Life is a journey and we are all travelling in time and space. Yet, when one gets out for work each day it is commute. When one visits a place, has local food, and clicks pictures around the structure it’s called tour. But when one meets people and share stories and feelings, sit with them to co-create an experience one travels. Each day we have something to learn, but when we go to places we as well leave behind what we carry in our everyday lives. We grow a little more than usual and become different as humans. A journey in Hindi is called a yatra. Swaraj Yatra can mean both a Yatra to find the meaning of Swaraj or to experience Swaraj. The journey gradually unfurls for me that while one thinks one lives in an independent company and has a free will to make decisions, one is actually constricted by the vision to think and act in a certain manner.
In this structure of Education one has the opportunity to learn in foreign languages, learn foreign sciences which mould them aptly for office work, which by the forces of standards created in society, are perfect careers that are aspired for. One forgets to value their own interest in music, dances, art, sculpting, gardening, cooking, sewing, stitching, home making, architecture, etc. And if at all, they are only valued in a manner that the western world has appreciated. One seldom values a handmade sweater by their mother or grandmother so much as that displayed in the winter collection of Manish Malhotra.
Swaraj means self-rule. To be happy in life, humans seek to respond to their natural instincts and to own and control their lives. Democracy developed with time in society, to help us make our own decisions. On the first day of Yatra, Pradyuman ji invited us to think upon whether the structure that we live in is a representative or a participatory democracy. We only cast our vote once in five years and barely has any say in the decisions made at the policy level. What is even difficult in today’s scenario is to truly have a choice with regards to political leaders. Almost all of them do not intend to serve the public and can only be differentiated by ideology rather by real work that they have done or policies that they might have followed. At the community level we are as colonized as when we were under the British, with the only difference now is that we have people we consider our own to control and channelize the collective resources of the nation for a few.
At the personal level we are bound by our consumerist tendencies from food and clothing to telecommunications and entertainment, from having a life around money, to a feeling of security which comes only with money. Having less money, having less clothes, or products, or food, or buying less, or even caring less about having more is looked down upon. Do we really rule our lives? Or are these illusions that the market has created around us. As automation started in the world it was expected to bring us more time for us and the community, but ironically now we have no time to look back, reflect, think about future or even experience the present.
The story of Swaraj Yatra runs with the story of yatris. We started from Nagpur to reach out first destination, a village called Menda Lekha, owned and controlled by the tribal people of Koye community. When someone first asked them who they were, they said Koye, which meant humans, in their language. We met Deva ji who asked us the most simple questions, which were the most difficult to answer. The magic about this village was that they fought a battle and earned back the ownership and control of 1800 hectares of forest that their tribe had maintained since time immemorial. Such a mass action is only possible by the community and not by any individual. About 500 people in the village have retained and developed a culture of consensus decision making, which involves absolute agreement rather majoritarian agreement. All members in the community shall agree and be satisfied with a common, collective decision. Some very strong life lessons came our way, and with it came to light the fact it is not only Devaji who believes in the wisdom of community life and togetherness but also each member of the community. All members agree and resolve in matters of dispute and consider and value the time devoted by others in the community. The community decided on the collective ownership of local resources and embraced traditional practice systems. And at the same time they as well questioned earlier customs and mend them in cases they were problematic. There was a true sense of consciousness that lead to rational decision making. A barefoot walk in the forest as suggested by our facilitators, made me feel in the present, and truly experience each step that I walked. The natural environment also, in my understanding makes people more down to earth.
We spent the day under the shade of a cool neem tree while the night was spent under brightly shining stars. The real question that stood staring at me was what was my idea of development and where did that idea take us. The development we seek today is more automation, more money and more individualism. But does that make our lives more happy and peaceful? And have we not borrowed this idea of development from the west? Having been brought up in an almost western structure we do not hesitate to call those unlike us as underdeveloped and underprivileged without understanding the peace with which they live. Development means different things to different people, then why is one model of development more prevalent and generally accepted? Should we not ask people what they want before we facilitate any kind of development?
In stark contrast to this question, we observed at Hemal Kasa, Shri Prakash Baba Amte ji facilitating and building for the adivasis the western idea of development, which has not passed the test of sustainability or sovereignty. Prakash ji has been working in the area for 30 years now and have helped the tribal community to heal their wounds and set up a western styled school, hospital and other so called qualitative services for the tribals. He works with utmost humility and the selfless desire to protect not only the tribals but also the lives of animals and plants. What does learning mean in true sense for a child, to freely room about forests and to learn by observation the skills he wants to learn, or to learn from teachers in organized structures, subjects and materials prepared by them? Do children have the sense to learn everything that is essential for them to survive, or is it necessary to impose on them a particular kind and set of information? Sahyatris from our group also dissented to the way Prakash ji displayed animals and to the way they had been kept inside cages, even though with love and care. Prakash ji, did not hesitate to answer any of our questions. And sure believed in what he contended.
Our next destination was a tribal village where until the day no other visitor had arrived. Lalsu Ji, our local facilitator and tribesman took us to Parainaar village. We reached in the evening and sat amongst people in the ex- headmen’s house. We were getting introduced to the population which was mostly hunter-gatherers, foragers or farmers. They asked us what was it that brought us to their village. The answer to this may vary person to person, but I would say there was no peace, no matter how tall we live in a high rise apartment. Why then is the western model called developed and these tribal people who live with a sense of abundance called underdeveloped. A louder word or an idea propagated intensely stayed with us all and with becoming the most popular one it also became the most desirable kind of development. People across communities started to identify themselves with a distant idea without evaluating if it was good enough to be adopted. This village appeared fairly untouched by modernity. The warmth and calmness at this place touched our hearts. They offered us taadi, which is an alcohol obtained from a tree, with red ant chutney, which sure was really spicy and tasty. After dinner they sang and danced around the fire, beating big and small drums. They were inclusive of us and they even let us even play the drums. The deeper realization about the village was the sense of satisfaction that they felt about being together, like family. They smiled and felt free to give as much love they had. The togetherness amongst them made us feel what home meant in a true sense. In the morning we roamed the village and saw their way of living. They offered us grains, fruits, vegetables and more, without a concern about how much they had. They believed in hands-on-skills and open-learning. We sat with people where everyone came together. Among the many interesting facts and traditions of the village, one was that a person was not allowed to marry if they did not know how to dance. There was peace and beauty in abundance in the village for one to behold.
Next we reached Wardha, where we stayed at Dharamitra. The structure was made of sun dried brick and was totally sustainable. We visited Gopuri, Sevagram Ashram, Center for Science for Villages and met Pamila Tai, Vasant Phutane ji, and Vibha Tai. The institutions and people gave us hope for alternative structures and vision that one must have to bring change in the world and actually care about the environment and society. The most important learning from Wardha was about shaping children and what letting them grow rather than making them grow in a particular direction. To let children have knowledge about their roots and retain their connection with nature to stay connected to their true self.
Swaraj Yatra meant to seek Swaraj not just for the self, but also how one can really exercise it. It unfolded for me scenarios and directions which I had not known and never thought upon. My sahyatris had their own unique stories. All of them were concerned about the environment and about finding their true self. Their perspectives were different and reflected their unique journeys in life. I would say the yatra initiated me in the journey of finding my own Swaraj.
Mahima is from Bhopal and is currently a Khoji at Swaraj University. She is interested in building alternatives in politics and mind-body healing processes.
She wrote this article in March 2019, soon after experiencing Swaraj Yatra jointly hosted by Travellers' University and Conscious Connections.
After the yatra, she decided to quit her Law studies in Mumbai to truly explore what her real needs, interests and inclinations are, and in the process joined Swaraj University in Udaipur to take the ownership of her learning in her own hands.