Monday, July 18, 2011

Message of Gandhi in Medellin

Be careful.. Friends advised me when I told them I was going to visit Medellin, notorious for kidnappings, murders and drug trafficking. Another set of friends also gave me the same advice but for a different reason. They were jealous...Medellin women, are reputed to be the most beautiful in Latin America. So you could imagine my accompanied baggage full of fears, expectations and fantasies with which I reached the city on 7 July. But I was in for a totally different surprise. I found a Mahatma Gandhi Foundation there celebrating Festival of Non- Violence, started by a Gujarati... Mr Harivardhan Shah.
So my first visit in the city was to the Gandhi Foundation. Shah described it as ¨an organisation that seeks to reclaim Life and to rebuild Hope in a city that no longer wants to see its children die in the street either by a bullet or at the hands of a murderer¨. The Foundation's objective is ¨to teach everyone that, it is indeed possible to restore the hope that violence has stolen from us. This begins only when each citizen consciously decides: not to contribute any more to the culture of violence that surrounds us and instead to do something to build a peaceful coexistence, not only with others, but also within oneself¨.
The Gandhi Foundation has an auditorium for meetings. There are two full time employees at the office of the Foundation, located on the top floor of the factory of Mr Shah.The local authorities, NGOs and some companies support the foundation and its activities with thirty percent of financing while the remaining seventy percent of the funds are from Mr Shah himself. The local media has given wide publicity praising the work of the Foundation.
The Foundation celebrates Gandhi Jayanti every year with seminars, workshops, candle-light marches and events in schools and colleges. They invite the people ¨to find solutions to the problem of violence in the city - initially in oneself and then to replicate those solutions with the people around them. The Foundation teaches yoga and meditation to help people to achieve inner peace and harmony.
The Foundation does not preach within the safety of four walls. They organise campaigns at the Metro stations and streets and even in dangerous neighbourhoods such as Comun Popular which is rife with crime and narcotrafficking. In Colombia they call the slums as Comuns. The Foundation holds solidarity meetings with the victims of violence. The volunteers of the Foundation work the Metros and streets with banners in spanish which say,
- If you are at peace with yourself, there is atleast one peaceful place in the world.
-There is no way to peace.. peace itself is the way.
-eye for an eye will make the world go blind.
The Foundation distributes Gandhi masks and spectacle frames to the marchers. Some Colombians dress up like Gandhi during the marches, as in the photo below.

Colombians with Gandhi masks, in the picture below.

Shah himself was a victim of the Medellin violence. Once, a gang of armed robbers attacked his factory at gun point and took away everything they could. Second time the robbers threatened to shoot him but he took a risk of diverting their attention and managed to escape. Then a criminal gang put his name among the list of people to be eliminated. At this time he thought of leaving Colombia. But his two daughters, who were born and brought up as Paisas ( inhabitants of Medellin) did not want to leave. They were firm and convinced Shah that they should live and die there itself.

In the picture above- Mr Shah.
The Gandhi Foundation focusses on the youth who are the potential recruits of criminal gangs. The Foundation works with schools and colleges and teach the students tolerance and compassion and the need to respect others with different beliefs. They tell the adolescents that they must change themselves first before expecting the world to change. Their most important programme is to develop, nurture and multiply young leaders. They select leaders from the schools through a series of interviews. The young leaders are given scholarships to pursue their higher education. These leaders carry out the campaign of non-violence and participate actively in all the Gandhi events. When these Medellin young leaders tell the other youth about non-violence it makes a greater impact than if Shah were to give lectures himself. The only condition the Foundation lays down for the leaders is that when they get jobs and settle down in life they must help at least two other deserving candidates and mentor them. One of the interview committee members had a doubt and asked Shah, what if they do not help others? what is the gurantee?. Shah , who is as much a pragmatist as an idealist replied, ¨Do we seek such a guarantee from our own children when we invest in their education that they would help the parents?¨.
Sara (in the picture below) is one of the Gandhi Foundation scholarship holders. She studies business management. To my question as to what kind of company she would like to work, she responded quickly and unhesitatingly, ¨I want to start my own business.¨ I asked her about the public response to the campaign for non-violence in which she takes part. She said that the kids in the slums were initially curious. Later some of them turned positive and wanted to know more about Gandhi. She told me that the non-violence campaign has made some of the young people to think about the situation in Medellin in a new light with a different approach.

Shah has been living in Medellin for the last 36 years. He went to work there as a chemical engineer in a local company after completing six years of University studies in Germany. He fell in love with the beautiful city, pleasant weather ( they call it as eternal spring since the average temperature is 21 degrees). After some years, he started his own factory to produce chemicals.
Shah and his Gujarati wife Hasita as well his two daughters speak to each other in spanish all the time. They have a creatively designed country house where they hold retreats for the Gandhi Foundation scholarship holders.
Shah is also the mentor, guardian and Guru for the 80 Indians most of whom have come to the city for IT projects. He and his wife are avid and competitive bridge players and participate in the national and regional tournaments. Shah dances Salsa and Tango, throws fiestas for the smallest excuse and lives upto the Latino philosophy, ¨We do not stop having fun when we are old. We become old only when we stop having fun¨.
With such a broad bandwidth of Gujrati mind and Latino heart Shah has made Mahatma Gandhi meaningful to Medellin in a practical and pragmatic way.
Here is Mr and Mrs Shah at the their country house..

More info on the Gandhi Foundation at

Medellin is not alone in rediscovering Mahatma Gandhi. There is a resurgence of interest in Gandhi's concept and practice of non-violence across Latin America which is facing a growing challenge of urban crime and violence. Policy and opinion makers and intellectuals realise that policing could deal only with the surface part of the problem. They want to go to the roots and cultivate a new culture of non-violence in the hearts and minds of the young people. It is in this task that they find Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration and his ideas relevant to the Latin American situation.