Coordinator Trip Report - India
1 - 14 October 2006
From: Bruce Gagnon
This report covers the period of Oct 1-14 as Mary Beth (MB) Sullivan and I traveled to India on behalf of the Global Network. Our five-city speaking tour was initiated and coordinated by J. Narayana Rao from Nagpur who is a leader of the group called All India Peace & Solidarity Organization.
After two very long flights, with a long lay over in London, we arrived in Chennai (formerly called Madras) along India’s southeastern coast. Our plane landed around 4:00 am and we took a cab to our hotel in downtown Chennai. Even at that time of day the traffic was quite intense and we quickly learned that driving in India went by very different rules than we were used to. Cars don’t stay in lanes and horns serve as turn signals to warn others on the road while they weave through traffic, barely avoiding trucks, buses, bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, people and animals.
Our host in Chennai was Global Network board member Sri Raman. Sri is a journalist and a leader in the Indian anti-nuclear movement, which has grown dramatically since India first exploded a nuclear weapon in 1974. (The nuclear test was called Smiling Buddha.)
October 2 was Gandhi’s birthday and we took the day to rest and adjust to the time change. We hired a motorized rickshaw and went to see the Bay of Bengal and a Hindu temple. The driver turned out to be a great guide and took good care to teach us as much as he could with his broken English. That evening back in the hotel, on Indian TV, I listened as two Texas fundamentalist preachers promised “super-natural blessings” to anyone who obediently followed Gold’s wishes and sent them $8,500 – whether they have it in the bank or not. God only responds to faith they told the listeners.
The next day we took a site seeing trip to one of the 16 World Heritage sites at Mahabalipuram to see the monuments and temples. The long cab ride along the beautiful Bay of Bengal took us past many signs of grinding poverty as we saw poor fishing villages made of palm fronds and tarps, people bathing with buckets of water along sidewalks, goats and cows everywhere and garbage piled along the way. In the afternoon, back in Chennai, we went to a public event commemorating Gandhi where Sri’s Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace had an anti-nuke display. There we met members of the peace group that included a doctor, union leader, several journalists, a physicist and others. They reported that initially the Indian people were proud that they had developed the nuclear bomb, seeing it as a symbol of a great nation, but that in recent times people were becoming more thoughtful about the dangers and ultimate cost of the nuclear arms race.
On October 4 Sri’s group organized a news conference for me to speak with the media. Thirteen different media outlets attended, including several TV stations. Two large papers, The Hindu and Indian Express were there as well. MB and I spent the afternoon searching for an Internet café hoping to check our emails and nearly got killed trying to cross a busy street. Once on-line we learned that another GN board member, Bob Anderson in New Mexico, had been arrested when he stood up at an event organized at the University of New Mexico promoting the development of nuclear weapons. Bob had dared to question why there was no one opposed to nukes on a five-person panel and when he said that nuclear weapons were genocidal he was attacked, handcuffed and hauled out by the police. As the U.S. lectures the rest of the world about the evils of nuclear weapons it is important to recognize the hypocrisy of America as it builds new generations of nukes.
Late that evening, after a wonderful dinner with several activists, Sri and another journalist took us to the train station at 11:00 pm. They waited for the train to arrive and carried our bags on-board for us as we learned is the custom in India. They sat in our sleeper coach and waited until it was time for the train to pull out before they left. I hardly slept at all through the night as the herky-jerky motion of the train, and the excitement about the coming trip, kept me from falling asleep. Starting about 6:00 am the train kitchen crew began walking the aisles selling chai coffee, chai tea and breakfast.
We arrived in Visakhapatnam on October 5 and were meet at the train by A. R. Subramaniam from the All India Peace & Solidarity Organization. After taken to a guesthouse to freshen up, our hosts immediately took us to a private school were we both spoke to an assembly of over 150 kids and teachers. The kids were 14-15 years old and the elaborate stage behind us had a huge poster of Gandhi with many of his core beliefs written on it. I went first and MB began folding origami paper cranes and she put them on a table in front of us on the stage. When it was her chance to speak she told the story of Sadako Sasaki from Japan. After the program MB gave the folded cranes to one of the woman teachers who was showing intense interest in them. The teacher was thrilled and immediately asked MB to teach her and the kids how to fold them. So they sat down on a doorstep, completely swarmed by a flock of girls, and began to fold. At the same moment I was approached by another flock of the school kids who wanted me to write something in their schoolbooks. I wrote about a different piece of my message in each of their notebooks in the hope they would further discuss the ideas in class.
Before leaving Visakhapatnam on the train that evening there was a small meeting arranged for us at our guesthouse. One man, a former government official and nuclear physicist, was particularly agitated about the U.S.-India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act that passed the House of Representatives on July 26, 2006. (See how your congressperson voted by clicking on this link) http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2006/roll411.xml
Everywhere we went in India our peace activist hosts were talking about this nuclear deal that will help India build as many as 30-40 more nukes a year. They could not understand why the American peace movement was not more aware of the bill that will dramatically increase nuclear tensions in Southern Asia, already a flashpoint for nuclear war as Pakistan and China will be forced to respond to India’s nuclear expansion. It became clearer to me that the U.S. intends to use India as a “military outpost” in its aggressive attempt to surround and “manage” China in the years ahead. The U.S. weapons industry is arming Pakistan and India, playing divide and conquer in the region, and making enormous profits in the process from the resulting arms race.
While in Visakhapatnam we were introduced to the people who have created the non-profit Ashoka Eye Hospital to help the rural poor get treatment for cataracts, glaucoma and other eye ailments. They treat 15,000 patients each year. One of the leaders of the effort, J.V. Prabhakar, reminded me of Muhammad Ali. He looked very much like Ali and also had the deep integrity and fierce determination of the former boxer. As we were preparing to head to the train station for the next leg of our trip I began to think that when I returned home I wanted to try to raise some money to send back for the eye clinic as a way of saying thank you for the kind hospitality we had received in Visakhapatnam. Just after coming to that decision Prabhakar approached me and asked me if I could help by raising some funds for the hospital. It was as if he had read my mind and this only made me more certain that it was the right thing to do. (If any of you would like to contribute to this fund that I will raise for the clinic, please send a donation to the Global Network and mark it for the “eye clinic” and I will send all money collected to India.)
I learned that in India today more than 300 million people live below the poverty level. That is the same number of people that live in the entire U.S. today. It is an enormous number of poor people. And what makes me furious is that the U.S. is trying to drag India further into the global arms race. The U.S. is now attempting to get India to create a “space command” so that they can join in the effort to militarize space. Imagine how much poverty will grow in India as the U.S. drags them further into becoming a regional military outpost for the empire.
After another all night train ride, I slept better this time, we got off in Raipur. We were taken to a Catholic church where we could shower and rest for a bit. It was here that we first saw elephants on the street. What a wonderful surprise! In the course of the day I spoke at two colleges and then MB and I spoke at an evening program at the church before getting back on the train about midnight.
In Raipur we learned about the government repression of indigenous populations in Central India where 60,000 people have been forced out of the mineral rich region. Maoist parties are fighting on behalf of the people with the government calling them terrorists. India has created its own version of the Patriot Act, modeled on the U.S. version, and is being used to go after internal opposition. A pipeline has been built to move iron ore from this central region to the coast where it is then loaded onto ships and taken to Japan. Japan is somehow putting the ore into the ocean, storage for future use, probably to build more of the cars that we like to buy in the U.S. and around the world. http://www.pucl.org/
India is in the middle of 9% economic growth. Bankers are pushing loans onto the growing middle class and encouraging them to buy cars, cell phones, fancy clothes and other material goods. About 20% of India’s total population of 1.1 billion is now middle class. India “shining” it has been called by the right-wing BJP political party, which was recently voted out of power. The “liberal” Congress party now runs India, in coalition with several left parties, including the Communists that controls three state governments. But activists complain that the Congress party, very much like the Democratic party in the U.S., is controlled by the corporate globalization agenda.
On October 8 we arrived in Nagpur at 6:00 am. We had about two hours sleep on the train from Raipur. We barely got on the train, our hosts in Raipur had to plead with, and bribe, a train official to get us a 3rd class sleeper bed as I saw one of our friends offer a 500 rupee note in hopes of squeezing us onto the packed train.
J. Narayana Rao who had organized the entire trip for us met us at the Nagpur station. Rao has been a Global Network contact for many years though we had never before met. I had not known that three times in recent years he, at his own expense, had printed journals called Disarmament and Development and devoted them to covering the space work of the Global Network. He wanted to help us bring our message to India during Keep Space for Peace Week, thus the invitation to come in early October.
Rao is a retired railroad worker who now volunteers full-time in the peace movement. He lives on a very meager pension and, as we were to learn, is a top-notch organizer. Rao arranged for us to stay in a government guesthouse and after a quick shower he brought us to the center of town with many others to hang garlands of flowers on a Gandhi statue. (This is the same statue that appears on our 2006 Keep Space for Peace Week poster.) From there we spoke at a forum organized for the community that drew about 125 people and later in the day MB was invited to speak to the Nagpur Women’s Club about the impact of wars and terrorism on women and children.
Every time we spoke on this trip we were first presented with bouquets of flowers and often with beautiful shawls. Many times we were also given gifts and by the end of the trip we had to purchase another suitcase in order to carry the lovely presents home with us. One of my favorite gifts was a five-volume set of selected works of Gandhi, given to us by Rao.
During my first talk in Nagpur I held up a copy of the morning Indian English language paper that I had quickly read before breakfast. In the paper was an interview with the Indian Air Force Chief of Staff that mentioned that they were now planning to merge the Air Force and Indian nuclear forces under a new Space Command. Little did I know that the author of the article was sitting in the audience covering my talk and as it turned out we had articles about our speeches in several newspapers three out of the four days that we spent in Nagpur.
One very exciting thing happened while in Nagpur. We met a group of 11 medical students who had heard about our visit. They contacted Rao and said they’d like to come and took a 12-hour train ride, at their own expense, to spend two days in Nagpur attending our speaking events. They told Rao afterward that they’d like to be part of a national students organization he was trying to foster and he told us that the many meetings with students during our stay was going to be most helpful in his effort to activate young people.
On October 9 MB and I spoke to more than 125 students at the College of Commerce and later that day to 75 students and faculty in the Economics Department at another Nagpur college. Late that evening, around 10:00 pm, I also spoke to a Rotary Club made up of local businessmen.
On October 10 we were taken to nearby Sewagaram to see the Mahatma Gandhi ashram where he lived during many of his most active years. This simple but beautiful place, adorned with large trees planted by Gandhi and his followers, really brought home the reality about how Gandhi had made non-violence and Indian independence the central work of his life. Simple living, taking care of the land, spinning their own cloth, and active resistance to the British Empire all flowed from these small wooden huts with mud and stone floors. It was a very moving experience for us to touch this place.
During this busy day we were also taken to the nearby Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences to speak to over 100 medical students. I talked to them about the dangers of putting nuclear power into space and also the social costs, to a poor country like India, of participating in the U.S. Star Wars program. How can India take care of its poor people and create a space command I asked?
Gandhi had asked his private doctor to create a hospital for the poor. This huge facility, now teeming with patients, first began with two beds. It is a real testament to Gandhi, as we saw over and over again, just how much his prophetic vision had helped prepare India for independence and a decent future for its people.
During this same day Rao, as he did for every meal we ate, arranged for a different person to be in charge of hosting us. For lunch Dattaji Meghe, a member of the Indian Parliament and Chancellor of the Datta Meghe Institute of Medical Sciences, another teaching hospital that serves the poor, feed our small delegation at his office.
On October 11 Rao had three more talks for MB and I arranged in Nagpur including two wonderful events at the National College of Social Work and at the Women’s College. At each event more than 100 students heard us speak and they asked piercing questions about the U.S. role in the world and the lack of response by the American people to our corrupt government. In the afternoon we spoke at another medical school to 75 students.
It was hard to say good-bye to Rao and the many other good friends we made while in Nagpur. Being able to spend four days with them gave us a real chance to share the local life of the people as we were taken to home after home throughout the city.
On October 11 we took the train to New Delhi, our last stop on this long journey from south to north. We arrived in New Delhi on October 12 and local hosts organized a news conference for us attended by 10 different newsmen. New Delhi, an enormous modern city, has the world’s worst air pollution I read while there. Walking down the street one can breathe in the equivalent of 20 cigarettes. The next morning we boarded a plane to make the long flight home, again with a six-hour layover in London.
In the London airport we picked up a UK newspaper and I noticed a feature story about the U.S. population hitting 300 million. The story explained that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population though we use 25% of the world’s energy. Thus the need to keep our military boot on the necks of the rest of the world so we can extract the “necessary” resources to maintain our standard of living. The article said that in the U.S. today five pounds of garbage are produced for each person while in developing countries, like India, they produce one pound of trash per day. In the U.S. each person uses 350 liters of water per day while in Sub-Saharan Africa the average person uses 10-20 liters of water each day.
Our experience in India was a dramatic reminder to MB and I about how we live here in the U.S. Scientists say that in order to continue life on Earth, the way we humans consume today, we will need six more planets in the coming years. The corporations, who are pushing global consumption today, tell us not to worry. They have six planets in mind they say and they are now preparing the technology to go mine the Moon, Mars and the asteroids for precious minerals. Just keep forking over our tax dollars they tell us so they can prepare to mine the sky.
We learned much about Mahatma Gandhi during this trip. His non-violent way of living on our Mother Earth is more relevant today than ever before. Gandhi calls on us to change the way we live and to give up our addictions to food, material things and gas guzzling cars. MB and I came back asking ourselves many important questions about how we should live.
We thank our dear friends in India for this wonderful experience. We thank you for giving us your time, your hearts, and your love. We are proud to work alongside you as we all try to live out the teachings of Gandhiji.
Bruce K. Gagnon