Have Sight, Lack Vision

March 25, 2016

A long time ago, there lived a very wealthy man. He had an incurable affliction. His eyes were in constant pain – excruciating pain. For years, he looked far and wide for relief. At last, a monk, who had the expertise to treat such an ailment, was found. The monk prescribed a remedy: the man should only look at the colour green – his gaze should not fall upon any other colour. The rich man and his staff got into action right away. His palatial house, furniture and everything he could possibly see was painted in green or covered in green.  A few weeks later, when the monk came to visit him dressed in his maroon robes, the staff poured buckets of green paint on him too. Drenched in paint, the monk laughed and with great wisdom simply said, ‘If only you had bought a pair of green tinted spectacles, you could have saved so much money and effort…. You can’t paint the world green.’

The moral of the story: Let’s alter how we look at things. If only we could apply the monk’s simple strategy as a principle for life.  Altering our perspective to accommodate our needs and also the limitations of others will only improve relationships, bring peace and happiness.

The story makes me wonder: would the wealthy man have pursued his extravagant strategy had he not been so rich?

The story could also offer lessons for the ongoing European eyesore: the migrant crisis. The recent agreement signed between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to deal with the migrant crisis is disturbing. According to the agreement, the EU will disburse 3 billion euros already pledged to Turkey and provide a further 3 billion by 2018. Turkey will take back all migrants and refugees, who cross over to Greece illegally across the sea. In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees from Turkey and move towards granting Turkey membership to the EU.

The refugee crisis has left Europe divided and confused, struggling to find a solution.  First, the refugees were welcomed. Then fences came up. And now, irregular refugees are to be returned. There is no clear plan in place to manage this reverse migration and protect the rights of those who will be returned. Will Turkey provide all of them the right to asylum, the right to work, the right to a dignified life? How will this agreement stop migrants seeking alternative routes to reach Europe? As per BBC reports, there has been a spike in migrant traffic along the very dangerous sea route across the Strait of Sicily.

So the rich nations appear to have discovered a wealthy solution to the tragic humanitarian crisis. Seen through the prism of life, this solution is painfully off colour considering that the rights of refugees stand to be sacrificed at the political altar of wealth.


Protect All, Protect Everywhere

December 30, 2015

How would you like to remember 2015?

A year of migrant crisis, a year of unabated ISIS terror or —on the positive side — the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and agreement of the UN Climate Change Conference on reduction of global warming.  Starting with the Nepal earthquake in April, the year remained rife with disturbing news.

More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, thousands perished on the way.

Thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the UN, were killed and more are still being killed in the Gaza Strip. 

From the bombing of a mosque killing 137 people in Yemen to the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt, to attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, the ISIS showed it is a threat everywhere.

Nigeria’s military killed and quickly buried at least 300 Shia Muslims in an unjustified attack in the northern Zaria district in December, according to Human Rights Watch. Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky is being held by the police despite demands for his release from illegal detention.     

As the year comes to an end, it is time to reflect and draw lessons.

There were words of sympathy over attacks in Yemen, Syria and Beirut but it was only after the Paris attacks that the world powers initiated some joint action against ISIS. Shouldn’t the loss of human life anywhere draw similar responses from world leaders and the media?

While statesmen failed, people used social media to influence some positive action.

Who can forget the image of Aylan Kurdi — a three-year-old Syrian boy — lying face down on the beach? On twitter, the hashtag, #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (“humanity washed ashore”) sparked an international outcry. The little boy became the human face of the migrant crisis.

In the US, Sophia, a young girl, was terrified on hearing proposals of Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the country. Her mother shared the child’s anxiety on Facebook:”She began collecting all her favorite things in a bag in case the army came to remove us from our homes.” Kerri Peek, an Army veteran, saw the post and was horrified. She reacted positively. To reassure the child, she posted her picture in uniform on Facebook and asked the mother to share it with Sophia with her message: “ Here’s a picture of me as a mom and soldier and I’ll come to protect you.”  Peek started the hashtag #iwillprotectyou and invited other military service members and veterans on social media to pledge to protect Muslim children like Sofia from being discriminated against.

Let’s hope love will prevail over hate and the spirit of  #protectallprotecteverywhere will drive us, statesmen and media included, in the New Year.

Wishing everyone a peaceful 2016!

 

 

 


Righteousness in the heart leads to peace in the world

July 28, 2015

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam passed away doing what he was loved the most — speaking to young persons. He would not just lecture them. He would interact with them. On occasions, he would make them repeat his words. He encouraged youth to dream success and work hard to achieve it. He dreamt for a developed India. His vision and ideas would continue to inspire generations to come.

Dr. Kalam came from a humble background. He studied against all odds to become a well-known scientist and the President of India who was described as the people’s President. He touched millions with his books, speeches and ideas. But more than anything, he touched everyone with his humility.

Messages of condolence and grief are pouring from all over. I am writing because I too feel a sense of loss.

As a scientist, Dr. Kalaam contributed immensely to the success of nuclear tests but he also used his knowledge for the benefit of people.
Excerpts from one of his speeches:
‘One day an orthopedic surgeon visited my laboratory. He lifted the material (carbon-carbon material developed for Agni) and found it so light that he took me to his hospital and showed me his patients.
There were these little girls and boys with heavy metallic calipers weighing over three kilogram each, dragging their feet around. He said to me: Please remove the pain of my patients.
In three weeks, we made the floor reaction Orthosis 300 orthopedic center. The children didn’t believe their eyes. From dragging around a three kilogram load on their legs, they could now move around! Their parents had tears in their eyes.’

I loved watching his videos. One of my favourites is his speech at the European Parliament during the 50th anniversary of the formation of the European Union.
“Where there is righteousness in the heart. There is beauty in the character. When there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home. When there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world. ”

I hope his message would resonate with all world leaders and citizens. We are seeing violations of human rights and conflicts affecting so many parts of the world.
The best tribute to Dr. Kalaam would be to introspect and develop righteousness.


Inadequate action to save innocent lives

July 30, 2014

‘The hall is almost full but I can see some empty seats, said a speaker at the opening of the International AIDS conference in Melbourne on 20th July 2014. Six delegates who were on their way to the conference were on MH 17- the ill-fated flight that was shot down. The conference mourned for its delegates and all 298 people who perished in the Malaysian plane crash.

Samesh, a four-year-old boy was shot down by an Israeli tank while plying in the garden of his home in Gaza. Heart breaking images of dead and injured children as well as adults are doing the rounds on social media. Over 1000 people, mostiy civilians, have been killed since the conflict began on 8 July. Killing by the Israeli forces continues unabated while the world watches.

What can one say to the families of those who died in Gaza and in the MH 17 crash? Would any words of condolence suffice? None of these people should have died.

It is time to ask ourselves some hard questions: Is the international diplomacy failing? Would the economic sanctions on Russia and the temporary cease-fire in Gaza be enough? It is certain that the world is doing too little to stop actions that are taking innocent lives. Right to life continues to be violated. There are many forums to discuss human rights violations but less to take concrete action against those who violete them.

Efforts to resolve the Ukraine-Russian conflict and stop Israeli attacks on Gaza strip have been far from adequate. All of us should be united in finding solutions to the crisis. The life of a child in Gaza is as precious as that of a child from anywhere in the world. Silence is not an option. These innocent deaths may be the acts of few but they go unchecked due to inaction on the part of majority. While the EU and USA are joining hands to apply economic sanctions against Russia; similar action does not seem to be under consideration for Gaza. The US congress is all set to clear $ 225 million to Israel to boost its iron Dome missile defence system. Ironically, the Obama administration is pressing for a cease-fire in Gaza but it has backed the Israel’s request to replenish its missile defence stockpiles, knowing well that these missiles have killed civilians more than the so called militants.


Lives which could have been saved…

March 31, 2014

It was young Fizza Malik’s third day at work. She had returned to Pakistan to practice law, wanting to make a difference to her country. She was one of the eleven people killed in a brutal attack in a local court in Islamabad in March 2014. A promising life was cut short.

Irfan Ali, 19, died in a massive bomb blast that killed over 100 people in Quetta in January 2014 in Pakistan. His mother died as well, hearing the sad news.

“We were praying in church and in the middle of the prayer the blast took place. Too many people lost their lives, mostly women and children,” said Peter Masih, describing a bomb attack at a church in Peshawar in a TV interview.

Why should anyone be killed because of his or her religious faith and practice? The article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that: Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. And, as per the Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right…to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion…

In spite of such clear provisions in the international law, sectarian violence is on the rise in several parts of the world. Innocent people are being killed. The issue was discussed at several side events at the recently concluded 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The annual report of the UN Special Rapporteur: Tackling manifestations of collective religious hatred- was also launched at this session. A video based on media coverage of sectarian violence in Bahrain, Malaysia and Pakistan was shown in one of the informal events. It can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwOjKH5J4rk

I attended a few of these side events and informal discussions of civil society organizations and activists. Some of the highlights of the discussions are as below:

– There was a consensus that religions don’t cause hatred and violence. Tolerance, peace and harmony are messages common to all religions. Sectarian violence, therefore, is engineered or ‘caused by human action’ as is mentioned in the report of the Special Rapporteur.

– The state has the primary role to protect rights of its people; immediate confidence- building measures are called for, inter-faith dialogue needs to be continued; education systems need to be revitalized to promote tolerance; and media has to play a very important role.

I heard some reassuring messages: we need to create a society in which diversity is celebrated; minorities become a majority when they come together, we need to stand up and fight together, etc.

One hopes these words will not be lost. Organizations will come together and work with governments and the UN to take action, both in short and long term. Another important issue that must be looked into is the psycho-social and economic support that needs to be provided to the families who have lost their near and dear ones. Charitable organizations are making their contribution but long term sustainable programmes need to be put in place. Families should have a regular source of income and children should not be deprived of education.

Will there be some concrete follow up and action till the next session of the Human Rights Council? There must be. It is not just the issue of right to religion, it has become the issue of right to life.

My apologies, Fizza, I couldn’t argue your case properly.


Madiba, you will live on in our hearts!

December 7, 2013

As the elderly gentleman walked onto the stage, slowly, unassuming, and assisted by a person on either side, the over 20,000 people present in the hall rose to their feet. The resounding applause continued for around 10 minutes… not wanting to fall short of the stature of the honoured guest — Mr. Nelson Mandela. The occasion was the closing ceremony of the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, in 2004. It was also his 86th birthday.Uday Sahai with his sketch of Nelson Mandela

The applause was much longer than the emphatic speech he made. Said Mr Mandela, ‘The best birthday present I could receive is a renewed commitment by leaders from all sectors of society to take urgent action against HIV and AIDS.’

I was fortunate to be there at this momentous occasion — to feel the impact of his presence, to see the respect he commanded, to listen to him and to be inspired.

How can one person influence so many?  I found my answer in the words of Mr. Mandela himself, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” He made a difference not only to the lives of his generation but for generations to come. His struggle against apartheid, and the victory achieved after much personal endurance went beyond the fight against racial discrimination. It symbolized the struggle against oppression, against personal freedom and against the violation of rights.

He also taught us the right approach to fight discrimination.  He wrote after his release from prison, “I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites, but I had none. In prison my anger towards whites decreased but my hatred for the system grew.”

Words are never enough to describe the loss of a person such as Mr. Mandela.

He is revered across generations. When school children in India are asked to do a project or a presentation on a famous personality, they choose Nelson Mandela as much as Mahatma Gandhi.  I have the pleasure of sharing a fantastic sketch by Uday Sahai, a 10-year-old school boy in New Delhi. The sketch captures just how much Mr Mandela belongs to all nations, not just to South Africa. When I shared this sketch with my former director, who is from South Africa, she was touched and said, “It is a most beautiful image of our beloved Madiba.”

May God bless your soul, Madiba. You will live on in our hearts!


A class that empowers all ages…

August 31, 2013

Ever seen a class that brings together a 30-something mother and her 9-year-old son?…a class that includes children and adults of different ages and cultural, religious and economic backgrounds? …a class where students pen poems, learn about world events and discover themselves?

ABT class picture

Well, such a class is run twice a week in Bhendi Bazaar, Mumbai, India, on the premises of a local school, thanks to the voluntary efforts of an old couple — Mr. and Mrs. Haider. They have been running it for a number of years now, under the aegis of Aboo Mohammad Trust.

It is difficult to imagine what would be the purpose of such a heterogeneous class. While the primary objective is to help pupils improve their spoken English, it does much more than that. It enhances their general awareness, keeps students focused on their career goals and builds their confidence, self-worth and public speaking skills. The class is fortunate to have a soft-spoken, caring and inspiring teacher in Mrs. Khan. Over nearly two decades and a regular commute from quite a distance, Mrs Khan has been enthusiastically teaching each session with a blend of current affairs, vocabulary and warmth. I have been visiting this class for a few years now and I can see a marked improvement in the group. The once-shy students, grappling with a new language, now eagerly share their knowledge on the topic of the day and jot down new words and information. This year, too, I visited the students, along with my family, in August. Whenever we visit, Mrs. Khan asks us to speak to her students. We had a good interaction with the students. They asked intelligent questions, such as the difference between education systems in India and Switzerland. This revealed their curiosity to know the world. I also invited them to speak and share something about themselves. One by one, they spoke about their studies, hobbies, their family and career goals. We were also joined by Mr. Zubair Azmi, who is another great support in this effort. Mr Azmi is the Director of Urdu Markaz (Urdu Centre), a Bhendi Bazaar-based cultural centre dedicated to the promotion and appreciation of Urdu literature. He has graciously made available his organization’s space for the class. He is closely involved, knows the students and motivates them to hone their talent. Based on his encouragement, some students demonstrated their talent before us. We were impressed to hear a poem written by one of the students.  The title of her poem was “Beti” (‘Daughter’) in which she beautifully captured the sentiments of a girl child and the discrimination she faces. While all this interaction took place, Mr. Haider sat behind smiling. Behind the smile was certainly the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of his dedicated hard work.

I must add that the activities of Aboo Mohammed Trust are not run with any donor’s support. Despite health and age not being on his side, Mr. Haider continues to serve the community. Seeing his sincerity and dedication, he is joined by several community volunteers, including doctors and teachers. Health camps are organized for the poor, nursing classes are organized for young women, in addition to the regular language classes. He makes an attempt to inform people about government services and helps them access the services. He does whatever he can to serve people in his area with the help of his wife and several community volunteers. I wish him health and a long life. His ideas and projects are doing a yeoman’s service for the community. I asked Mrs. Khan how she joined this effort. She said, “I came to know about Haider saheb’s work from a newspaper and phoned him to inquire how I could help. It has been over 17 years that I have been teaching here… it has changed my life….these are the golden years of my life.” Mrs. Khan is very humble to say this when in fact she has touched so many lives.  What a great example of dedicated community work! This voluntary effort may not be slotted under the category of `good practice` in the journals of the development sector, nor be presented at conferences, but this effort is certainly a great practice. May God bless all those who are a part of it.