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Award a protection against 'autocratic' tendencies, but Magsaysay is not infallible

Ravish Kumar
By Sandeep Pandey*
There could not have been a better choice than Ravish Kumar for this year’s Magsaysay Award. Ravish has demonstrated exemplary courage in questioning the sectarian, communal, jingoistic and irrational politics which has dominated the narrative in this country over the last five years when one by one most of the saner voices were made to disappear, some made compromises or simply surrendered and worst there were others who decided to collaborate with this insidious project of right wing fundamentalism.
Only a few voices like Ravish Kumar’s held the fort and reminded us the role of media in a democracy. Otherwise, the media, especially the TV channels have started resembling more like the lynch mobs on free run. NDTV must also be commended for having pursued with Ravish, in what would have been very tough situation for them. Ravish, coming from Bihar, a politically very aware state, also highlights the issues that common citizens of this country face.
Ravish is Gandhian in his thought process. He holds the value of truth very highly, like Gandhi. And he has the courage to speak the truth, however inconvenient, with complete humility, a quality which Gandhi had mastered very well but where most of us falter. This is what makes him different and also may be a reason why he still keeps his job and has won the admiration of even his opponents.
The Magsaysay Award will definitely bring more credibility to his work and hopefully some of the opposition from right wing forces, who are known to troll in an organised manner any sane voice in support of human rights, democracy, justice, communal harmony, peace and friendship, especially with Pakistan, and who've targeted Ravish in the past, will subside.
He has received life threats, his number has been made public to cause him more harassment, to the extent that he had to write an open letter to the Prime Minister highlighting the names of people threatening him, just in case they came good with their threats. One can imagine the insecurity of his family under such circumstances.
However, the aura of Magsaysay is quite exaggerated in India than other countries of Asia, and outside of Asia very few people have heard of it, probably because there are many well known Indians who have won it. Part of the reason for its popularity in India is that it and its winners feature prominently in most General Knowledge books which are used by students preparing for competitive examinations. But the Magsaysay Foundation itself is not infallible, unlike its reputation.
I went to Manila in 2002 to receive the Magsaysay Award as well as participate in a Peace conference organised at the University there in the wake of impending US attack on Iraq. It was a mere coincidence that both events were happening on same dates. There was a demonstration outside the US Embassy the day after the Award ceremony. The chairperson of the Foundation asked me not to participate in the demonstration as it could tarnish its image.
Sandeep Pandey
When I mentioned to her that my Magsaysay citation referred to my global peace march for nuclear disarmament from Pokaran to Sarnath in 1999 and my stand against wars and armament was well known, she said I was free to oppose my government but I should not oppose the US government in Manila.
I argued that US was a bigger culprit in the game of warfare and I considered it part of my activism to oppose the US policy. Before landing in Manila I had little idea that the Foundation was completely US funded -- by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Obviously the Magsaysay Foundation was quite uncomfortable with my stand.
The fears of Magsaysay Foundation came true. Even the Hindi Indian media back home covered the demonstration outside US Embassy in Manila highlighting my participation. An editorial in a Manila newspaper asked me to return the $50,000 Award money to the US Embassy before I returned to India if I was the principled man I wanted them to believe. I returned the cheque from the airport to the Magsaysay Foundation before embarking the plane out of Manila.
I wanted to preserve my freedom to participate in the anti-Pepsi and Coca Cola movements going on in India on the issue of water table depletion which was a threat for farmers and not be questioned by the Magsaysay Foundation every time I took a stand contradictory to the US government, its policies or associated interests.
Ironically, the same newspaper which raised a question on my stand, published an editorial after my departure lauding me for returning the money and saying that they too are opposed to US government policies. Copy of this editorial was sent to me by the Indian Ambassador in Philippines.
But the Award is prestigious and definitely is a protection against autocratic tendencies of the state and its cronies in India, especially for human rights defenders and upright journalists like Ravish Kumar. We hope that the right-wing fundamentalists will take his viewpoint more seriously and the media fraternity will start considering him as an ideal rather than an exception. He has now emerged as the hope for a free media in India and by extension a democratic polity.
This is a victory of progressive forces, sanity and humanity and we must celebrate it. Most of all it is a victory for truth which has become a casualty in the era of post-truth. The post-truth has created only strife and conflicts. If we have to return to the human endeavour of making this world a better place for everybody, there is no option but to go back to recognizing truth as the most important values. In spite of Nathuram Godse having become a hero for a fringe group in this country, the universal ideal continues to be Mahatma Gandhi.
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*Social activist and academic, a Magsasay recipient, who returned the award. Contact: ashaashram@yahoo.com

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