Valli (Chari) Seshan
Valli (Chari) Seshan, 1957; LVT in Europe 1958-1959; Asian Secretary 1960-1965; International Secretary 1986- 1990
Valli Seshan’s first workcamp was in India in 1957, followed by LTV service in Europe in 1958-1959 and work in the Asian Secretariat, 1960-1965. She and her husband, A.S. Seshan, were part of a 4-person International Secretariat, based in Bangalore, from 1986-1990. They always maintained an “open house” for SCI volunteers. Seshan died at the time of annual SCI meetings in Bangalore in 1989. Their daughter lives in Kerala and Valli settled in Bangalore.
Looking back at childhood, one has to say that mine was a very ordinary one - a traditional family in south India - somehow still very open and accepting. Though I have no precise details to offer, even we children knew about Gandhi, the preindependence struggles and the climate in the country. It touched individual members of the extended family in small ways. World War II was happening elsewhere in the world but it also had some impact on me. Being evacuated from the city of Madras for fears of being bombed by the ‘enemy ‘submarine’ (Japanese) and Germany destroying other nations were terrifying for young children - though not very comprehensible. However, even as a child of 10 or 11 one knew that one took sides with Indian freedom fighters who were being bullied by the British administration, and that nations were being oppressed by more powerful war-mongering ones and so on.
Being part of Independence Day celebrations as a young teenager was an exhilarating experience. News of Gandhi being shot soon after, (I remember feeling a sense of loss and the world becoming still; all of a sudden-empty streets and mournful prayer songs left a deep sense), stories of large scale killings in the North (South was not a witness to the horrors of Partition), and one’s own country being divided affected one in some strange ways. On the surface though, it seemed as if nothing really changed in one’s life. Life went on - completing school, the sudden death of my father, necessitating the family being distributed and so on.
The decade of the 50s seemed to have been important personally and for a post independent India with a great spirit of moving forward. The concept of community development, spoken of by the government, was very appealing to a young person. It was the time for promoting some reason for engaging oneself. The ideal of ‘doing something useful for society’ got nurtured. I had finished university and then taught for two years living in the capital city of Delhi.
First contact with SCI
Attending an international workcamp organized by the young Indian Branch of SCI during November 1957 to dig a foundation for a village school was a happy accident. It was at the instance of Seshan, an active SCI member, and family friend whom I married some years later. However, this ‘happy accident’ became a truly lifetime opportunity in many vital ways. Credit is owed to many – including myself for recognizing the experience as a ‘significant’ one showing the ‘direction’ for me in life.
The international workcamp in a remote Rajasthan village had in it the making of the essence of SCI in every sense. It was able to communicate SCI’s mission statement of ‘breaking down prejudices between peoples’, promoting understanding, voluntarily committing to the discipline of hard work and building a healthy human group based on mutual respect. This all could be beautifully experienced without needing articulation. The small international group consisted of local villagers, Indian volunteers from different states, longterm overseas volunteers like Phyllis and Sato –many of whom became lifetime associates in SCI or other groups, the visiting International Secretary, Dorothy Abbot (Guiborat). Discussions within the camp brought in various dimensions of SCI and its operations. As an Indian, I was unfamiliar with the idea of compulsory military service as it existed in other countries. What impressed me most was the conviction of those who opposed it and the price they were willing to pay in opposing it. The camp was an example for demonstrating the extraordinary potential for a creative action involving a small group of people in a meaningful context; and paving the way for change. It is something that remained with me throughout my work in SCI and carried over to my work with other development organizations.
After this camp Dorothy Abbot (Guiborat) very quickly was able to draw me totally into the movement. She initially provided me with valuable opportunities for being exposed intensely and then nurtured and motivated me for long innings in SCI. Dorothy’s own work in SCI prior to our meetings in Europe and India was a great inspiration and as well her organizing capacities that I saw. Over the coming years, I was similarly helped by a large number of individuals with whom I had interacted and worked over a number of years. Names are fresh in my mind but they will make too long a list!
LTV to Europe, 1958-1959
My experiences in India and Europe were greatly inspiring and enriching ones. Living and working in a totally different culture for the first time raised many questions for myself and others; and about life as a whole. There was a sense of being evaluated and judged in harmless and serious ways. For example the questions: “How can you work in a sari?”; “No meat, no alcohol, no dancing – what do you have in life?!” Some of them were looking at me as if I had to be pitied and needed some sympathy. But in fact it was rather the other way around: I was not at all envious and I felt sympathetic towards these people. They also had questions about how I had been raised: many amusing questions such as about the custom of sleeping together in the same room with others instead of off in separate bedrooms; or about the power of one’s elders being able to tell even their adult children what is right/wrong or (good /bad). Being a young woman in usual situations like in SCI camps (not being a student nor part of an establishment of any kind) was a rarity in the 1950s. I was treated with respect and as well paternalistically at times. Was it due to some surprise that despite being a woman and from an ‘underdeveloped ‘nation, I could function ‘normally’ in that environment? An amusing question that sometime I asked others.
My time at the International Secretariat in Clichy was eye-opening. The facilities were very limited and there were bugs, and in fact it was below the standard with which I was used to in India. I had to adjust and SCI friends helped me in this respect.
Looking at and becoming seriously aware of stereotyping oneself and others was a great learning to begin with. Simultaneously one saw how similar human beings were, whether it was in distant Norway, a mountain village of Switzerland or in the great city of Paris. It was reassuring then, yet in later years I have recognized that what contributes to ‘similarities’ may also be the basis for deep seated prejudices: from simple likes to dislikes, animosity, hatred on a large scale?
What I found as an overwhelming effect from the volunteering in Europe was the number of encounters with very inspiring individuals, the striking of deep friendships, and acquiring insights into past history of SCI. I also gained some organizing skills and most of all, became able to function in totally different environments and cultures.
People often ask about the purpose of going to workcamps, and whether the work we did was useful. I think it is not so much the kind of work you do, but it is the breaking down of prejudices. That is always valuable whether it is in 1934, or 1919, or 2000. There is an openness. There are people coming from completely different backgrounds, but who are willing to put themselves in that situation because they care about what is happening to far away people. They do not primarily come with the idea of changing others or of being a big help, but it is more as being together with people with a sense of solidarity. In addition to the feeling of solidarity it is an opportunity to change oneself, break down one’s own prejudices and perhaps help other people to take a look at their own prejudices. Volunteers usually say that they learned a lot about themselves.
An anecdote of my first introduction outside India and Europe
My first workcamp was to be an East-West camp in Moldavia. The world was divided at that time: communist or non-communist. Being an Indian I found I was acceptable on both sides. It was a great opportunity for me, in the 60s, but I did not completely know what was happening or what was expected of me. Devinder told me: “Look, you just go”, so I just went. Because of foreign reserve restrictions, I had just the 75 rupees we were allowed to leave India with and a plane ticket. I landed in Tashkent, with no money and no addresses or phone numbers. Devinder had told me “Somebody will meet you there”. When I landed, nobody was there, so I was wondering what I should do. But a half hour later a man and a woman came, one speaking English and the other only Russian. They welcomed me and said, “Hello Miss Chari”, taking my suitcase and leaving the airport. Such leaps of faith!
I was the only one traveling to Moldavia via Moscow from India to join the SCI group which should already be there. The others were traveling by train from Paris (see Max Hildesheim). I thought I would be given a ticket and taken care of and subsequently, in fact, I was. However, because of communication problems, things were never clear and I never knew what to expect next. I had to float. Devinder had the same kind of experience. After arrival they took me sight seeing and bought me ice creams. Then in the evening they brought me back to the airport and gave me a ticket to Moscow. There was a queue, but none of us spoke any language in common. So I left for Moscow with them telling me they did not know what would happen, but it will be OK. I landed in Moscow and a chap welcomed me in Hindi, then he took me to some kind of a youth hostel. He told me my room number and that tomorrow we will have breakfast together and then I was to fly to Moldavia. When I arrived in Moldavia the group had already been there for 2-3 days picking cherries.
You could see the amazing difference between communists and noncommunists and amongst the communists between Russians and the other East Europeans in their approach to things. The project had been organized in a secretive way, or at least not publicly, yet the results were exactly what we would do for a group. Schedules/programmes were not shared in advance. In the evening without advance notification, suddenly we were all distributed among families. It was a nice thing but there was no explanation that would happen. Suddenly you are in a Russian family, eating some bread and very happy and I thought I had been specially brought there. But upon returning back to the camp I would discover that all had had the same experience, but nobody knew in advance. It was very funny and interesting, but somewhat odd. Some were asking “Why don’t you open yourself more to the outer world? Some would answer “When you are in a nice glass house, why do you want the dirt to come in?”
Generally people were very warm and hospitable. At the end we were taken to Lenin’s mausoleum and there was a long queue. We joined it, but after a few minutes we were taken to the front since we were a special delegation. Then some East European standing in front of me turned around and said “I wouldn’t be surprised if when some of those people enter they cross themselves”. The queue was so solemn that it seemed a kind of a religious celebration.
Return to India
After returning from Europe on my ‘induction’ to SCI-International, I joined Devinder Chopra, the first Asian Secretary, in the Asian Secretariat from 60-65 in New Delhi. This assignment followed many stints over the years as National Chair Person of SCI India, two terms as the international vice president, member of the International Secretariat team in India during 1986-90. (This was a result of the International Committee’s decision to move the International Secretariat to Bangalore, India)). Between stints and even concurrently I remained active in the development sectors both within and outside India. I must mention that my years in SCI, with Seshan, were significant both personally and for the organization. Myself and many others who had joined the development sectors, have seen that the SCI values, aims and vision greatly influenced what we did/how we did and how we were able to help others in doing the same. Promoting peace based on mutual understanding and respect, justice and well-being of all has to begin where one is - recognizing the prejudices of one’s own and others; and at every level in society and having the willingness to fight to overcome them. Had we been more conscious of the possible impact of SCI actions on the individuals who took part in them and what contributed to the same, we could have been more effective perhaps.
Asian Secretariat, 1960-1965
Being part of the stage of establishing a firm base in Asia - strengthening the work of on-going branches in India, Japan and Pakistan; starting work in new countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand; working with Tibetan refugees in India together with Devinder Das Chopra, the first Asian Secretary, was an exciting and satisfying experience. Devinder’s previous experience in SCI, his dynamism, strategizing abilities and personal skills went a long way. Interestingly, for all this new venture available resources were rather meager. However, identifying and involving like-minded voluntary organizations, interested individuals and bringing them together in SCI activities was useful to help establish the base for the future. Longterm volunteers (LTVs) played a valuable part towards this growth.
The student revolution in Paris and strong emergence of left politics in many countries in Europe had its impact on SCI. There was polarization between branches and within committees leaving many of the older generation members in a crisis of confidence. Persons like myself and Hiroatsu Sato were dubbed ‘reactionaries’ from a distance. Initially, this term as applied to myself made little sense. How inevitable these turmoils - why and how they impacted the movement, both in positive and negative terms- were not clear to me and many others. The question of crisis of confidence in times of pressure to follow general ‘trends’ of change and the various ways it affects the work of groups or organizations have remained very real with me since then. At that time it seemed that a large number of members stopped seeing SCI as a radical movement. Workcamps as a methodology, longterm volunteering overseas and working towards peace and reconciliation all were seen to be lacking in depth. No ‘moral force’ strong enough emerged to reassure the membership.
The `70s saw rejuvenation in Asia in many ways beginning with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the movement. The Indian branch provided strong impetus to work in other countries. Imaginative ways were found of working through longterm projects, nurturing longterm Indian and overseas volunteers - many of whom stayed on for many years within the fold of the organization and shared responsibilities with great conviction. Because of my own experience as a volunteer being nurtured, supported and encouraged by those responsible, I learned the value of doing the same. This had been reinforced, particularly by those who had been able to make positive contributions under demanding and difficult conditions. This decade was even referred to as a ‘golden period’ by some in SCI! Ironically the ‘decline and fall’ was also a familiar feature within the movement. Various factors contributed to it. A Swiss volunteer once remarked: ‘the trouble with SCI is that it never dies completely’. A few ‘pockets’ come alive, here and there’!
International Secretariat, 1986-1990
Interestingly, my own history in SCI had been associated with many revival efforts. One example was when the International Committee decided that the International Secretariat should be based in India for the first time – after having functioned from Europe for 70 years. Some of us old timers, like Seshan, myself, Chandru (LTV in India/Europe/Secretary of Indian Branch with vast experience in the development sector), Krpa (LTV in India/development worker/activist) formed the IS team from 1986-90. New programmes relevant to the context of Asia and for its revival were initiated: Youth Induction Programme, Women’s pogramme, increased number of workcamps with development agencies across Asia. The Asian structure was enlarged by inclusion of Asian Field Coordinators working along with national secretaries. The IS had a separate wing to support field activities, help in fund-raising etc and continued to service European Branches and the International Committee. There was a great deal of momentum and new confidence in SCI aims and methods. Somehow, the same could not be sustained and reasons could be many.
India was a colony of Britain in the `30s when Pierre Cérésole came with a spirit of service and of integration into the local environment. It was striking that, although he was the boss and person who had brought the resources, he himself worked like anyone else. This idea of service and of breaking down the prejudices between people has always impressed me. SCI people have a sensitivity and a respect for others that you hardly find elsewhere. During my time, we had a vision of the world.
I had mentioned earlier that SCIers brought with them something different to their involvement elsewhere. It remained an integral part of people’s growth. Their own experience and knowledge gained from the international structure and operation were very valuable. A vast number of international agencies did not manage to function truly internationally. Ideas of local groups, national branches, election of delegates to International Committee, working groups for themes across the globe, giving people the opportunity to work together on common concerns are very original. In the late `70s, some development groups in South India organized a ‘plunge-inexperience’ for young people which fell far short of what SCI workcamps did for bringing about a change in attitudes.
Today, I continue to be involved in small ways in the voluntary sector. People, process and relationships remain the focus. I am labeled as many things - social scientist, facilitator, trainer, advisor for human-resources and organizational development etc. Whatever may be the truth of these terms, I have no doubt my SCI experience contributed in ways that cannot be measured. And, as such, I hope ‘SCI’ lives on.
Looking back at my own exposure and experiences, something of the following caught my attention about the second generation: the fact that almost 50 years ago SCI could think of women volunteers from India working in Europe; volunteers from France participating in actions in Algeria during liberation; east-west work and study camps; continued efforts to support conscientious objectors; negotiating for working in India and Pakistan simultaneously after Partition; exchanging volunteers between India and Pakistan; being forerunners and example to many overseas volunteer programmes is significant. Radical in its time! SCI workcamps in the `50s also enunciated modern day principles of personal growth, team work, leadership, facilitation, conflict-resolution, processorientation, empowerment without labeling them as such or theorizing. The principles could be successfully brought into action. ‘Deeds, not words’ - not concrete results (number of houses etc.) but the way of working together may be the underlying message.
If at times SCIers feel that the movement has not done well, we may have to look critically at what we have done/not done and not conclude that the origin/aims and even method are not relevant. Certainly modifications according to present ‘times’ will be useful to ‘make sense’ for evolving situations. Have we come across anything more fundamental than a statement that human beings need to breakdown their prejudices?? And act on it!!