Manish Jain (Shikshantar)


I first became involved in activism when I was in college in the late 1980s. At that time, I focused on campus issues related to personal and institutional racism against Asian Americans. I helped organize protest rallies, sit-ins, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and even special commissions. I also tried to build bridges first with the African American, Native American and Latino populations then with groups focusing on class, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc. I thought that my ‘politics’ was becoming more inclusive as I angrily fought for the human rights of all oppressed peoples. We could make the System work for all by reforming it so that it gave equal rights to everyone – everyone could have a piece of the pie. But inside something did not feel quite right.


I grew up being told that you needed to have mainstream institutional power if you want to change the world. This meant either lots of money, political influence, academic expertise or military arms. So I spent the next 8 years venturing into the big power structures of the world – Wall Street, Harvard and the United Nations systems, Ministry of Education, NGOs – jumping from one belly of the beast to another, exploring how I could change them from within. As I moved around, I started to discover that there were deeper linkages and assumptions which connected and served to keep in place these power structures. The Game was bigger than just a few ‘bad apples’. I started to have deeper questions about the labels which we used to describe diverse people/lifestyles from around the world (such as ‘under-developed’ or ‘illiterate’), about the framing of peoples’ problems around the world (from a deficit perspective within a larger worldview of scarcity), and around the nature of the experts, technocratic solutions and institutions.


It was during this period that I came across a little booklet by Mahatma Gandhi that was written in 1908 called Hind Swaraj. In that often-neglected piece, he seeks to explore the real purpose of the freedom struggle. He clarifies, “It is not about getting rid of the tiger [i.e. the British] and keeping the tiger’s nature [tools, systems, worldview, etc].” He calls for swaraj (rule over the individual and collective Self) and for the need to look beyond the logic of “modern” colonizing systems of health, justice and technology. I was deeply inspired by his challenge to look at both the ‘ends’ and the ‘means’ in the context of both the personal and the systemic dimensions of our lives. (This had already been a part of my upbringing with Jain philosophy which encouraged me to interrogate the premise that one could create non-violent worlds using violence methods). Gandhi’s insights also gave me space to transcend false polarizing and deterministic TINA (There Is No Alternative) debates of capitalism vs. communism, Left vs. Right, East vs. West, etc. At the same time, swaraj opened up new opportunities to ask more fundamental questions about the nature of progress, freedom, faith, etc. in generative ways rather than through the cynical mindgames that I had been academically trained in.  I also felt the courage to try to move beyond playing ‘big’ power games to fix the State and Market systems. I realized that no matter how clever I was, these only served to further fuel the monster. I started to re-orient myself to a place of asking honest questions about my own complicity and insecurity as well as searching for my own real sources of organic power. Are there forms of power that are not dependent on the growth of the State, NGOs or Market? Could I re-generate these in my own life?


For the past 9 years, I have been trying to explore what swaraj means today in the context of my life and my community in Udaipur, India. I have been trying to understand dignity, wisdom and imagination in new ways that stem from the mundane, the small, the slow, the inefficient, the invisible. How can I live my values today rather than waiting for the System to change?  For this, I have been trying to experiment with creating various hands-on alternatives --  ranging from self-healing to community media to organic farming -- which reduce my family’s dependency on large institutions and re-value physical bodily labour. Much of my own real learning started with our family’s decision to not send our child to school. 


During the process, I have met people from all over the world who are making similar efforts in honestly regenerating their own communities – many of whom have never called themselves activists and would never think of doing so.  One of these people is my ‘illetterate’ grandmother who is one of the greatest environmentalists that I have ever been around. She is not a member of Greenpeace, nor does she have a PhD in environmental sciences. But she is an amazing upcycler. I now feel we are missing out on a lot of possibilities because of our conditioning as ‘Left’ activists. I remember a friend recently telling me that she was lucky to escape her local community because the people there, including her family, were so conservative. I challenged her to re-explore her assumptions  of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ -- there might be things that she didn’t like that were taking place in her community but had she taken the time to deeply look at what were the positive things (practices, stories, possibilities) that were happening.  I think the main struggle in front of us lies in reclaiming control not only over what we choose to see and value in our life, but also how we see and value things.


For me, the most exciting examples of Now Activism in India are those which are seeking to re-legitimize and re-connect to the local knowledge, imagination and wisdom that exists within traditional communities. Giving top priority to regenerating local languages, ways of seeings, expressions and dialogical spaces -- on their own cultural terms rather than through institutionalized and commodified lenses -- is urgent, if we are to find our own ways out of the massive crises that overwhelm us today.  As I meet with friends, there are some questions which seem relevant to explore:

- What else do I need to unlearn to see/tap into new forms of power, identity and relationships?

- What are the diverse ways in which people are self-organizing outside the purview of dominant authority and institutions?

- What are new tools that not only allow us to creatively express our dissent but more importantly regenerate our cultures, our wisdom ecologies, our imagination and our inter-connected beings?