Reflections from 2016 Global Symposium on Social Connectedness at Montreal
Submission from: Mamta Borgoyary, CEO, FXB India Suraksha
An inexplicable excitement seemed to shadow me as I pirouetted through immigration. I am a frequent traveller resigned to the tedium of questions but I was taken by surprise at my own anticipation of visiting Montreal for the Second Global Symposium on Overcoming Social Isolation and Deepening Social Connectedness. The secreted hope of running into Justin Trudeau, the young and progressive Prime Minister known for his candour and walking into public spaces without notice also added to the excitement.
The Symposium was to be held from the 25th till the 28th of October 2016 at the Mc Gill University. I am thankful to the Synergos Senior Fellowship community for giving me an opportunity to attend the Symposium. More than a 100 thinkers, activists and community leaders from across 23 countries gathered to develop a shared perspective on the importance of social connectedness in community driven change for development. Waiting to board I surfed through the event website and was struck by the simple yet artistic logo. There is Cheyenne (Native American)
Curious and anxious at the same time, I stepped into Mc Gill University. Away from the refreshingly clean yet chilly wind I found myself scouting the hall for my colleagues from Synergos. I was once again struck by the unadorned hall designated for the meeting. The effortless set up with only rows of chairs and blank white boards lurking in the background once again drew my attention towards colourful logo of orange, green and blue. The colourful convergence of shapes towards the centre seemed apt for the event and its location. McGill University located on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehaka, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange among peoples.
The symposium started with an indigenous ceremony led by native elders and leaders of the First Nation of Canada. This session set the tone for the rest of the symposium and for each one of us, reminder of how disconnected we have become as a civilization. Their simple and humble mannerisms in tune with nature exposed how in the name of development we are socially disconnecting those who are voiceless or in minority, and how aggression has eroded humanity of its humaneness. As I heard the elders thanking mother earth and recognising the values of family, reminding the importance of compassion and empathy, I realized how badly we are caught in a web of complexity created by ourselves.
The next few days, through firsthand accounts I was exposed to the anguish and pain that the native people of Canada went through when they were annexed by the ‘Canadians’. Using the rationale of education and development, children were taken away from families and put in residential schools where they suffered terrible mental and physical traumas. The sensitivity around the extremely emotional reconciliation process was a major learning for me as someone who works in an organisation, FXB India Suraksha that is striving to give voice to the marginalized. Development needs to be enmeshed with dignity and rootedness and not super imposed by external experts who believe their knowledge is the best solution.
I learnt connectedness is a two way process- something that in our hurry to achieve our targets, we forget. I realised how short sighted we have been in designing the development agenda in a world- where those who are privileged decide who is and what makes them poor. When the group of elders stood up during one of the session and said- ‘you think we are poor and steeped in poverty, but we do not agree, we are rich, we have enough and we are grateful that mother nature takes us care of us. We do not need what you think being rich is all about- did you ask us when you were deciding that for us?’. They reminded us how in the name of education, the natives have lost their language as currently only 7 of 23 languages are known and spoken.
Drawing similarity with the conflict around indigenous movement in India, this symposium made me understand at least in part of the complex issues surrounding identity and existence which seem to instigate and sustain conflict. The 461 aboriginal groups called “Scheduled Tribes” in the Constitution, a designation invented by the British, are considered to be India’s indigenous peoples. In mainland India, they are referred to as Adivasis, literally indigenous peoples, account for 8.2% of the total population at 84.3 million. Unofficial estimates however state the number of such groups as high as 635. These tribes live mostly in the seven states of north-east India, and the so-called “central tribal belt” stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal. India has had a long history of indigenous peoples’ movements aimed at asserting their rights. India has several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for mainland India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-governance. The scheduled tribes are represented in the central parliament and state legislatures in proportion to their population in each state; there are reserved service posts for them, seats in professional schools and colleges, and other examples of “affirmative action”. In the last few years, massive uprisings around identity and rights between mainland and tribal communities across different pockets of the country has been a frequent reality. Their demands range from a separate state to separate nation.
Those who are determining rights are socially disconnected to the identity and culture of those for whom they are intended. What is to be reconciled and seek forgiveness for what? they say. The word ‘reconciliation’ is not even entertained by those in charge of this development. The fact is that in the garb of growth, we have taken over, land, resources and tried to modernize ‘culture’ and creating web of isolation for a rich, rooted and connected community, for which we as a country might have to pay a big price.
I thank the native elders, leaders and youths whom I heard and interacted with for reinstating faith among us who believe in connectedness for change. The magic and beauty of the Special Olympiads left me immensely inspired. I also thank Kim Samuel, professor of practice, Institute for the study of International Development at McGill University, for giving this opportunity to be a part this movement on social connectedness, that she started to ensure – “No one should even be made to feel as if they are sitting at the bottom of the well”.
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