Five Questions for Jill Carr-Harris

Elisabeth Khan gets the essential info for anyone following—or walking with—the year-long Jai Jagat march for nonviolence, from the heart of India to the heart of Europe.

By Elisabeth Khan | 2019-10-01 12:00:00

Elisabeth Khan: First of all, Jai Jagat 2020 is described as a year-long, global march for justice and peace. In his lifetime Mahatma Gandhi successfully used foot marches to force social and political issues. Skeptics will ask: Is this kind of nonviolent action still relevant in our time?

Jill Carr-Harris: I think what is relevant in our time is the need to continually engage people in political and social issues. In fact, Gandhi’s marches originated when he was faced with this behemoth—the British colonial administration—that had an absolute grip on the Indian subcontinent at the time. When the people feel that they have no say, when there is no structure available for them to speak, or when the leaders are not listening, there is a need to engage in order to be heard. That is not the time to give up. Using different nonviolent strategies—and there is a whole range of them—is actually the only thing that will work.

Gene Sharp, a prominent non-violence strategist who was influenced by Gandhi, has said that the power of dictators comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern—and that, if the people can decide together to withhold that obedience, a dictatorial regime will crumble.

Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth, in a 2012 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, demonstrates how, over 100 years of social and political movements, nonviolent movements clearly have been more successful in causing change than violent ones.

It’s true that violence is everywhere nowadays: in society, in politics and in the economic system that has become so unequal, also in the sensationalism of the media, where there are so few human-interest stories… The continual bombardment of violence numbs people, that leads to hopelessness. In countering this, we are conducting the Jai Jagat march. This is an effort to gather many individuals together who, like fireflies, will bring flickers of light in the darkness.

EK: The action will start in New Delhi on Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, October 2, 2019. What will happen on that day, and in the following days, weeks, and months?

Jill Carr-Harris: Every year, the government of India commemorates Gandhi Jayanti (Gandhi’s birthday, a national holiday) at Rajghat, the site of Gandhiji’s samadhi (resting place). This year being his 150th, we wanted to do something more than simply offering flowers to his tombstone. Rather we will have a flag-off ceremony with about two hundred people, and we will then convene a meeting in Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, an international youth training centre located in Chanakyapuri, Delhi’s diplomatic enclave. A two-day Peace conference will be held there. On the afternoon of the final day, a four-month march will begin through India, followed by an eight-month international march that will culminate in another conference in Geneva.

EK: Tell me a bit more about the participants and the itinerary.

Jill Carr-Harris: Fifty people will join a caravan for the first leg of the Indian march. Arriving in Morena three days later, which is about 300km south of Delhi. Then there will be the first nonviolent youth training. From there four padayatras, or foot marches, will begin in different parts of the country. The caravan is the main yatra but some stretches will be bridged by van. Of the four padayatras, one group will walk from Porbandar, to Dandi via Ahmedabad. Another group will cover the Western Ghats. A third will cross Northern India and go to Bangla­desh, and the final one will be from Chennai to Rameshwaram.

Over four months, along the way, eight major non-violence training programs will be organised. The participants will sleep in village huts and interact with local and indigenous people. The groups will intersect at different points, and eventually come together in Ahmedabad on the 30th of January 2020.

Meanwhile, a separate, fifth, group consisting of about 20 international visitors from countries like Kenya, Argentina, and France will also walk in the footsteps of Gandhi, visiting Sewagram, Sabarmati, Bodhgaya, etc., to learn about nonviolence “on the road” while keeping the local-global link alive. For all the participants, it will be a deep, educational experience, laden with symbolism, relating to the events of Gandhi’s life and bringing his vision of ahimsa into the limelight.

Non-violence is a practice; it can’t be learned from books alone. Once it becomes extensive, it can become an inclusive, bottom-up movement, that starts from the village level upwards to the government. Traditional power at the top presses down and leaves out many people, which is a process of marginalisation.

The main march will pass through communities that have found their own non-violent solutions to grassroot-level problems. These case histories will be written up and shared on a website. Many of these experiments were inspired by the Sarvodaya movement, a term coined by Gandhi to signify “the uplift (or welfare) of all,” which was taken up by Vinoba Bhave in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and which had a lasting impact on villagers to self-organise up until today.

EK: Since this march will be crossing many international borders, I imagine it must have been difficult to obtain permission and, even more so, to gain some support from the governments of the countries involved?

Jill Carr-Harris: Yes, it’s not that easy to get ten governments on board. Political tensions can get in the way. So, currently we have to travel from Ahmedabad to a Gulf State and then take a boat to Iran. Our fifty marchers will reach the Islamic Republic of Iran at Bandar Abbas. Indians are well liked in Iran, so we will be welcomed there. And to comply with local travel regulations, we are working with a tour company. We will spend 25 days in Iran, from February 8 to March 4, starting in Shiraz and ending in Norduz, at the Armenian border, which will be our point of entry to Armenia and the Balkan countries.

Once crossing into Armenia, we will be welcomed by the Gandhi Foundation of Armenia. Did you know that Nikol Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of that country, is a Gandhian? In April 2018, he led a peaceful regime change, the Velvet Revolution, in which not one pane of glass was broken! From there we will cross the border into Georgia, which also has a Gandhi Foundation, and like its neighbour, managed a bloodless change of power, the Rose Revolution, as early as 2003. So these two countries in the Caucasus, sitting on the cusp of Asia and Europe, are extremely supportive as, in fact, their leadership was educated in nonviolence by us.

It’s important to note that a new Cold War appears to be building, and Eastern-European countries are under pressure from both Russia and the West. Where participating in an arms race can be seen as a way to build a country’s GDP, it’s important to stress alternatives like non-alignment and soft diplomacy.

In the last week of May, we will cross the Black Sea by boat, landing in Varna, Bulgaria. We will travel to the capital, Sofia, by bus. Then it’s on to Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia, again in a combination of foot marches and bus travel.

From Split, Croatia, we will cross the Adriatic by boat to Ancona, Italy. We will then walk to Assisi and, from there, northwards to the Swiss border. We plan to cross from Domodossola in Italy to Brig in Switzerland on September 5, and march on to Geneva over the next three weeks. Various events are planned along the whole European route, culminating in the Geneva Action Forum, which will welcome 5000 marchers. Also, in the summer of 2020, several groups from other continents, as well as other European countries—Africa, South America, Spain, Belgium, etc.—each bringing their own focus and creating their own itineraries, will join us in Geneva. We will convene outside of Geneva on the 26th of September and all of us will march into the city together with the support of hundreds of people from various Geneva townships. What a parade that will be!

EK: Ihow did you find all these people?

Jill Carr-Harris: In fact they found us. After our successful 2012 action in India, Jan Satyagraha, which was a 100,000-strong march for land rights, many people from different countries wrote to us.

EK: I know you have been involved with nonviolent actions in India over the past few decades. What has been your role?

Jill Carr-Harris: I started in India 35 years ago, having come here with United Nations Development Program for a one-year project, looking at social forestry. After coming to India, I did not really feel that I was cut out to be an international bureaucrat, and after five years of working with the UNDP, I resigned in order to put my energies with Indian civil society. So I came to India for one year and ended up staying thirty-five years! I had been interested in India because it is a pluralistic society. I found that Gandhi’s influence on rural society was still very strong.

Village women were teaching me about swaraj, self-reliance. I noticed they all had little paperback books about Gandhi. That’s how I became interested in nonviolence and Gandhi. My exposure to these women’s lives led to a deconstruction of my ideas. I began to see that India’s development methods were more relevant to other developing countries in Asia, Africa, and South America than Canadian and USA development models. For that reason I founded an organisation called South-South Solidarity, that worked on building cooperation between South Countries. The idea was to organise exposure-and-exchange visits of Indian leaders, so they could learn and share with their counterparts in other South countries.

I found that most NGOs still operate on the model of middle-class people collecting money to help poor people. But when I met Rajaji (i.e. her husband PV Rajagopal), who was the president of Ekta Parishad, a Gandhi­an mass movement focusing on land rights, I came to understand more about grassroots actions of people leading their own development, without money. I got involved in this work and at one point took the responsibility for the women’s wing, or Mahila Manch, of the movement.

But I had to go through a baptism of fire, both in my new role as an activist standing up for principles against public opinion, and in my efforts to be accepted, as a “foreigner” in India. The inside and outside roles were not easy to juggle. Although the village women had always welcomed me, I basically had to reinvent myself. The villagers did not see me as a foreigner; they readily assumed I was from somewhere near the northern border. But Indian society is still very male-oriented, so as a woman you are quickly relegated to the sidelines, and the current politics are more Hindu-centric, and thus suspiciousness of outsiders continues.

It helped that I had learned the language, wore Indian dress and bindi, but I decided to do more than that. I went back to University to get Master’s in Community Development and Adult Education, and then went on to (almost) complete my dissertation for my doctoral degree in Education. By taking up research activities, I was able to complement my status as a woman and someone who was not born in India. In addition I took up the task of peace training, using Gandhian methods, where I focused on helping marginalised people voice their opinions in a nonviolent way.

EK: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Jill Carr-Harris: What we teach is a new path to leadership, not through power and money, but through aligning oneself with people. Although I do not pretend to be from the grassroots (as I have been socialised as a middle-class person) I can help take the Gandhian ethos to the global level. The Jai Jagat campaign has been deeply fulfilling. The experience of leading a global movement out of India is incredibly exciting. It is exciting in terms of the change we can try to get going in different countries, and with the UN agencies and bodies. In addition I hope to write about it. The University of Toronto graciously granted me a three-year extension to finish my doctoral dissertation integrating the global march into it, so I hope it will give me a chance to reflect more deeply on what such a march can achieve in peace-building.

Elisabeth Khan is an India-based freelance writer.

Jill Carr-Harris is a Gandhian activist and co-founder of Jai Jagat.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2019, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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