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Activism is her middle name

Anita Ratnam, director of Samvada, says middle-class students have now shifted loyalties to high-visibility areas like anti-war and anti-nuke campaigns

Anita Ratnam: `We're part of the problem, and have to be part of the solution.' — Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

ACTIVISM COULD be Anita Ratnam's middle name, except that she would probably spurn the label on the spot. Anti-establishment, anti-doublespeak, anti-jargon, she's all for harnessing youth power to change the world. As she does as director of Samvada in Karnataka, part of the National Youth Foundation, which she chairs.

Anita's growing years were middle-class, urban, cushioned from the Indian reality — at schools in Kochi and New Delhi, an undergraduate commerce course at the Madras Christian College. Her years at the Anand-based Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) followed, with a short stint at NDTV next. But an unnamed discontent gnawed at her spirit until she opted for a five-year stint at SEARCH, which trains staff for grassroots NGOs. Her search led to SMILE (Student Mobilization Initiative for Learning through Exposure), a collective of over 30 groups activating Indian youth, for which Samvada coordinates southern activities.

The result? Registered in 1992, Samvada's Karnataka-wide workshops have energised college-goers to engage in ongoing struggles through NGOs and activist groups. En route, Samvada fellowships have included activists from the National Fishworkers Forum, doctors working with adivasis, architects exploring eco-friendly housing, Dalit leaders and engineers working on micro-hydel projects. The NGO's field studies include a path breaking one on child sexual abuse, an exhibition on people and politics behind clothes, and a seminar-exposition on Dalit art.

"When I first opted for the activist world, my middle-class friends reacted with disbelief," recalls Anita, speaking her truth with quiet conviction. "We're cushioned against realities of feudalism or caste. We're part of the problem, and have to be part of the solution. We can't lead a frog in the well existence."

Samvada has harnessed the idealistic dynamism of lecturers and professionals in architecture, medicine, or even journalism, while its students participated in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Tehri protests, or the Cauvery waters dispute. "We've discovered certain student mindsets. For instance, Bishop Cottons or Mount Carmel girls would go to Arundhati Roy type causes. She's the new role model, not Medha Patkar. Arundhati talks their language, while Medha's seen as intimidating," Anita observes with a smile. "Many middle-class students have shifted to the high visibility anti-war or anti-nuclear groups. But basically, we're looking at issues of democracy and justice."

Through ten college outreach programmes between July and September, through 200-odd annual sessions, Samvada initiates the young into soft issues such as the environment or the family, which may grow into Saturday afternoon sessions on burning topics like the CET or terrorism. Its staff includes Benson Isaac, a graduate of TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), who leads the urban middle-class programme, and Janardhan, convenor of their complex rural team. By degrees, the senior students could take a Society and Me workshop that analyses caste, class, and culture. Or look deeply into Masculinity, Feminism, post-modernism, Marxism or Gandhi. Often, fun inflects the interactions, such as the Haadu Habba, a 24-hour-long yearly exposition of protest songs.

Samvada's centres at Bangalore, Doddaballapura, Yelahanka, Ramanagaram, and Kanakapura introduce youth to spaces for creating social change. "At corporation and rural colleges, the issues touch the students' own existence," Anita points out. "Many are first-generation learners, with no assurance of a government job. We work on their self-worth, as they assess their backgrounds more politically. Often, they are attracted to militant activism within their own colleges or hostels."

"To me, it's as important to rewrite a textbook as to shout on the streets about not exporting flowers to Holland!" confesses Anita, buffeted between grassroots reality and intellectualism. "Being urban, middle-class, single, female, with an adopted child, I'm probably living in a no man's land. As an activist, you're constantly engaging in your personal politics, amidst tremendous opportunities for learning and self-analysis."

How would she shape the world for Tarika, her four-year-old? "She accompanies me to Dalit women's meetings, to five-star hotel seminars. I'd like her to have no religion, no caste, if possible, no gender," Anita stresses. "I would like her to be bilingual, more than I am, not an English-speaking person with its accompanying arrogance."

If Tarika's world differs radically from ours, it will be partly due to Anita and Samvada, for offering youth a new lens to view society with.


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