Social Action

The beginning

Visthar has journeyed from a small support service agency working out of a single room, rented space to a lively campus with arteries in nearly every area and level of social activism. From the beginning, Visthar recognised the need for perpetual introspection and evolution in response to India’s varied social and political climate. The internal environment of Visthar was also of equal concern to us.

Visthar was founded and registered as a  Trust in  1989.  At the very inception itself, David invited me to join the team. While maintaining its role in capacity building, Visthar stayed true to its name and spread its wings. We looked at the connections between the work and struggles of several small  NGOs and recognized larger problems and power structures that impeded their work.  We knew that the only answer to these challenges was a broader, more holistic political and social transformation.

The early nineties was a significant moment in time to initiate a Civil Society Organization (CSO) in India. Internally, the rise of religious fundamentalism and development induced displacement, gave little voice and space to the poor and the marginalized. Externally, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and the pressures of a cold- blooded global market made civil society in the Global South feel like an afterthought to the forces of globalization. In India, this new world order ushered in a uni-dimensional vision of development and progress. The disenchantment with socialism also snuffed out much of the usual idealism found among young people. The dramatic changes brought about by globalization were viewed critically by those in civil society. The stage seemed to be set.

Visthar saw the links between socio-political and economic forces and sought to address these complexities with holistic perspectives and practices. In a context where the relationship between art and social action was tenuous, Visthar opened up the space for artists and activists to explore the role of art in social change. We began a cultural critique of development led by our colleague and well-known artist C F John. We vigorously explored questions such as – Is our concept of the development just a follow-through of the Western model? Is there an indigenous model that includes the people and their cultures? We felt that unless we looked at the connections between ecology, culture and spirituality, whatever development we talked of, would have no meaning.

In the first two years, we had our feet in nearly every level and type of engagement. It was apparent that our vision for a “humane, egalitarian, participatory and ecologically sustainable society” would take us through a complex web of related quests. What that journey would be like was still unimaginable for us. It was a time when dissenting voices were co-opted into the paradigm of the market as mass media sought to de- sensitize the public. Resistance and Hope became our catch phrase. Believing that unity of thought leads to unity of action, we brought together activists, academics and intellectuals for critical reflections on various issues. We were committed to the process of connecting people, experiences and ideas. This became the key methodology for Visthar.

Development, not destruction

As India began to drown in debt, it was forced  to accept and adopt global capitalist monetary management programs. The new policies began to define the pattern of social spending within India. In order to understand how the decisions made at world headquarters were affecting large sections of marginalized Indians, Visthar organized a meeting    of prominent economists and activists. They addressed issues such as the impact of New Economic Policy (NEP) and measures needed to sustain micro-enterprises and vulnerable livelihoods. Several groups were formed and educational campaigns on the NEP were planned. And we learnt that the privatization of healthcare, education and other social services meant that the underprivileged were denied of essential services. An export-oriented market also changed production habits. Where there had been bio-diversity and sustenance farming there was now development of cash crops. The massive injustice to the powerless was not part of the NEP’s cost-benefit analysis. Visthar took the initiative to sensitize the public, especially the rural poor, on the implications of these policies and strategies to collectively resist them.

The starting point for sensitizing the public on the development paradigms in India began with our association with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA-the Save Narmada Movement). C F John and the team from Visthar visited the Narmada valley, met with the NBA leader, Medha Patkar and the people in the valley.  Inspired,  we started a  campaign in support of the struggle to stop the dam and ensure people’s right to life,  livelihood and identity.  In  1994,  Visthar organized thousands of students from over  15  schools.  We had extensive interactions with these student groups, screened documentaries and initiated discussions that helped them to critically debate the idea of development, the costs involved and also to understand the struggles of the people of Narmada Valley from that point of view.  This was a  great moment in  Visthar’s history as the entire team got involved, fired by a passion beyond words.

Education for democracy

The   Save   Narmada   Movement   went   beyond Narmada Valley. It reached out to revive public consciousness   on   issues   of   democracy   and India’s emerging identity. As we approached the golden jubilee of India’s independence in 1997, the concern for the future of India’s democracy absorbed our thoughts. Something needed to be done to ensure that democratic processes would uphold people’s interests through the changes in development. Inspired by Citizen’s For Democracy founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, we initiated the campaign, Students for Democracy.

In conversation with young people, Visthar sought to reinvent the notion of ‘development’ so that students would be able to distinguish good development from destructive development. True development while recognizing differences affirms each person and community to be equally important and provides space for all to develop and develop differently. The success of the Save Narmada Campaign and Education for Democracy among young people gave a lot of encouragement to our team. We maintained the same activities with schools and colleges in Bangalore under the new title: Students for Democracy. The goal was to help students internalize the systems of democracy and respond to the realities in their own schools and neighborhoods.

The campaign, Students for Democracy, led  to  Manthana, a  forum for college students. Manthana in Kannada means churning, and the wisdom that comes out of deep thinking, shaping and analyzing. The objective was to enable youth to ‘read their reality and shape their own destiny’. In our understanding, both the media and political structures had deprived students of the learnings that are rooted in their lived realities. Visthar team worked tirelessly to sensitize the students on secularism, gender and caste discrimination, and other social systems and processes. They also discussed how the processes of liberalization, privatization and globalization were connected to their personal lives and helped them explore alternatives. In addition to educating for political awareness, Manthana exposed students to art, theatre, dance and music.

Cultural resources for social action

Right from the beginning, we felt the need to have deeper reflections on ‘the emancipatory and spiritual possibilities of culture’. ‘A culture that speaks of humanity and democracy; a culture that finds its echo in the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. It is an appeal to think anew of  a  politics  rooted in economic and social justice; ecological and environmental sustainability; plurality and diversity; decentralization and devolution of power; ethics, love, compassion, tolerance and the rule of law’ (Artists Unite).

Looking at the challenges and barriers we faced in our journey,  we  felt  the need  to  revive  our  work  in  the  area  of  culture  and  art.  Art  for  Social Transformation was one of our primary foci during 1992 – 2003 when artist C F John was on our team. In February 2003, with the support from  the  India  Foundation  for  Arts  (IFA),  C  F  John,  choreographer/ dancer Tripura Kashyap, and visual artist T M Azis presented Walls of Memories, an event around the well in Visthar. The event comprised of a series of 15 installations and a performance inside the well. There were several other installations and exhibitions on various themes held during  this  period.  We  were  deeply  convinced of  the  power  of  art  to  inspire  resistance  and  offer  alternatives  that are sustainable and inclusive. In this process we need to bring in and strengthen the folk art forms and nurture the talents and skills of youth from marginalized communities. Visthar Ranga Shale (VRS) is a small effort in this direction.

Beyond the binaries: Gender and diversity

We began our work in the field of gender and diversity in 1991 with an introductory workshop on Understanding Feminism facilitated by Kamla Bhasin and  Vasanth  Kannabiran.  This enabled us to see things with new eyes.  Visthar was extensively involved in the pre and post-Beijing efforts. By 1995, we were deeply convinced about and committed to evolving gender perspectives in development and have facilitated regular gender workshops and trainings.

Visthar offered various fora for community leaders to delve deeper into themes and look at issues related to the economy, education, health, violence etc. from a gender perspective. Apart from this, we facilitated several gender training programmes in India and offered sustained perspective building programmes for Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) in south and south-east Asia. We were convinced that gender equality must be accompanied by changes in other fronts such as caste and class as they were all inter-connected. We felt that without minimizing the intensity of Dalit issue, we needed to see it in perspective by addressing the linkages between the struggles of women, Dalits and the working class. Over the years, social activists, students and various professionals have all benefited from these gender training workshops.

Towards alternatives in living and learning

We have been groping analytically, but never stopped exploring new avenues to make ourselves relevant. In the mid-nineties, Visthar acquired a 6-acre plot in the outskirts of Bangalore. This beautiful and rustic land soon became the epicentre of our work. It was our dream to set up a campus and a training centre that would facilitate our programmes. It became a reality as we started working on the land and designing the spaces with a rustic aesthetic sensibility. We wanted to keep our goal of empowering the marginalized at the forefront and hold ourselves responsible for our actions in both dialogue and lifestyle. In order to keep these priorities, we determined that the campus must be a manifestation of what the organization stood for ideologically. We worked hard to ensure that the issues of livelihood, gender discrimination, cultural domination and environmental degradation were not jeopardized for the sake of promoting Visthar as an institution. Our question of relevance in a constantly changing global environment hung in the air as a prayer for direction. ‘Resistance and Hope’ continued to be the theme during those years.

We recognize the symbiotic relationship between earth and humans and our responsibility to nurture and restore ecological integrity. Our earth has been a native habitat for herbs and plants of healing, beauty and fragrance. In our intricate webbing with the world around us, they are influential and beautiful strands that we feel must be held together for a balanced living.

The journey must continue

The growth and development of Visthar has been organic, responding to felt needs: external and internal. What began as a ‘support service’ organization from a shared office space has grown and diversified. Visthar currently has a campus in Bangalore and another in Koppal employing over 40 staff engaged in varied fields of work.

This includes educational programmes, community based development activities, conference and retreat centre and an eco sanctuary. Visthar was primarily a support service organization in the beginning years, providing a platform for conversations between activists and critical intellectuals. Our profile has changed over time, with the introduction of educational and community advocacy programmes.

The journey has not been without hurdles. There were times when we, as an organization, were faced with a crisis of confidence. At times we felt we no longer had a grasp of issues and their ramifications. Everything seemed to be complex and contextual. Our responses had to be space- time specific, and we often wondered if we had the depth, the competence and the commitment to respond relevantly and meaningfully to the challenges around.

Anchoring ourselves in the struggles and hopes of the marginalized, we continue groping, searching for relevance.

Mercy Kappen