand. I remember the first time Leora successfully used an Indian toilet to go “pee-pee.” We were at a temple about to see the musical fountain show and she came bounding out of the bathroom smiling widely and saying, “I can’t wait to tell mama I actually did it!”

Movements come in all forms. I will be on the move soon, when I travel at the end of this month to Ahmedabad to visit Sabarmati Ashram from which Gandhi launched the Independence Movement. I will be studying with Gandhians there, trying to get a better understanding of the principles of swaraj (independence), swadeshi (self-reliance) and trusteeship (care for the community).  These may give insights into ways to strengthen the community foundation movement by going back to the Father of the Country.

Hope your movements are smooth, safe and satisfying.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Good Birthday & Good Bye

Yesterday was my birthday and the last full day my family spent with me in India. Around midnight, I went to the airport to drop my family for 2:15 a.m. departure for a flight to London-Heathrow, then one to Chicago, then to Omaha.  

We were driven by our “Number One India Driver,” Mr. Avtar Singh, a Sikh farmer from the Punjab who drives a well-kept Classic Ambassador equipped with what my daughters call a “disco light” that blinks alternating colors on the ceiling. The light was purchased in Laj Nagar market, near where we live, for only 450 rupees ($10) and I am thinking about getting one for our mini-van to surprise the girls upon my return in November. We tearfully said our goodbyes outside the airport entrance because they would not let me enter without a boarding pass. Then they took a trolley filled with bags to check in for the 26 hours of flights home.

I really wanted the family to stay with me through my birthday, and I am delighted that they did. We celebrated with a visit to Salaam Balaak Trust ( I have come to the realization (or the confirmation of a previous realization) that I don’t really “need” any more possessions in my life. So I asked that my birthday present this year be a gift to this innovative NGO which helps street kids in Delhi to discover new opportunities for their lives.

They have a program called City Walk in which a former street kid takes a group on a tour of some of the places where he used to live and tells the story of his life. Our tour guide was named Satyender. He was a handsome 18 year old boy with a bit of bravado and a good command of English. There was a coach that tagged along on our tour, a volunteer from the UK named David, who comes to Delhi for a couple months every summer over the past six years, and helps the guides to polish their presentation skills.

I asked Leora what she thought was most interesting about our tour. She said, “That they put gods on the wall so people won’t pee on them.” And, indeed, one of the questions our tour guide asked was why we think pictures of various “gods” – Jesus, Guru Nanak, Krishna, Hanuman, Sai Baba, etc. – were put on walls around the neighborhood in which we walked. The reason was to prevent people from urinating on that wall, which they used to do.

Satyender, our tour guide, explained that girls are the most vulnerable on the street. Pimps will sell them into prostitution and they will be forced to take 20 to 25 “customers” a day. Girls also make more money than boys begging, so their “bosses” will force them into begging. They can rent a small baby for about 200 rupees a day to make it seem like they are more desperate for money because they have a baby or little sister. These babies make their companions more money if they are skinny, so the bosses don’t feed the babies much because of the alms they will receive if boney. SBT tries hard to get these girls off the streets before something bad happens.

Our guide said that most kids on the street drink alcohol and use drugs. Glue is the cheapest high for these kids and when I was walking next to him near the New Delhi Railway Station he pointed out to me a discarded glue bottle. “See that,” he said. “That’s glue. They can buy it anywhere in the bazaar and take in a cloth then breathe it in. It does funny things to your brain.”

Outside the SBT office, which is strategically situated near the Railway Station, a boy of 14 or 15 came up to me, knowing quite well that I was a tourist on a City Walk, and with glassy eyes and slurred speech introduced himself as Kumar. I said my name is Patrick. I asked, “What is wrong?” to which he answered, “I have tension in my head” and put his thumb on his forehead. When I relayed the story, Satyender told me, “Yes, many of these children have tension or other mental problems. They have seen a lot in their lives and glue or some other drug helps them to deal with that.”

Satyender told the story of how he found himself on the street. He is from a village in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India, and comes from a family where abuse was the norm. His father regularly beat his mother, brothers and sisters, and especially him. When he was 10 years old, his father smashed his mother’s head so hard against the wall that she started bleeding. For six days she bled and finally died from those wounds. He said, “At least my father tried to take care of her. He shaved her head and tried to wash the wounds. But she died anyway.”

After his mother’s death, things went from terrible to worse. He was beaten daily by his father, a routine that worsened after his father was drinking. Finally, one day he simply had enough. Satyender thought, “I can stay here and be beaten all day by my father or I can escape to Delhi and stay on the street. At least in Delhi the police will only beat once or twice a day instead of all day.”

At age 13, he got on a train bound for Delhi. He had no ticket so he locked himself in the bathroom. With only enough room for a squat toilet and a sink, Satyender stood up the whole eight hour trip. When passengers banged on the door, he would not open it. Finally, the train reached its destination. He was so tired that he slept under the footbridge of the New Delhi Railway Station which he showed us on the City Walk. The police came and beat him and others with a stick, sending them scrambling from their rest. He was told by one of the food vendors that he would get a couple of chipatis (flat, simple Indian bread) if he washed dishes, but after 4 hours on the job he got nothing and left.

Eventually, he was picked up by outreach workers from Salaam Baalak Trust and taken to a transition shelter for boys. The first thing the SBT social worker did was try to reunite him with his family. For six months Satyender gave false contact information about his father. When he finally gave in and provided correct information, his father came to Delhi to take him back to his village. In the office of the shelter, his father started beating him again. The social worker gave Satyender a choice of returning with his father or staying at SBT. He chose to stay.

I asked, “What is your relationship like with your father today?” He answered, “I still hate him. I wanted to kill him. A while ago, I tried to poison him by putting some poison in his milk when I went home for a one day visit. My sister was planning to kill him with me. But it didn’t work. He drank the milk but it didn’t kill him.” He went on, “Now I don’t care about him. I just want to get my sister and younger brother out of there because he beats them too. If I can find a professional job, they can stay with me.”

Satyender explained the motivation for kids to run away. “Most children run away because they want to live independent lives.” His professional goal is to be a video game designer. And he wants “to order other people around, not have to be ordered around.” He thought of his own life as much better now than when he was with his father and better still than when he was on the street. “Now I’m living a professional life, but not the street life,” he said of being a tour guide at SBT and getting paid to lead City Walks. He made the distinction between freedom and responsibility. “You are more free when you live street life. Now I have responsibility, but I think that’s better.”

At the encouragement of my friend Altaf Makhiawala, I am reading A Free Man, a nonfiction book by Aman Sethi, a journalist at The Hindu, who has written a brilliant biography about a day laborer who lives in the North Delhi neighborhood we toured on the City Walk. Although seemingly with many opportunities to use his talents and a college education as a stepping stone to a better life, the title character decides to live with more “freedom” – albeit as an alcoholic on the streets – rather than being beholden to another. This tension, present in all our lives, I think, between living a life ordained by others and living a life we think as more “free,” is the fundamental tension in the lives of both the title character of this book and of many street kids.

Tabrez, another tour guide, is from Bihar state. His mother remarried a man who beat him. About a month after moving in with his grandmother, she died. So he had to return to his stepfather’s house. He sent him to work in a factory at age eight. He had to work from 5:00 a.m. until 10 o'clock at night. The factory foreman wouldn’t let him sleep. One day, he did fall asleep at the factory and the boss beat him. When he told his mother this story she didn’t believe him and sent him back to the factory. Some months later, when his boss gave him some money and sent him on an errand, he took the money, bought a train ticket and ran away.  After a long train ride, he found himself in the New Delhi Railway Station.

He was sweeping the floors of trains for a dollar or two per day. Then he was a “rag picker” sorting through garbage for anything to salvage. He said he never got into drugs. Tabrez’s one pleasure was going to the Bollywood films on Friday afternoons when the new releases came out. “I love Bollywood and wanted to be a Bollywood actor, but now I want to be a cricketer,” said this short, slight boy.

We went to the shelter and saw a classroom full of 50 boys sitting in neat rows. They were lined up listening to a French woman who volunteers there tell them about France and share some pictures kids had drawn. Aviva later asked if our girls’ school in Omaha might do a project like that and send letters or pictures to the boys and girls at SBT to which the tour guides said yes.

The SBT serves approximately 4,500 kids in their various programs and shelters. The funding comes from 50% donations from corporations, individuals and fundraising events, of which the City Walk program is about 5%; 40% foundations or foreign donors (including Save the Children, and a large USAID grant program that just ended last month); and 10% coming from Indian government sources. The children and youth range in age from 8 to 18. And success stories of SBT kids who “made it” include a Bollywood star (seems many aspire to this celestial realm), a karate black belt who is now an instructor, a professional fashion photographer and guy who married an American and moved to the USA.  

I learned today that on the President Obama’s November 2010 visit to India, First Lady Michelle Obama was scheduled to visit SBT and go on a City Walk. But because of security concerns, this plan was scrapped. I would highly recommend a City Walk tour to anyone coming to Delhi. This was an amazingly eye-opening experience for us and, as strange as it may sound, by making a larger-than-usual donation to SBT it relieved some of the guilt of not giving money to all those beggars who approached us on the street over the past 2 months.

The small number of kids who SBT helps is only a negligible dent in the overall problem of homelessness in Delhi. But even a small bit helps. I am pleased that our last full day together in India was spent doing something like this.

After we visited SBT we went to Purana Qila, a ruins of an old Mughal era fort, and took a ride on a pedal boat in what was the former moat. It was a fun way to end our time together in India. My adventure to continues, but our family’s adventure together ends. What a wonderful time we’ve had!
So glad my family could share some of the time here with me. I miss them already! 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Religious Diversity over Four Days

These last four days have been exciting. We have seen some tourist sites in Delhi like the famous India Gate and Red Fort. 

And I have been reflecting on the interesting contrast in religious life in India. Our family has been invited to experience four very different windows into the wonderful diversity of this country.

On Thursday night, we met our friend Altuf Makhiawala just after sundown in Nizamuddin West Colony, an old and posh Muslim section of Delhi. In 2004, Altuf was a Caux Scholar ( – which is a peacebuilding program in Caux, Switzerland, sponsored by Initiatives of Change – just as I was back in 1996. He grew up in an observant Muslim family in Bombay and has been educated in English-medium schools. A journalist by training with a degree in Peace Studies from University of Bradford in the U.K., he is now working in media and donor relations for the UNICEF office in Delhi.

Altuf broke the fast on the fourth day of Ramadan before walking to meet us. He led us through increasingly narrow streets of the markets that made up this very old and important section of the city. Once Altuf gave her the cue, Aviva covered her head with a black scarf out of respect for the Muslim culture we were entering. We still got curious stares as we passed many Muslim men and a few covered women in the streets. I later bought a traditional Muslim head covering for myself, a tight-fitting crocheted white skull cap, which reminded me of a Jewish yarmulke or kippah, outside a mosque. This was a very big mosque with a madrassa adjacent and we asked Altuf about it.

About six weeks ago, when we first Altuf for dinner, a group of Muslim men dressed head-to-toe in white robes wearing white caps (like the one I bought) walked by us in the street. Altuf told us then that these men belonged to a group of conservative Muslim missionaries who work to bring back those brothers they see as straying from what they believe is the true path of Islam – a very orthodox Sunni version – back into the fold. “Kind of like Chabad tries to do for the Jews,” Aviva and I both said.

Stopping outside that big mosque on Thursday, Altuf reminded us of those guys we saw in the street. “They are part of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and this is the mosque and center where they are,” he said. “They believe that there is no other way but theirs. And that any Muslim can have direct contact with God.” In contrast to this view, he explained, the Sufis which we were about to encounter just 100 yards away, as we wound through even narrower passageways that allowed only pedestrians, “Those guys believe that if you do prayers and offerings at these Sufi tombs then they will reach Allah. So, one school believes there can be mediators between God and humans while the other school does not. And this conflict can get really bad at times.”

We walked on and removed our shoes as the stone walkways gave way to marble and we entered the area which contains the tomb of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who died in 1325 at age 92. It is an ornate shrine where pilgrims prostrate themselves and pray. Outside the shrine, the beautiful and haunting sounds of Sufi songs were sung by group of four qawwali singers. A hundred people were seated in the courtyard swaying to these traditional tunes. Just a few steps away is the tomb of the daughter of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, where women sometimes enter into ecstatic trances as if exorcising demons.

After this unique experience that we never would have had were it not for our friend Altuf, we joined him for a meal at a famous halal (Muslim’s form of kosher) restaurant called Karim’s, which has roots that go back to the Mogul empire. The place was packed with many well-off Muslims in western clothing eating a first meal after a long day fasting. The evening was a wonderful window into a few different versions of Islam.

The next night, we celebrated Shabbat with services and a meal at Chabad. Located in a hard to find alleyway off the main backpackers section of Old Delhi, Pahar Ganj, the Chabad House is one of only a few gathering places for Jews to come together in Delhi. With only about 5,000 Jews in all of India (the same size as Omaha’s Jewish population), there is probably not enough in any one city to sustain multiple congregations and synagogues only exist in the biggest of metropolises.

Aviva and the girls had been to Shabbat services at synagogues in both Delhi and Mumbai, but I was unable to attend those. But for the Chabad Shabbat services, we all went together. The taxi we caught there did not know the address, but the nice Sikh driver was both patient and persistent getting us into the section where most of the shops and hotels had Hebrew signs. India has become a very popular place for Israelis to go, especially young people after their military service, and this section of Pahar Ganj obviously catered to them.

We were directed by a shopkeeper who Ilana initially spoke to in Hebrew, “Go to the bindi shop and turn right. Down the alley then up some stairs you will find Chabad.” As we entered the alley and made our way past young Indian men smoking and looking at us like we didn’t belong, there was a blackout and all lights went dark. Leora squeeze my hand tightly and froze, saying, “Daddy, I don’t want to go down there.” I reassured her and we went onwards just as the lights came back on. Aviva then found another smaller alley in which there was an army officer on guard. She asked, “Chabad?” and he wagged his head yes. About three hours later when we left, there were three military men in uniform stationed outside the door, an unfortunately necessary precaution after Chabad in Mumbai was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks.

We made our way up the stairs and I sat with the seven other men there, divided by the mahitzah from the women’s section. Everyone spoke Hebrew and I caught only bits of what was said, more from tuning into the context than from understanding any words. When it became clear that they were waiting for a tenth man in order to complete the minyan, the quorum needed to do certain prayers in Orthodox Judaism, I said to the muscular Israeli next to me, “I am here with my family who is Jewish, but I am not. Just want to let you know that I am not going to be able to help with the minyan.” He smiled an appreciative smile and said, “That’s OK. More will come.” And sure enough, about 15 minutes later we started the Shabbat service.

The 48 guests that crowded into the tight quarters, coming and going throughout the night, were all Israeli except for the four in my family. Only the three Chabad rabbis were dressed in Orthodox clothes; most of the guests wore t-shirts and shorts, sandals and tattoos, and were there to connect with other Israeli Jews in a distant land. We were warmly welcomed by all. When I mentioned my friend Rabbi Mendel Katzman, Omaha’s Chabad rabbi, to the lead rabbi there knowingly asked, “Is he ginger like that?” pointing to a red-headed guy next to me. I laughed and said yes. “Yes, yes, of course I know him and his family,” the rabbi said.

The meal was typical Israeli fare with many fresh salads then a fish dish and rice. As shots of whiskey were poured and “l’chaim” was shouted with increasing volume, various people shared stories. One young man told about being saved from a rockslide while the guy next to him perished – “Baruch Hashem” – while another told a long tale with a punchline that cracked everyone up. Leora got up on a chair and shared a story of our family traveling in a taxi in Israeli and the driver not believing that we were the parents of daughters who spoke Hebrew with such good Israeli accents (that, thanks to Hamorah Edit and Hamorah Na’ama at Friedel Jewish Academy). Her story got great applause and some extra l’chaims for it coming from the youngest guest in the crowd.

No matter where you are in the world, Jews will welcome other Jews (and their spouses!). And even if I didn’t understand most of the conversation, my daughters did and I am proud of that fact. My girls confidently sang the tunes and said the prayers right along with everyone else there. And I am positive that their Jewish identity is strengthened when they connect with others abroad, both Jews and non-Jews, as we did this Shabbat.

Islam Too
On Saturday night, we had a very different experience. My friend and colleague at Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy, Moijuddin, invited my family over to his home to break the fast. We left our flat and flagged down an auto rickshaw on the street. When we told him we wanted to go to Zakir Nagar, he looked at us quizzically and, as if to confirm this strange information asked, “Muslim area?” When I answer yes, he wagged his head no and drove off.

We next approached a Sikh driver who wanted to warn us about where we were heading, “That’s a Muslim area. Are you sure?” When I confirmed that yes that is where we were going he said “OK” then negotiated a price above what it would have been had he used the meter. I figured that he would get us to our destination if he says he will – Sikh men are very forthright and honorable in this regard; if they tell you something, they are duty bound to carry it out – and we hopped in. As we got nearer, I called Moijuddin as I said I would. He talked to the auto driver and guided him to a meeting spot. After hanging up, the Sikh driver said, “Moijuddin. That’s a Muslim name. He is going to feed you chicken dinner,” then laughed his head off as if he just couldn’t believe this American family was going to a Muslim house to break the fast. (Moijuddin’s family actually prepared a vegetarian dinner instead of the usual meat, only because I told him my family keeps kosher, which means they eat vegetarian in India.)

Moijuddin met the auto with his motorcycle, his 16 month old perched on the gas tank, and guided us to his home through about six blocks of narrow streets full of post-monsoon rain mud. We walked up four flights, kicked off our shoes in the hall and entered the small living room of his home. The apartment was abuzz with activity. Neighbors came and left plates of food with which to break the fast. Kids wandered in and out, chatting with each other but especially interested in staring and smiling at these white American guests.

They have nine people in three generations living in this two bedroom apartment. It was obvious that his wife, mother and niece had gone to great lengths to prepare a meal that was special for us. Moijuddin had told me, “This is the first time that Jews, Christians and Muslims will all be under the same roof in my home. We are all children of Abraham.”

And we were, indeed, treated as honored guests in their home.  At 7:12, as the sun set, we sat on the floor in the bedroom that Moijuddin shares with his wife, toddler and baby who was born last month. Moijuddin’s neice, who is in 12th grade at an English-medium school, served us. They started by making sure that all of my family had full plates before taking anything themselves, and this was after a day of fasting! Finally, the family members ate dates, the traditional way for Muslims to break the fast. Then they had tomato and onion salad, then fruit salad, then different breaded vegetables. Once we finished this food, Moijuddin and I walked about three blocks to the mosque for the first prayers after break-fast. The women and girls stayed behind and played and talked and cooed over the new baby.

I waited outside while he crammed into the courtyard of the mosque with about 300 other men to do the ritual prayers, prostrating themselves on the mats many brought along. While inside they prayed, outside men wondered what I was doing loitering. Some boys on the roof of the mosque started by waiving then said in what little English they knew, “Hello. What is your name?” I quietly answered “Patrick” but became aware that this might disturb the men inside. Sure enough, an older man in a white beard came out and hushed up at the boys then shot me a disapproving look. Later, the men filed out of the mosque back onto the street and looked curiously at me still standing where they saw me before. One said, “What are you doing here?” more sincerely curious than accusatory. I told him I was waiting for my friend Moijuddin and he asked where I was from. I said, “United States of America” then reassured him, “Thank you for welcoming me into your neighborhood.” He answered, “You are welcome here.”

Everywhere I try to hold up the friendships I am making, very intentionally honoring those who are coming from different cultures or religions. I am particularly conscious of this with Muslims, knowing that I am not just representing myself, but my country, my religion and, when I am with my family, the Jewish people too. We may be the first and only interfaith family that these Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs or whomever will ever come to know. I want the lasting impression to be a positive one.

Sunday night, we went to the home of another friend and colleague from Sampradaan, Dr. Pradeepta Kumar Nayak. He and his wife, a computer science teacher of high school students, have one daughter, a 10 year old who is in 6th grade. Our girls really hit it off, doing magic tricks, playing cards and dancing together. Their daughter, Ankita, did a traditional Indian dance that was beautiful. Leora did a ballet. And Ilana some jazz dance.

Pradeepta and his wife are Hindus who met each other only five days before marrying. This was an arranged marriage that seems to have worked out well. They are from the same high caste and come from villages just 12 kilometers from each other in Orissa state. They are both educated and live far from family now. They spoke of missing their close families and some of the positive aspects of traditional culture in the villages. However, both also spoke of how stifling the expectations of village life can be. “What if you had married a Christian or Muslim or Jew?” I asked. “It would not be accepted to even marry outside our caste,” they answered. “Our family would disown us.” They lamented the occasional “honor killings” which take place when a family feel a girl (it always seems to be a girl) has done something to disgrace the community so they kill her.

We feasted on homemade food from Orissa and talked of balancing work and family. They live in the Delhi Development Authority flats, a middle-class neighborhood built in the late 1970s as housing for the ASEAN Games that India hosted. Their small two-bedroom flat was nice, but not luxurious. By Indian standards, this two-income one-child family is well-off.

Seeing these friends’ homes made me and Aviva think more about what we “need” in terms of housing and possessions. One of the many lessons we have learned (again) on this trip is how little we actually need to be happy. In Omaha, we lead a life of luxury compared to most in the world. And when we complain about little things that complicate our lives, we need to remember and be grateful for the many, many blessings that we take for granted. Thanks, God! 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Reflections on Initiatives of Change-India

NOTE TO READERS: This blog entry is primarily written for those who are familiar with the international, interfaith movement called Initiatives of Change ( I am the Vice Chairman of the board of IofC-USA. While I hope it is of interest to others, there are probably some references that may not be understood. Please forgive me for assuming this insider knowledge.

I am writing to you from Asia Plateau (, Initiatives of Change-India’s center in Panchgani, a hill station in Maharashtra state. This beautiful place is another gift of Moral Re-Armament to the world. Although the rest of the world now calls it IofC, the Indians still use “MRA” to describe the organization here, which is incorporated under the legal name MRA Trust, with passing references to “Initiatives of Change” on occasion. Although a couple continents away, we should consider how to use this amazing place in some of the work that we are doing in the U.S. Many times I heard folks here say that they would like Asia Plateau to be used more by non-Indians. Truly a spirit exists here, like at Mountain House ( in Caux, Switzerland, which inspires peace and reconciliation. “This place was the wonderful vision of Rajmohan Gandhi,” said one person who has been with MRA/IofC for decades.

My family has traveled to this place for a long weekend between research interviews I have scheduled with community foundations in Mumbai (where we stayed with Dr. & Mrs. Anand at the MRA home called Kumaran) and Pune, where we will be have tea in the home of Kiran Gandhi (no relationship to the Mahatma or Rajmohan Gandhi), a dedicated member of the MRA Board of Trustees, and his wife Neeru. [NOTE: I am editing this letter back in Delhi and adding a few notes from our wonderful conversation at the Gandhi’s home.] The warm welcome we received in every place is the embodiment of that spirit of hospitality that MRA/IofC has nurtured over the years.

During this monsoon season, Asia Plateau shuts down to conferences, but there remains a small core team of 12 or so, plus the year-round maintenance, kitchen and housekeeping staff. Although the place does not have the usual buzz of conferences, it is more conducive to our family’s “retreat” here and to my sharing deeper dialogue with friends in the fellowship.  I may come back later this fall for a conference, depending on my schedule.

I have spent the most time here with Dr. Ravi Rao, the “Resident Trustee” (a volunteer position that is required on the Board of Trustees) and a retired dentist from Bangalore, and our friends the wonderful full-time couple Suresh and Leena Khatri, who we hosted some 13 years ago in our home when we lived in Los Angeles. We have exchanged many ideas about the joys and challenges of India, the work we are engaged in and the network that is IofC.

I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from my conversations and reflections. Although the conversations flowed freely, I have grouped these highlights by themes below.

Like the IofC bodies everywhere, India is thinking seriously about how to engage younger people in the work they do. They have been quite successful in a few programs:
1.    Action for Life ( – the commitment was to do 5 AfL groups in which young people from around the world are trained at Asia Plateau then go out to do work in teams across the broader area. They are considering whether to do another and another beyond that. Over 100 young people have participated in AfL so far, and about 20 are still involved in some form of “life-changing work,” not all under the MRA/IofC umbrella but inspired by the ideas and training they got through AfL. Chris Breitenberg went through AfL and the Khatris, who echoed what we know about Chris’ great communication, presentation and leadership skills, were particularly interested in hearing about his Trustbuilding Leadership program on campuses in the USA.
2.    Each year there is a Youth Camp at Asia Plateau with about 150-200 attending. There is a group of young people who are spiritually and relationally connected from regular attendance at these camps. With leadership from one particular young man (a graphic designer in Pune, recently married and with a newborn) a small team from this group is looking to take it to the next level. Unclear how that will look, but the older leaders of MRA are excited about the younger people taking initiative on this.
3.    “Young people are not conference goers, but action doers,” said Suresh. They were intrigued by my sharing the plans for the Trust Factor forum in Washington, DC ( in October to include more skills workshops and not just the standard concurrent conference sessions model. The model used for engaging young people in India is “trainings” and not conferences. This is a subtle but important distinction.

When I asked how MRA is managed, Ravi said that “IofC-India is not managed. Each initiative is autonomous. The only coordination goes on here at Panchgani. The rest is informal.” Leena later said, “IofC is getting more structured. Something I hope we don’t lose is the fellowship we share together. We are not just colleagues, but friends.”
·         The Board of Trustees of the MRA Trust is 15 in number; seven are permanent and eight are rotating. These people take the legal, financial and policy decisions, but are not necessarily seen as the leaders of the “work” that goes on. They are mostly an older group, the youngest member in his 40s. There is an Executive Committee of three.
·         The Advisory Council is a group of 30 which constitutes the wider fellowship of people who come to the annual Trustee meetings at Panchgani. This is an intentional way to make board meetings an opportunity for “spiritual growth” and that all-important nurturing of friendships.  
·         There is a Coordinating Body, separate from the Trustees, with 12 members each of whom has a portfolio that they coordinate. Examples include trainings, publications, young people’s programs, etc.

The Indian context is very open to spiritual themes. Religion is everywhere; temples or mosques or churches (and even an occasional synagogue) are on every other street, shrines in every home, and practitioners of every form of spirituality can be found in India. While in Mumbai, Aviva and the girls went to see the famous Blue Synagogue.

Ravi said that a recent survey of Indians showed that 90% believe in some form of “spiritualism” and 50% have some form of practice. So, there is already a ripe-ness for the practice of daily Quiet Time and the insights that come from that. Ravi talked about four levels of “strength” in the Hindu tradition: (1) material or physical; (2) mental or psychological; (3) wisdom or direction; and (4) soul or inner voice. Likewise, the idea of the Four Absolute Standards (Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love) is one that most Indians would accept. “Whether they act on those standards is another question,” said Leena. So, the language used by IofC resonates with people here. And that makes it easier to do the work.

The connections with corporations is the most successful and lucrative part of the work in India. In 1973, a manager at Tata & Sons (the biggest corporation in India at the time) had a thought in a Quiet Time that he should get his company trained by MRA – first the junior managers and factory foremen, later the senior managers. That has evolved and in the past few years, with some intentionality and much providence, has become the key to success of MRA in India. An electric company has sent all its thousands of employees through an MRA-developed training, with top managers coming here to Panchgani and others having workplace sessions. Siemens Corporation has also paid a great deal to have MRA train their employees. This corporate sector support is underwriting the other work of MRA. Ultimately, the corporations see the benefit to having ethical and personally fulfilled employees.

Because of this corporate sector support, MRA in India has been financially self-sustaining for the past 30 years, Suresh told me. The fact that they require no fundraising to support MRA programs, workers or for the operations of Asia Plateau because of the revenue generated from industry trainings is a HUGE burden lifted off IofC here. Kiran Gandhi, a management consultant and executive coach who was behind much of the design and delivery of these trainings, said that training the corporate and public sector employees allows MRA to “take IofC’s message to more people” and that it has a “clearer ROI than other things we offer.”

Of the need for ethics training in the public sector, Ravi said, “Today there is so much demand for MRA. We don’t have to go to them; they are knocking on our door.” He gave the example of the IofC’s Centre for Governance which was the initiative of R.D. Mathur, a long-time MRA full-timer who worked closely with IofC founder Frank Buchman and now lives in Delhi. This Centre is working closely with Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, both active and retired, and has influenced new policies around ethics in governance. The Centre for Governance hosts conferences for IAS officers here at Panchgani.

Ravi’s wife Jayashee was in Oxford and London visiting their grandchildren when we were in Panchgani. She has led a lot of recent work with women in rural villages. Ravi said, “There’s a lot of wisdom within rural India. But the villages don’t have the courage to stand up against urban India. They do not always have the right values. For instance, political power or castism. If you marry outside your caste, you can be killed. Villagers know this is wrong, but don’t always address it.”

There is a history of much life-changing work that has gone on in villages surrounding Jamshedpur in Bihar state. This is where the Tata Steel factory was located where Kiran used to work and, guided largely by thoughts from his quiet times, he began to build a team that could do work in these villages. He told some great stories about the way God provided inspiration for many in this area. Ravi also mentioned working in these villages as one of the most important times in his spiritual development.

Suresh and Leena, Kiran and Neeru, and two of the Gandhi’s three daughters, are all heading to the far northeast Indian state of Nagaland in a couple weeks. They will visit an extraordinary Naga leader named Niketu Iralu, who is also an MRA Trustee. His work bringing reconciliation to a civil war in that region has many won awards. I asked what the agenda was for their trip. Suresh answered that they had the thought that they would simply go and be with Niketu and his wife Christine, seeing what the needs of the people were, taking quiet times with them and determining actions based on guidance.

Of the northeastern region of India, Kiran said that “mainland Indians don’t appreciate the culture and people of the tribal areas.” The goal of their visit, he said, was to “build bridges and better relationships” between Indians and the Naga people. Niketu and Christine will set up meetings. Ultimately the hope is “integration so that the tribals are feeling one with India.” Adding, “Historical hurts are there.”

Suresh provocatively said about IofC’s global work, “We’ve gotten too stuck on reconciliation and trust. We need more focus on justice – like corruption and poverty.” Kiran also mentioned “economic disparity” as a major problem in India and added “corruption is a major problem too.” This issue of corruption is particularly important in India right now with many, many people mentioning it and especially young people wanting to do something. There is federal legislation being crafted against corruption and a Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare threatening a hunger strike if it is not passed.

Ravi thought that globally the IofC had a need for more structure and was getting it “only in the last 6 years,” referring to the International Council and other structural innovations. He has been part of the team working on drafting the new Preamble for IofC. He also thought that a more coordinated global initiative might make the world-work more effective. Two thoughts he shared on this were (1) Peace in the Middle East – “If we can help solve that problem, it would bring peace to the world, and maybe even solve the problem of Islamic fundamentalism”; and (2) Inspiring more individual action at the local level – “Everyone could subscribe to a global plan but carry on with local work.”

Kiran echoed Ravi’s first thought when I invited him to share what he thought the IofC – USA team should focus on. He was cautious, stating that he had not spent much time nor thought much about the issues in my country. Then, after a long closed-eyed silence, he shared this thought: “I think the cause that would make a difference if addressed would be the relationship with the Muslim world. India has something to offer the U.S. We basically have good relations with Islam in India. A turning point was the 2002 tragedy in Gujarat,” he said referring to the communal riots that took place in that state after Muslims were blamed for an arson attack on a train carrying Hindu activists and political leaders from the Hindustan BJP party used heated anti-Islamic rhetoric to sweep to election victory. “Now relations between Hindus and Muslims have improved.”

I gently challenged Kiran with what I saw after the recent Mumbai bombings – allegedly by an indigenous terrorist group called the Indian Mujahadeen – as a rise of tensions. He observed that there could have been much greater retaliation against Muslims after the recent attacks, as well as the ones in Mumbai in 2008. “Those were meant to provoke. But Muslim leaders in India courageously said that killing innocents was not jihad and was against the Koran. Also, Muslim women in India have a strong voice.” He then suggested that the IofC-USA team think about inviting Indian Muslims (he had a Bombay professor and his wife in mind) to America to provide an example of Muslims integrated with Hindus and speaking out against violence.

“India has more to offer the developed countries, especially from this place,” Suresh said of Asia Plateau. This echoed a theme that others had mentioned: Asia Plateau in Panchgani being a gathering place for the world. For a long time, India has seen the West either as a donor or as a colonizer, but now India is in a position to give more to the West. Suresh thought that India could help Americans to think more critically about materialism asking us to consider at a deeper level, “What really satisfies humans?”

Ravi said, “My great fear for India is that we’ll get swept away by consumerism. Suddenly, the urban middle class is earning so much by Indian standards. When traditional society and families were stronger, people found it easier to make the right choices.”

The issue that many raised of offering trainings as the source of MRA’s self-sufficiency really resonates with me. “IofC has something very unique to offer the corporate world. We just need to put it together in ways that make sense for the corporate sector,” opined Kiran. He went on to contrast the IofC center in Caux which is primarily “a conference center” with Asia Plateau which is primarily “a training center” and therefore “gets better support.”

The key difference in the work of IofC in India is that they have this wonderful conference center at Panchgani that is the gathering place for the team, the nation and the world. Of course, that may have been true for the USA in the heyday of the MRA center on Mackinac Island in Michigan. But that is far from our reality today. Still, the work of IofC in India is exemplary in so many other ways. I hope we can take seriously their invitation to have us learn from them.