Today’s Solutions: October 05, 2022

Solving ethnic conflicts around the world – Radha Kumar has not chosen an easy objective to tackle. For years she was the angry activist that climbed over barricades but now, thanks to pearls of ancient wisdom from her homeland of India, she is looking for peace closer to home.

Tijn Touber | February 2003 issue
India has become so corrupt that Radha Kumar can’t even get her mail without paying off the postman. ‘The man simply names his price. Isn’t that shameless? Political corruption has been around for a long time, but now it’s everywhere.’
Years ago Kumar believed in the benediction of the liberalisation of the Indian economy. In angry articles and discussions she denounced the ‘irresponsible behaviour’ of the Indian government, which was not anxious to allow international companies into the country. ‘In India, unemployment is such an enormous problem that I was pleased with the opportunity for many people to build up a middle-class life.’
But liberalisation comes at a price, as Kumar has learned. ‘Masses of people got rich in much too short a time. All over the media we see the promise of wealth everywhere. It seems like everyone in India is only focused on the question of how quickly and easily they can make money. The result is colossal corruption. Shocking!’
Kumar has become an old pro at understanding government mores. She has been affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations think thank for a number of years, for which she writes reports on international relations. She realises how difficult it is to execute change. She no longer gets so angry. ‘I have a lot of empathy for the anger behind the ‘anti-sentiments’ I sometimes see here in Porto Alegre. Fifteen years ago I was just like that. But it takes too much energy to be angry. Now I want to use that energy to stimulate constructive peace processes. Life is so short as it is and I want to make concrete changes.’
Kumar sometimes wonders how productive the World Social Forum can truly be. ‘Of course it’s wonderful to meet so many extraordinary people. It gives you strength and courage to get back to work with renewed vigour. But you cannot expect to develop a clear strategy and focus here. Perhaps you cannot expect that from any single grass-roots initiative. It’s probably simply not the nature of the beast.’
Developing strategies and exacting results happens at another level, according to Kumar. ‘I’m a member of a number of think tanks, which generate very powerful strategies. It has to do with the policymakers involved who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. They know the system, they have the courage to lobby and know which tricks to use to get what they want. They know what can and cannot be done. They know the political reality in a way that most people don’t. I’ve learned a lot there.’ Which is not to say that Kumar is displeased with the loud voices of protest she hears from citizens. ‘Somebody has got to fight against the immorality of various organisations so that they become just a little less immoral.’
To what extent can Kumar – who comes from the country of Mahatma Gandhi and returned there after a stint in New York – advocate violence to bring peace a little closer? The deep frown on her brow betrays the complexity of the question. ‘I sometimes wonder if it is not hypocritical of me to speak romantically of the Spanish civil war and yet to be critical of violence in my own era. I have often campaigned for intervention in Bosnia and was angry that we waited so long. A great deal of suffering could have been avoided if we had intervened sooner. The point is that we do not truly want to commit ourselves. We are ready to drop bombs, but then refuse to send in ground troops. The point is that you cannot be half-hearted about this.’
And yet Kumar sees that in certain countries, such as here in Brazil, a radical stance – using violence if need be – can lead to radical change. But doubt lingers. ‘Ultimately you may make the situation worse. In this day and age I also see that violence can be counterproductive.’
She mourns the loss of values and dignity among her fellow countrymen and the violence that results. She sees that Indian intelligence indiscriminately accepts Western value systems and concepts. ‘There is no power at all in this second-hand manner of thinking. Our beautiful spiritual heritage is being squandered.’ Paradoxically, her time living in the hotbed of western values helped her reconnect with a profound Indian wisdom: to turn deeply within. ‘I call it taking a break and have only recently begun to understand how important it is. Not only for myself, but for negotiating processes.’ Over a half-century ago, British negotiators learned the power of silence from a negotiator who single-handedly brought the British Empire to its knees. Gandhi also took breaks at regular intervals, during which he remained silent for an entire day. The frustrated Brit who stood waiting for Gandhi on such days was sent home with the message: ‘I am sorry sir, Mister Gandhi has a silence day.’

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