Geneva – My Little Voice in the City of Justice

 Vijay Kumar was one of the group of young people who came to Geneva recently to lobby around the submission that a group of children had written for the Universal Periodic Review of India. Here is his account of the visit:-

A couple of years ago when I was in school I was introduced to the NINEISMINE campaign. It gave me a sense of what even children from the basties (slums) of Chandigarh can do to make the world a better place for ALL. I couldn’t imagine that 25 young ‘slumdogs’ could stir up the nation. Post that cycle rally from Chandigarh to New Delhi, we were able to interact with the Child Welfare Minister and the National Commissioner for the Protection of Child Rights. Later some of my friends even interacted with our Finance Minister Shri Parnab Mukherjee.

That experience and the possibility of changing the world made me dream of joining the Christian Brothers. But having joined St Edmund’s (Juvenate) I thought the NINEISMINE stuff would have to lie on the backburner for a while. But to my surprise I heard that I was selected to go to Geneva. I was speechless. I couldn’t imagine that a boy from Bapudham would make it to Geneva and engage with the powers that be at the Mecca of Human Rights. I was chosen because of my earlier involvement in the campaign and also because I represent the voices of the Dalits (‘Untouchables’), the urban poor, the migrant population and the children of minority communities.

In a short while I found myself on my way to Delhi along with Rikida (a student from Sir Carmo’s hostel) and Ridahun (who was be the sign interpreter for Rikida). Rikida was representing the voices of children from the North-East, the girl-child, disabled children (she is hearing-impaired and speaks in sign language), tribal children, children of minority religions (her father is animist) and also children from linguistic minorities (her family speaks Jaintia).

In Delhi, we attended the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY campaign meeting on exclusion of dalits, women, adivasis (tribals), Muslims and others. We interacted with a number of key persons from the campaign including Ms Annie Namala who is on Kapil Sibal’s Advisory board on the Right to Education. It was here that I first met the last member of our Geneva team Aditya. Aditya was representing the cream of India’s society and one of the beneficiaries of ‘India Shining’. He has educated parents, a seven bedroom house (with seven toilets!!) 24×7 access to mobile phones and internet and goes to one of the best schools in the country (St Columba’s).

Finally we realized that we were hovering over Geneva. Br Brian Bond and Br Pat Bowler both came to the airport to meet us. On reaching their home they treated us as if we are all part of a single family. Br Moy Hitchen welcomed us warmly to the house. Br Peter Harney was in the kitchen preparing Aloo Matar for our welcome dinner.

On the first two days we went to the UN building and on the first day itself we found ourselves addressing a ‘Side-Event’ in the UN Human Rights Council building itself. I was really nervous addressing delegates who represented varied nations and global civil society organizations. I suddenly became conscious that I was delivering my first international speech. But since it was our life-testimonies; the words flowed.

After our speech we were met by a number of other people who expressed hope in our courage and dreams. But a non-resident Indian present at the sharing came up to us later and virtually chided us for portraying India in a poor light. But I guess she was voicing the views of India’s elite 20%. Well, if I’m not wrong, she would represent just that 1% if India who can afford to reside abroad and for whom izzat (Hindi for pride) comes before justice and truth.

On the first Monday we had to make a long presentation of one and a half hours. For most of the time it was Aditya, Rikida and I who held the fort. We shared on the NINEISMINE campaign and the situation in India as well as our recommendations. The audience was particularly attentive to our personal stories of poverty, exclusion and deprivation. Br Peter himself told us that our presentation was a healthy mix of well-researched statistics, powerful-personal testimonies and reasonable-yet-daring recommendations.

The next few days were particularly busy. Br. Brian had worked hard in arranging interviews with different embassies (Permanent Missions) namely that of Australia, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Slovenia, Mexico and our very own India. The Irish spokesperson said ‘This is the best presentation I have seen in five years here, and the most convincing. Don’t give up hope. Governments are slow, but they hear this, and they make progress.’ Not surprisingly the Indian representative was extremely defensive. But hats off to them, they gave us two hours of their time. We as a team particularly enjoyed the Australian interaction because they were particularly warm. The real reason though was that they knew a bit of sign language, and were therefore able to connect with Rikida.

Our final mission was to make a 5-minute UPR (Universal Periodic Review on India’s Human Rights record) presentation. For this final presentation, we chose to dress in our traditional outfits. I was particularly proud of my simple Tamil shirt and dhoti. In fact after the session I chose to walk back barefoot hoping to connect to the feeling of Mahatma Gandhi who braved the ‘naked fakir’ insult and the English-cold during his negotiations for India’s poor. We were the only group that was given a spontaneous and thunderous round of applause. Present in that room were the permanent missions of Albania, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Slovenia, Switzerland, Uruguay and the European Union.

But Geneva was not just all work. We had our moments of sight-seeing, shopping, hiking, boat riding and navigating through the city in buses, trams, ferries, and the cable car. We made a couple of friends. The people in the ERI office from Franciscans International were really so friendly and hospitable. Isabelle and Helene really went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We visited the Natural History museum and a beautiful village called Hermance where we saw people wind gliding. Even there we met a few local students and invited them to support our campaign. In fact a young student called Elie has volunteered to connect with 8 other friends from different nations (but living in Geneva) to speak to some of the other Permanent Mission we didn’t visit.

During my stay there and at St Columba’s I was often disturbed by a thought that kept haunting me. The Brothers have taken the vow of poverty and yet their life style is so different to that of my family and friends. I would hope that in aspiring to be a Religious I would use the vow of poverty too ensure that every child lives in a poverty-free, just and inclusive world.

On the last night, all the Brothers had a small ‘debrief’ with us where we shared some of our thoughts and views. After meeting them I felt that my father is not dead, but he is alive in all five of them. The way they were concerned about me all the time. Br Moy was like a walking encyclopedia; Br Pat humbly offered to be our official chauffeur; Br Peter had us in splits with his little funny comments. His gestures even had Rikida in splits. Br Brian was the brain behind all the organization.

When I was there I too busy and over-awed to be emotional. But now I feel a little empty. I now resolve to make the best of the opportunities I enjoy here in Shillong so as to build myself up to someday serve the millions of young Indians for whom this ‘India Shining’ is still only Glitter that is far from Gold.

Vijay Kumar, Class 12 MIQ Juvenate Shillong

The picture shows the meeting with the Permanent Mission of Mexico. (Vijay is standing in the middle at the back)

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