The universality of Mahatma Gandhi’s message of peace and kindness and his contemporary relevance was the common sentiment expressed at the first World Youth Conference on Kindness held at the Vigyan Bhavan in the national capital on Friday.
Inaugurated by President Ram Nath Kovind, the conference, organised by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP), was based on the theme ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Gandhi for the Contemporary World: Celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’.
President Kovind invoked Gandhi to impinge on the urgent need for peace and tolerance in our daily lives and for the greater good of society. “Following Gandhiji’s footsteps, we must let ourselves and our children interact and engage with those whom we tend to define as ‘them’. Greater interaction is the best way to develop a sensitive understanding, which can help us overcome our prejudices,” he said.
<p “width=420″ lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Education needs to go beyond mere literacy.
Addressing the conference, actor Nandita Das emphasised the need for kindness and compassion even as she laid bare some current realities in our contemporary society that create dissonance by fomenting violence, prejudice and hate. “At a time when we are looking at justifications to hate each other across the world and in our country, Mahatma Gandhi’s quote comes to mind ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’. To put this intent out there is very important,” she said.
The conference’ raison d’être was to impart critical competencies such as compassion, mindfulness, empathy and critical inquiry in youth across the world to inspire, empower and enable them to transform themselves and build long-lasting peace in their communities in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Among the panellists at the conference were founder and president of Metta Center for Non-Violence Michael N Nagler, Neuroscientist at UNESCO MGIEP Nandini Chatterjee, executive director at The Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University Ramin Jahanbegloo among others.
“We know a lot about Gandhi, acknowledge him, but don’t emulate him. We are neurologically wired to be kind but the atmosphere we have created has done the opposite. So be kind every day because it’s a win-win situation and has a multiplier effect,” said Dr Anantha Duraiappah, Director, UNESCO MGIEP.
To amplify the message, last year, UNESCO MGIEP launched the #KindnessMatters for the SDGs campaign on the International Day of Non-Violence or the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2. The central goal of this campaign is to mobilise the world’s youth to achieve the 17 SDGs through transformative acts of kindness.
The act of kindness, however, also needs to be seen through the prism of social justice as well. Because peace without justice is no peace at all, said Das, with crisp clarity. “How do we go about business as usual when we see injustice meted out to someone in front of us? We are all complicit in this silence. Speak up when you see injustice. You and I are a product of what we watch. How do we know they impact us? When our responses to situations change. The way I know I am different is how I respond to situations now,” she added.
Ramin Jahanbegloo agreed. “Gandhi talked about the otherness of the other. Dignifying the otherness of the other is doing justice. How do you bring ethics in everything you do and this is where you can bring peace and non-violence,” said Jahanbegloo, adding that kindness is a virtue of interconnectedness, a multidimensional view of life. He emphasised that there is more than one answer to kindness and “if any politician or academic tells you there’s only one approach, don’t believe them”.
But how can people embark on this journey of kindness?
An awareness of the self is a good starting point, said Nandini Chatterjee. “Kindness begins with self. There’s a biological way in which we behave. We are all wired to generate oxytocin. We like being connected to others. Acts of kindness activate the reward circuits in our brains.”
“The more we can develop an awareness of the fact that we need to be kind, we become better human beings,” said Nagler, who has studied and explored the space of peace and non-violence for over 50 years. “We can grow, learn progressively to be kind. But to be kind can be very challenging, especially when people dismiss kindness as an act that only nice guys and girls can do. But it can be a positive force if adopted correctly.”
Attaching a sliver of spirituality, Nagler attributed the virtue of practising non-violence to ‘subtle energy’ that can come from an awareness of self. “Non-violence is a power that arises from our awareness of unity with others. There is a level on which the decision of being kind or unkind works. It’s something that operates on subtle energy. I do not think that peace and justice can happen without non-violence,” he explained.
What panellists at the forum also threw light on was the need for resilient and adaptive individuals for rapidly changing environments. A critical aspect of kindness also deals with empowering youth to promote long-lasting peace in their communities and carry out transformative acts of kindness. In this context, the story of Liberia’s Usman Kromah, who was one of the 60 global youth selected for the conference, was poignant.
“I was born in Ivory Coast, left to Guinea as a refugee and came back to Liberia after war, so I don’t want a child to be born that way,” said Kromah, who is part of the Pan-African Volunteers Network and works for peace-building, environmental protection and gender equality.
“I came back home in 2008 after the Liberian Civil War was over. After I returned, I saw a lot of people traumatised by the war. So we as an organisation gave people the agency and that is how they take the message of peace ahead. We also go to schools and talk about the importance of peace and climate change. We tell people that if you want to solve a problem, then start at the genesis of the issue,” said Kromah.
In the same vein, Das said that people are constantly finding the other to dislike, to be prejudiced against. She said there are many ways of seeing the same world and explore another way of living to reduce dissonance in individuals and communities.
“Sometimes we all are overwhelmed by the problem at hand and we think how can we alone make any difference. But together we all can. And if we continue with that motto, we will be closer to the dream that Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela envisioned,” Das said.