A Widely Travelled Gandhian
Born and brought up in Lucknow in a middle class family, Sandeep Pandey has conquered rare humanitarian realms with his radical approach and thought. A winner of the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay award, considered the noble of Asia, for emergent leadership, he has broken new ground in the crucial yet neglected and constantly degrading field of education and led by Gandhi’s ideology has stood for many causes in the course of his life as a vehement social activist.
Presently, he is a leader of the Socialist Party built on the ideals of the original formed by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Jai Prakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev and others, his heroes of social reform.
In school, he was good in academics and took to sports and drawing as well. His perseverance prevailed even there. In a marathon, though he would never win, he ran till the finish while the other runners dropped out, earning him a prize. His father was an engineer with the Indian railways and following in his footsteps he took up engineering at Benares Hindu University, moving on to do his Master’s in manufacturing and Computer science from Syracuse University. In 1992 he completed his doctorate on control theory from the University of California and on his return to India, he found himself teaching at the country’s most prestigious institute IIT-K. By the average Indian’s expectations, he had scaled the success ladder to exhaustion. Only for him it was not so. He did not share the middle class belief that having a salaried job was the crux of life. Under all the surface normalcy of his education he had met with significant realizations about the nature of politics and the world, that thrust him towards what was to become his lifelong occupation, obsession.
His brief encounter with student politics at B.H.U. laid bare to him the larger muddle of Indian politics. The unions served as a gateway to national politics and were sponsored by the major parties, affording the vote winning participants with liquor, movies passes, even prostitutes. His disillusionment was absolute and he went to the U.S. with the thought of settling there if he found the place in agreement to his beliefs. But even that was not to be.
The Indian boy raised to respect relations over individual need found the egoistical western culture suffocating and wrong. The knowledge that researches there were sponsored by the country’s defence department shocked him immensely. The academic pursuit he had always perceived to be noble was being used to create arms to subjugate smaller countries. But there were positive overtures too. It was here that Pandey took his first plunge in activism taking part in-group meetings for rights of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. He became a vegetarian after attending a lecture on the topic.
In 1991, MIT released a report stating that more than 50 per cent of India’s children remained uneducated, never attending school. Along with two of his colleagues, he decided to do something to foster hope for these children and ASHA a volunteer based organisation was born in Berkley. It has now more than 35 chapters spread across India, U.S.A and other countries, collecting funds to support education projects across the nation.
He returned to India in 1992 for a teaching assignment at IIT Kanpur but had to leave when his contract was not renewed after the one and half years during which he adopted innovative, dynamic ways of teaching that did not go down well with the administration. He went to the students’ dormitories to conduct an oral exam instead of the regular written one, allowing the students a chance to expound on their answers, ask questions, and assessing their true knowledge of the subject. He refused to fail any student and took a re-exam if the student thought he had not given his best. He believes that if a student does not perform it is the teacher’s failure and should be so classified. He stood up for whatever cause he felt right as he had seen the professors at Berkley do, and he met with resistance all throughout.
Suffering a setback, he decided to head to his grandfather’s village in Ballia where he ran a school. This touchdown with ground reality was a blessing for him providing him with an opportunity to bring his ideals into action. In Reoti village, Asha’s first non- formal education centre was born, a system in which there was no place for punishment or rewards or even examinations. Children were taught to cooperate and not compete; they learnt useful self-sustaining skills for livelihood, the curriculum was not restricted to 4-5 subjects as is the norm but a wider array encompassing the students’ wish or choice of pursuit.
An incident revealed to him the distance placed by the present education system between reality, practical life and coarse curriculum. Once he asked the children to write an essay on their mother. They refused saying they would rather deal with a commonality like cow or other such topics. We are never taught about human relationships or asked to confront them in textbooks. At the Asha education centre therefore, the crucial sync was established and the children were taught the Hindi alphabet, not beginning with ‘a’ for anar, a fruit but rather ‘a’ for amma meaning mother.
This model has been replicated in several districts across U.P., alongside working to strengthen the community around. Lalpur village, situated at 60 kilometres off Lucknow is an exemplary milestone on Asha’ success map. A school based on the principles of Sah Astitwawad Darshan of Nagaraj Sharma of Amarkantak, implying one’s complete understanding and the environment in relation to oneself; and living in the four stages of growth-self, family, society and nature, establishing complete harmony, the village has benefitted from several of their programmes. Al-Khair, a cooperative credit society, Jan Soochna Kendra have made them more independent and organised.
Sandeep Pandey is an ardent Gandhian; his faith in non-violence and the need for communal harmony and equality is complete. He has been the leading voice in India’s anti-nuclear movement. In 1991, he organised a Global Peace March from Pokharan, the site of the first nuclear test to Sarnath, the place where the Buddha had delivered his first enlightening sermon, gathering support for the cause and educating the locals about the harms of nuclear weapons and power. In protest of the Gujarat riots of 2002, he carried out another peace march from Chitrakoot to Ayodhya. Also significant is Asha’s participation in the India-Pakistan peace march from Delhi to Multan that was held in 2005; Aman ke Badhte Qadam, an Indo-Pak peace caravan that started from Mumbai in July 2010, and ended in Lahore.
Asha has also been actively associated with Rihai Manch, an NGO based in Lucknow that aims to free Muslims falsely accused of terrorism. He has been actively fighting for the removal of the coke plant in Mehdiganj, U.P. responsible for reducing the groundwater level making life impossible for the locals. As part Of the National Alliance of People’s Movement, led by Medha Patkar, he has also been advocating farmers’ property rights. His other significant contributions include participation in the Government’s committee ‘Central Advisory Board on Education’ (CABE) and its sub-committee on ‘Girl Education and Common School System’ of the Ministry of Human Resource Development; President of People’s Union for Human Rights, a national member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.
His constant plea for peace built on mutual trust between individuals, belief in each other and cooperation has made him seek a reconciliation of India-Pakistan relations. He is a national member of Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.
Through all his work he has abided by Gandhi’s principles of peace and non-violence, it was in fact on reading his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ that he was first inspired to lead a life of service to the people. At one point, so infested was he by the potency of these ideals that he wanted to adopt the name Mohan Gautam after the two priests. Sporting a grey beard and a constant white kurta, he leads a simple life, living with his activist wife Arundhati and two children in a small house in Indira Nagar locality of Lucknow.
The example of education and community ownership he has created in the form of Lalpur village provides an essential landmark break from the current, regressive education system and communal discord and needs popular recognition and endorsement so that it can be effectively replicated elsewhere, forming self-reliant, content and sensitive individuals. Having left a promising career in engineering and its ensuing comforts and security, he has embraced this life of service to the poor with perfect repose and succeeded fairly. He is an enduring inspiration in the fight for righteousness and peace and one to be celebrated.
Writer is a student, an aspiring painter & calligrapher
(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 12, Dated 05 March 2015)