By Aalif Surti
The following are people who exemplify the theme of our issue. Even though they are well known, we felt we had to include them in some way. Here is our very own ‘roll of honour’
Blind and deaf from a young age, Helen Keller typifies the power of the human spirit despite physical (dis)abilities. Through her life, she showed that disability need not be the end of the world. She said: ‘‘The blind man is neither genius nor a freak. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realise, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself.’’
Martin Luther King, Jr
Martin Luther King, Jr, who led the civil rights movement in the US on Gandhian principles, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Accepting the award, he said: ‘‘All the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.’’ Due to his efforts the door was opened on a racially equal society in the US.
Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time: an international hero who dedicated his life to the fight against racial oppression in South Africa. As president of the African National Congress (ANC), he headed South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. After more than a quarter-century of imprisonment, he was released in 1991 and was instrumental in moving his country towards multiracial government and majority rule. For this, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with then South African president F.W. de Klerk.
For more than half a century, activist Baba Amte has used his dictum ‘‘charity destroys, work builds’’ to enable many among the dispossessed lead a life of dignity and meaning. He began working with people with leprosy at a time when they were ostracised from society, setting up the Anandwan ashram to provide rehabilitation services. Despite suffering from acute cervical spondylitis, the 83-year-old continues his efforts for true swaraj.
Stephen Hawking is extraordinary as much for his scientific prowess as for his indomitable spirit. He is not only a leading authority on theoretical physics, he is so in spite of suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neuromuscular disease that weakens muscle control. Wheelchair-bound and assisted by a speech synthesiser, Hawking has been working towards a ‘theory of everything’ that would explain all cosmological questions like the beginning and end of the universe, why it is expanding, and so on. He is also the best-selling author of A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.
Christopher Reeve—who portrayed Superman in films—has proved to be a ‘super man’ in real life too. Since 1995, when a horse-riding accident broke his spine, Reeve has demonstrated a wonderful ability to face limitation and step beyond it. Paralysed from the waist down, he has continued to act, direct and write. He is chairman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF), a non-profit engaged in developing remedies for paralysis and central nervous system disorders. When asked about his seemingly superhuman exploits, Reeve says: ‘‘I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.’’
With the setting up of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Devdoongri in Rajasthan in 1990, Aruna Roy has led a people’s movement for the right to information and the public’s right to scrutinise official records. An ex-IAS officer, Aruna set up the ‘Barefoot College’ to impart skills for self-sufficiency. She and her colleagues have held public hearings, jan sunvai, through which the people exposed schools and health clinics paid for but never constructed, or worse, famine and drought relief services recorded but never rendered. The public debate set in motion by her work, for which she received the Magsaysay Award in 2000, forced Parliament to adopt the Freedom of Information Bill recently.
Since 1985, activist Medha Patkar has been involved in highlighting injustice in the name of development in the Sardar Sarovar Project in the Narmada river valley, which would upon completion submerge 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land, and displace around 3,20,000 people, mostly from tribal communities. Sitting on hunger strikes and protesting nonviolently, Medha has mobilised and united people in the struggle. She believes: ‘‘If the vast majority of our population is to be fed and clothed, then a balanced vision with our own priorities in place of the Western models is a must. There is no other way but to redefine ‘modernity’ and the goals of development, to widen it to a sustainable, just society based on harmonious, non-exploitative relationships between human beings and between people and nature.’’
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