Your Excellency Dr SC Jamir, Honourable Governor of Odisha and Chancellor of the University, Dr Asoka Das, Vice Chancellor, members of the Senate, the Syndicate, respected teachers, proud parents of graduating students, assembled guests, members of the media and most importantly, my dear young friends who are donning the robe on this august occasion.
We are gathered here to rejoice in what is clearly the greatest achievement in your life. I am very sure that even greater glory and fulfilment are ahead of you. Please accept my heartiest congratulations and the very best wishes for a life of meaning, significance and purpose.
I am greatly honoured to be in your midst as a proud alumnus of this Institution, I deem it a personal privilege to deliver the convocation speech. Thank you, Dr Das for the opportunity. To me, each time I step into the Campus, it feels like homecoming for two very special reasons. My formal school education started here way back in 1965 when I was enrolled at the Vani Vihar High School as a student in Class Five. As some of you may know, I was born in Patnagarh, spent early life in various places in Koraput district. In places like those, there were no primary schools close by. Thus, my parents had taught me at home until I was eight years of age. It was around that time that I was brought from Koraput to this beautiful campus where my eldest brother had just joined as a lecturer. So, Vani Vihar, the abode of the Goddess of Learning, will always remain the starting point of my formal education. After that, I moved around other parts of the State, finished High School in Keonjhar and returned as a student of the BJB College under the Utkal University and later studied at the post graduate department and took the evening law classes for a year. A high point of my studentship here was winning the Chancellor’s Cup as the Best Debater of the University. Ironically, the year I was to receive the Cup, the country was reeling under a State of Emergency. The University Convocation wasn’t held and even as I was the winner, my hand never touched the Golden Cup.
The Convocation that never took place a good forty years ago, was the direct result of a series of protests and civil disobedience that eventually led to a near death experience for the Indian democracy. In 1975, an ill-advised Shrimati Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, took India by siege, declaring a state of national emergency. The Fundamental Rights under the Constitution were suspended, important leaders of the opposition were imprisoned, the Press was gagged and efforts were made to silence the Judiciary. The State of Emergency lasted 21 months; it was a dark period of our national history during which dissension was brutally throttled. In the name of discipline and development, great atrocities were committed, razing human settlement and pulling out people from trains to send them to camps for forced sterilization.
Through all this, one frail man was speaking. His name was Jayaprakash Narayan. Responding to his call, millions of Indians, that included college and school students, took to streets. First, the Government thought, they would deal with the so called unrest with an iron fist but later, they realized, they had stoked national anger of a magnitude that was only second to the Quit India movement of 1942. The government was eventually forced to lift National Emergency; the leaders of Opposition were released from various jails. Soon after, General Elections followed and Shrimati Indira Gandhi’s government was upstaged. Historian Ramchandra Guha and many others consider the national protests that brought India back from the brink as the second freedom movement.
The magnitude of the strife during the 21 months would be clear if I cited you a report by Amnesty International that no less than 140,000 people were detained without trial during this period. In recalling the events of 1975-76, I have a bigger message for you: even as the rulers perpetuated many brutalities, in most part, the national movement of protest was non-violent.
Three months after the Emergency was lifted, I left Bhubaneswar for what turned out to be long time. I took up a job in Delhi in July 1977 and from then on, my life has been peripatetic. I have moved from place to place, joined the Indian IT industry, travelled around the world, became an entrepreneur and before I knew, 40 years had gone by.
It was in 2016 that I came back to Odisha, my motherland, when my services were called for to help with the skill development initiatives of the State. I believe this opportunity was Heaven sent; very few people get a chance this big to serve the land they were born in. The transition from the busy metropolis of Bengaluru to Bhubaneswar was kaleidoscopic and multi-layered and a dominant, recurrent theme has been the level of violence in society both as an individual and a collective response and as act of self-expression.
It all started when I noticed how college students have taken to violence as an everyday expression of protest. My arrival to the State coincided with preparations for student union elections in college campuses. Every day, newspapers carried reports about violent clashes among student groups, quite often with campus authorities and invariably spilling beyond the campus. These brought back memories, some things in the State had not changed since I had left and some, were very new to me. Violence was certainly new.
One day, I had a seemingly innocuous experience while commuting to work. My car came to a halt on a road where tyres had been set ablaze. Bystanders looked on as just a handful of young men angrily halted vehicles. Between two heaps of burning tyres, one young man zipped in on his motorbike, parked it diagonally across and sat on it defiantly. It was a serious road block. I enquired what the instigation was and someone told me that some of the students of the local college had gone on rampage. But what was the instigation? The Principal of the college had disqualified the nomination papers of some of the candidates.
Looking at the burning tyres on the road, it occurred to me that students must engage in campus politics. It prepares them to enter public life and one day, they may steer the fate of the nation. But the essence of democracy are debate, dissent and peaceful resolution of issues. Not violence. The young man who sat on his bike blocking the road ironically reminded me of another image that has become iconic of student protest all over the world: a lone individual who stood guard against an advancing military tank in the Tiananmen Square. The picture in front of me was about vandalism, the other one was about human courage. In the following days, BJB College, where I had studied, saw bomb blasts. A few days later, newspapers carried pictures of a group of girls who had taken to streets with broken electric tube lights. In the following few days, newspaper reports carried stories of campus violence from every other college.
It is around then that I began to realise that the idea of violence had a larger footprint. The college campus was probably a microcosm of society. Worse, it was a harbinger of what may even be an emerging trend.
In the 1980s, John Naisbitt, an American futurologist, wrote a book titled “Megatrends” in which he made ten major predictions on things that would shape America of the future. In reality, the book’s appeal went far beyond the US and many aspects of his predictions were true of the world. What was interesting about Naisbitt’s research was that he used to collect small-town newspapers from all over the US and study what was making local news, over a period of time in terms of sheer coverage and frequency. Then Naisbitt tried to see patterns from ground-up to predict where the US may be heading towards. I have been a great admirer of Naisbitt’s approach and his capacity to predict the future.
Now that I was back in Odisha, I was reading a clutch of Odia newspapers every day, it dawned on me that my State wasn’t ever a violent place, that we may be losing our fabric of tolerance. But for coming to that postulate, I needed two things: a benchmark for comparison and support of data. It wasn’t difficult for me to seek a benchmark. I had just come from Bengaluru. Following Naisbitt’s approach, I decided to look at newspaper reports of violence in local newspapers in the city of Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar. For the former, I chose the No. 1 Kannada newspaper Prajavani and for Odisha, I chose Sambad. The next step was to track reporting of violence over a reasonable period of time. I commissioned a study that then covered six months between July of last year till the end of December.
The result was startling: Bhubaneswar has almost 1/8th the population of Bengaluru. Yet, its level of violence was disproportionately high.
Sambad reported 109 cases of murder or attempt to murder in this period compared to Prajavani that reported 139 in Bengaluru. It is a wakeup call, to say the least.
What was even more disturbing was that Sambad reported 3 times higher numbers of dacoity, robbery and theft than Prajavani did for Bengaluru.
Worse still, the number of sexual crimes reported for Bhubaneswar was 72 compared to 45 in Bengaluru.
What we see enacted in college campuses has a co-relation with what happens outside. Neuroscience tells us, a lot of learning happens through a set of circuitry in the brain called “mirror neurons”; it implies that we learn a lot of things by mimicry. What we see adults do in society, we emulate in the campus, not knowing we may have been exposed to an entirely wrong set of acts. Violence is one such thing. However, it is also a matter of choice. It is within your power to eschew violence. But first, I must tell you the ramifications of violence; what violence does to individuals like you and I and what it does to society as a whole.
Violence can be addictive. People who choose violence, are very likely to experience a certain feeling of high, similar to taking drugs or alcohol. Over time, people given to violence, may miss violent activity and crave violence.
Violent people risk passing their behaviour to their own children because young ones emulate what adults do and through that process, violent action and response can become acceptable family behaviour, spreading to groups and societies.
Over time, violence permeates an entire society. Violence-prone societies find it difficult to shed violence, it becomes a one-way street. Such societies spawn stateless actors, they attract investments in drug, human trafficking and terrorism.
In the process, it is invariably women and children who become the largest group of victims of violence. This pattern of cruelty has been true of human history. Violent people wrong their women and children as soft targets.
Once an individual finds violence as an effective means to an end, the next time, the same individual tends to inflict higher quantum of violence for the same unit of gain. This is rooted in human hubris. Recently I met a group of orthopaedic doctors in another State who were witnessing alarming increase in the number of cases in which a patient comes with a hand or leg chopped off in a quarrel in which typically, far less violence was expended in earlier times. This indicates a growing sense of heroics while inflicting cruelty. A lot of this is also reinforced by media that may stylize violence.
Violence and corruption invariably go hand in hand. A violent society tends to be extortionist.
Violence and corruption drive away good money and good investment. As a result, over time, the quality and quantity of employment of an entire region suffers.
As a corollary to that, violence leads to capital and talent flight.
Violence leads to large scale displacement. The global refugee problem is an open testimony to the strife associated with such displacement. Refugees take with them valuable knowledge and skills that seldom ever come back.
In the same token, violent societies are unlikely to retain traditional skills, far less, learn new skills.
Violent societies lose creative arts and in the process, they lose the power of innovation.
Violent societies discourage entrepreneurship; entrepreneurs look for safety as a prime requirement for creating a business and expanding it.
Violence leads to loss of reputational capital. In today’s world, this is the most precious form of capital, whether it is for an individual, a society, a business or a nation. Once dubbed violent, it is extremely difficult to shed the image.
Violence is rooted in anger. Anger, in due measure, is actually meant to be a necessary and useful emotion but only when it is expressed for the right reason, at the right time, in the right way and in the right proportion. Such an ability is extremely rare among human beings. In most situations, anger has a destructive capability. Violence is an act of misdirected anger. People who express themselves through violence are usually insecure.
My dear young friends, today as you graduate from this historic institution to enter the portals of life, as you may engage with your higher calling, I urge you to take a deep breath and reflect upon what I have shared. I urge you to denounce acts of violence in every sphere of life and shun violent people.
You may be young and inexperienced about many things in life but remember, you have the power to change the future course for all of us because you are young, because you do not carry baggage. Because you can reject the status quo and the stereotype. You are naturally endowed with the power to hope and to dream and act upon your dreams. Here I want to remind you that great changes in the world have often been brought about by young people.
Mahatma Gandhi was just 24 when he became a civil rights activist in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was all of 26 when he co-founded the Youth League of the African National Congress.
Swami Vivekananda was just 30 when he addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Neerja Bhanot was 22 when she stood up against terror to save 359 of 379 passengers of the ill-fated Pan Am plane that was hijacked before the hijackers gunned her down. At 22, she remains the youngest recipient of the Ashok Chakra, highest civilian award of the Government of India for bravery. She remains an enduring example of courage and duty in the line of fire.
And think of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai; the one who continues to inspire millions across the world because she stood up to identify herself when terror came calling? How old was she when they shot her in the head. She was 15.
Always tell yourself that the ability to reject violence is the higher one, succumbing to the urge or remaining a silent spectator is a sign of cowardice.
Be politically active, expand your “circle of concern” beyond your families and careers to include the community and the country. Learn to dissent effectively. Violence, besides being generally immoral and usually indefensible, is not effective in the long-term, except in a Pyrrhic way where the cost is so great even to the victor that it’s not clear that victory was worth it.
Once again my heartiest congratulations to all of you; God bless your path. Go, Kiss the World.