By Abhishek Thakore July 2003 Nestled in the hills of Panchgani, Maharashtra, stands Asia Plateau, the international centre of the worldwide movement called Initiatives of Change, formerly Moral Rearmament Army. Here, participants are encouraged to introspect and first change themselves and then aim at global transformation “Make God your guru, Let him tell you what to do, Listen, he’s calling clear and true… Take time to listen Take courage to obey, inner voice is calling,calling you…”These lines catch the essence of an increasingly popular movement of change makers—the Initiatives of Change (formerly known as Moral Re-armament Army, or MRA). This is an international network of people working for reconciliation, justice and the healing of history. Or more simply, it’s a group of people motivated to bring a change within society, starting with themselves.The BeginningThe Moral Rearmament Movement was started by Frank Buchman of Philadelphia, USA, to counter society’s moral decline in the wake of World War II. Its philosophy is influenced by Buchman’s personal story of change. As an employee of an orphanage, he was embittered by the refusal of its six trustees to grant it a more generous fund.Eventually, he resigned and moved to the UK. There while sitting in a church he realised that the bitterness was holding him back. He immediately wrote letters of apology to the six trustees and healed his hurt.Says R.D. Mathur, a founder trustee who has dedicated his life to MRA for over 50 years: “MRA aims at global transformation, beginning with the individual. We aim to re-arm people, not with weapons but with values.”The cornerstone of the philosophy is fourfold: Absolute Purity, Absolute Honesty, Absolute Unselfishness and Absolute Love. It challenges men to live their lives daily by these standards.In Buchman’s own words: “These standards are like the pole-star. No ship has ever reached the pole-star, and yet, over centuries, countless sailors have set their course with the guidance of the star. These values are ABSOLUTE. They might not be reachable in completion, but the individual has to keep striving for them.”MRA in India The international conference and training centre of this movement is Asia Plateau, nestled in the hills of Panchgani in Maharashtra. What in 1964 was a barren piece of land with a single silver oak tree, is today a verdant 64-acre centre of reconciliation, dialogue and introspection, supported and frequented by people from all over the world. From industrialists to social workers, from senior citizens to youth, Asia Plateau attracts all those striving for personal change.On October 2, 1963, a group of 70 people from different parts of the country, led by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and famous scholar-statesman C. Rajagopalachari, marched across the nation advocating a clean, strong and united India. They covered 4,500 miles over 40 days. This was the genesis of the MRA in India. The formation of Asia Plateau followed soon after.Born with a bang, MRA was among the mainstream activist movements in India, with numerous youth volunteering to join in and work without any pay or stipend. Things changed later. “With the advent of the 1980s and the ’90s there was a wave of materialism—people had rising aspirations, and they began to move on to other jobs that would pay better and give them those comforts,” says Nabnita, a dedicated volunteer who s still with them.After the slowdown, the organisation today shows signs of growth once again. Slowly, more and more people are coming in contact with its ideologies. The change of name was also a brave step for the organisation.Looking InwardsAsia Plateau provides a near perfect environment for a sincere seeker to introspect and look within. The ideology encourages honest self-observation of the wrongs that one would like to see eliminated from society but that are present in one’s own actions, attitudes and relationships.The centre helps sensitise an individual to his/her own awakened sense of conscience through the practice of quiet time. This practice helps flush out the toxic stress of daily life, and aids in clear thinking, offering time and space to evolve. It also encourages the habit of listening, vital for a meaningful dialogue. The experience has empowered many to change their own lives.Chantharasy, former Ambassador of Laos in New Delhi, has often been at Asia Plateau with his family. His is an area which has suffered much. He says: “There will not be lasting peace unless there is peace in the hearts of the people. I look to Asia Plateau to do something for the nations of Indochina. Honesty in families is the key to honesty in international affairs.”Om Prakash Bagaria, a businessman, had a manufacturing company in Assam. After exposure to the MRA, his attitude to the trade union leader in his factory changed. As a result, an eight-year-old dispute was settled in three days and a workers’ housing scheme was started within a month.Gajanan Sawant, a textile worker from Mumbai, was similarly inspired to de-silt the neglected community well in his area. Later, he and his neighbours started a school for the children.A trade union leader for 28 years, Satya Banerjee has attended conferences here with his wife. Banerjee’s conviction is: “As I am responsible for my union, so I am responsible for my industry and my nation.” All the 3,000 workers in his union, including himself, lost their jobs when their private railway company was closed down. Due to his initiative and persistence all were relocated in the Indian Railways across the country. Banerjee was the last to find a job.Former British minister for economic and social affairs at the UN, A.R.K. Mackenzie, does a summing up: “It was interesting to note at the concluding session of the Panchgani Dialogue that 34 people spoke in 90 minutes, each one announcing something they are going to do, a conclusion in vivid contrast to many UN sessions where it would be common to find one delegate speaking for 90 minutes on how 34 other countries ought to act!”Asia Plateau has a plethora of programmes under the Effective Living and Leadership (ELL) series. An introduction to its ideology can be had at the Open House, a one-and-a-half day programme held regularly. Apart from a basic introduction to the philosophy of Initiatives for Change, the programme has some interesting sessions geared towards giving participants a feel of the place. This is done through open space forums, group discussions, songs, and talks.A remarkable programme conducted here is the nine-month Action for Life (AFL), where a group of 34 people between the age groups of 19 and 72 and from different countries, travel around the world. This helps cultivate the ‘world is my family’ concept among youth. It is meant to be a learning experience, where a journey through communities leads to an inward journey. A national youth conference called Let’s Make a Difference is also held for youngsters in the16-25 age group from all over India. Viral Majumdar, its organiser, says: “The values of MRA have brought about a personal transformation in my life. I patched up with a friend after not talking to him for years. Today, I live life everyday by the values of MRA.” Fondly known as Viral Bhai, he is a friend to every participant in the conference.Asia Plateau can comfortably accommodate over 200 participants. The 64 acres contain a farm and gardens, cottages, a clinic and a post office. A 400-seat theatre facilitates world-class presentations. The dining hall provides tasty food in an ambience that makes meal times fun and meaningful.Managed by a paid staff of less than 40, Asia Plateau’s spick and span condition compares to the best of hotels. The participants themselves wash, cook, serve and bond over these tasks, deriving a feeling of team spirit.The thickly wooded centre houses over 85 different species of birds. A large part of the forest consists of trees that are a key source of ayurvedic medicine. Rainwater harvesting provides drinking water around the year, and domestic waste is recycled and used for compost and vermiculture. Hot water is provided by solar water heating, and farm water is pumped by a windmill. The centre is a living example of how a modern and complex structure can be sustainable and eco-friendly. There are no overt religious symbols at Asia Plateau. It encourages individuals to live according to their highest secular and religious values. It has no membership, no subscription and minimal formal organisational structure. There is a role for everybody, everywhere. To quote a former International Monetary Fund director: “This is an extraordinary place. In the last five days I spent here, I have not figured out who the boss is!”
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