the inevitability of peace

srilatha batliwala

From Montreal, I am dialing across the world to interview Srilatha Batliwala in Bangalore, India. It feels timely that we are talking about peace and women's leadership while the news networks guess at what the next few months will bring war, more conflict, UN "resolutions." As a young woman, I can't help but notice the lack of women's voices, faces and signatures in global decision-making processes.

Srilatha Batliwala has been working for peace her entire life. Her work has been wide-ranging, from initiating grassroots people's movements in South Asia to working at formal institutions such as the Ford Foundation and Harvard University.

As I speak to Srilatha through the crackling phone connection, I am struck by her hope and by the light she brings to these heavy issues. In the face of rising divisions between peoples, religions, ways of life, North and South, rich and poor, she holds onto her optimism. It becomes clear that her commitment to action and reflection is deeply rooted in her spirituality.

Vanessa Reid   Do you think peace is possible? And what is peace?

Srilatha Batliwala   Obviously, peace is much more than an absence of war. For me, peace would be a state of affairs, a process, where the disenfranchised, the poor and the most marginal citizens could actually take part in democratic processes of decision-making. There would be genuine citizenship. Peace would also mean a situation where there were sufficient resources made available for people's needs to be met. And I think the final aspect it's obvious would be that all forms of violence are eradicated: that we just don't tolerate violence against people because of their gender, or their race, or ethnicity, or religion, or for gaining access to resources or territory.
      Not only is peace possible, I think peace is inevitable. Because of my work with grassroots people, I know that if you leave people alone and give them an opportunity to think about the larger picture and give them the resources and the power to create a safe and peaceful life, they inevitably opt for peace. They opt for peaceful solutions. But the narrow vested interests that intervene in that process tend to damage, divert or distort this basic instinct for peace. Still, I am hopeful. I think people are going to get so tired of this phase of conflict, instability and insecurity that they are going to demand peace.

VR   Do you think that women and men have the same role in building peace?

SB   I think the role and the responsibility are the same, but I think the way women do it is very different. I think what women are willing to give and to give away for the sake of peace is very different, in fact. I think women have a greater capacity to think in more longitudinal terms I'm not saying they always do it, but left to themselves they generally think of things much more intergenerationally. They take a long-term, big-picture view what would be good for the children, for their families, for their communities.
      If women were in charge of political processes, and they really worked with their own consciousness, I think they would do it very differently than men have up to this point. Because they'd be willing to concede things and give up short-term benefits for the sake of long-term sustainability and peace. I have seen incredibly poor women give up immediate gains for the sake of a longer-term goal, against severe odds.

VR   I know from working in community development, that this sort of work can be very draining. What allows you to keep going and remain hopeful?

SB   In answering this, I'm coming from a very different space that of my own spiritual journey. This is a message I really want to send, especially to younger colleagues: that I have physically inhabited different institutions and locations in my life, but fundamentally there's only one real space that I occupy and that's an internal space, which is deeply spiritual.
      The philosophy that I practise, both in the external world and in my internal life, is essentially the Bhagavad Gita philosophy. This teaches that we have a responsibility to act righteously in the world and to act to correct the wrongs that we see around us, but we cannot get attached to those actions and, even more importantly, we cannot get attached to the outcome of those actions.

VR   If you're working so hard to achieve something such as peace, how can you not be attached to the outcome?

SB   It's very hard! You do it by understanding that while you have agency, you occupy a universe in which many, many forces are at work. And you are only one of those forces. You do it through humility. You must understand that this approach does not mean giving up – it is opposite to the widely held misconception that Hinduism preaches abdication from the world, and fatalistic passivity. You are not allowed to give up and say "Oh well, I tried that, it didn't work! So it's over for me." You have to keep going back, reconsidering your actions, and trying to do it a different way. But you have to keep acting for the just cause, for justice. You cannot feel defeated when the outcome of your actions is not what you had hoped.
      This is a very different philosophical position from what might motivate a lot of activists in the world. I think one of the problems that we face in Western cultures is that, over time, both the liberal democratic position and the capitalist ideology have led people to believe that everything that exists in the world is what you create. This belief has inflated the individual's sense of responsibility and control. And it's very dispiriting. We don't have the capacity to know destiny; we're too small. The only thing we have the capacity to know or to determine for ourselves is how we must act. We don't have the capacity to know what the outcome is, so we must surrender to the outcome. And start again, if necessary.
      I don't get dispirited. Even right now when it's a very black hour in the world, I don't feel defeated, because I have this internal resource. I go deep within myself and tap into that energy – the shakti – and then I can make sure that I have the resources to go back to the external world and stay involved.

Vanessa Reid spent close to a year working in Gujarat, India with BSC, a grassroots organization that works to empower women and tribal communities. She is now in Montral, and is executive director of Santropol Roulant, a nonprofit organization run by young people that brings people together across generations and cultures through innovative approaches to food security and community building.

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