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Celebrating Friendship: A collective tribute to Smitu Kothari

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Celebrating Friendship: A collective tribute to Smitu Kothari
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  Celebrating Friendship: A Collective Tribute to Smitu Kothari Members of the  Development editorial board remember Smitu Kothari, former member of the Editorial Board who passed away in March 2009, recalling the many dimensions he gave the board as a friend, as a thinker, activist and as a visionary. Wendy Harcourt Khawar Mumtaz Arturo Escobar Fatma Alloo Franck Amalric Marisa Belausteguigoitia-Rius Nermeen Shaikh Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Thierno Kane Continuing the journey Wendy Harcourt I first met Smitu Kothari at my very first engagement with SID in New Delhi in 1988. Since then he has played a hugely supportive role in my life, both as a dear friend and as a stalwart supporter in all that SID and the journal aim to achieve. His unexpected and untimely death in March 2009 was both a devastating personal blow and profound loss to the collective work of the journal as well as the SID family. I realized as I read all the tributes from around the world that his loss will be felt by many other friends and networks. We are proud to devote this edition of the journal to Smitu Kothari. We remember in this journal issue aptly entitled ‘Beyond Economics’, his deep commitment to social and economic trasnformation, his work for peace and justice among the poorest communities in India, his global activism, his intellectual insights and above all his friendship and tremendous capacity for joy. Smitu challenged many of us in the editorial board to keep true to the community voice, the goals of economic social justice and peace, and to face the full implications of the violence of development. Smitu in this way was full of paradoxes. On the one hand he was the dearest of friends, on the other he was the most honest of critics. He could celebrate life while working closely with the harsh realities of injustice. He was a global citizen and yet also a man of his community, whose greatest love was to sing, to cook and be with his family and friends. There are so many memories that I carry with me of Smitu in the dozens of places we met and schemed, wrote and spoke together. I always found myself, like so many others, warming to his intellectual wisdom, his delight in ideas and sense of fun in company. I always felt Smitu would just appear and disappear in my life, but was always there if ever I called, and it is painful to think of him not appearing once more with open arms brimming with new ideas, people I should meet, journal issues I should do.  Perhaps one of the most poignant memories of him is when he arrived, unplanned to the launch of the book Women and the Politics of Place , where I had written up an interview with him. It was in Bangkok in the midst of a large women’s conference. I had informed all the people involved in the book (it evolved out of a long project coordinated by Arturo Escobar and myself) but did not expect any but those at the Conference to show. Incongruously as I and one or two other authors assembled with the publisher for the launch Smitu appeared, smiling at my surprise and saying how could I not come? Somehow he was in Bangkok for another of our friends’ meeting (Smitu always spoke of his friends as if they were my friends, and in time they often were) and had made his way for two hours to be at the launch. After the speeches, we sat by the river savouring an hour together before he had to go, sipping beer and nuts, dreaming together of how we could continue the project, taking our belief in transformation from place to other communitites, bringing in more friends, contributing to the tide of change. That vision of Smitu’s, of taking vision and ideas and involving more and more people towards a dream of ecological, social and gender justice forged by friendship and understanding, he knows we will carry on. In friendship   Khawar Mumtaz When I met Smitu Kothari for the first time at a dinner party in New Delhi, almost 25 years ago, I had no inkling that our paths would cross in the future and a deep and rich friendship would follow. The next meeting of any significance was in 1987 when I as a member of a group of seven women environmentalists visited India in an unprecedented trip organized by IUCN-Pakistan where we travelled by road visiting environmental activists in the foothills of the Himalayas. On our return to Delhi Smitu was among the organizations and individuals we met. His insights into the complexities of India’s environmental movement went a long way in explaining the country’s diverse issues and their social dynamics. I count the beginning of my friendship from this point. We found many things in common from the despair with the rapid destruction of the environment, to the pointlessness of the nuclear race, from India-Pakistan tensions and the hawkish mindsets of policy makers, to our love of classical as well as Indian film music. It was much later I discovered Smitu’s remarkable singing voice and his repertoire of old songs. Smitu was indeed an inspirational person with a very clear mind and a people’s perspective. His commitment to social movements was deep seated and strong. The two issues that seemed to fire him most were the denial of historical rights of local/indigenous people in the name of ‘development’ and conflict at the cost of peace. He was particularly passionate about indigenous peoples’ rights and connected it with economic globalization. I attribute a great deal of my understanding on this to Smitu. One of Smitu’s weaknesses, I wouldn’t call it a fault, was that he was passionate about too many issues and wanted to give his all to all of them, a physical impossibility at the best of times, and in the process did not always manage to fulfill what he promised. One such initiative was the volume that he conceived on internal conflicts in South Asia. He generated interest in the project, managed to get an international organization to support it and in the end the volume was published without his contribution. He would always admonish me for taking on more than I could cope with but was probably more guilty of this than me.   I would like to remember Smitu especially for a journey that he and a group of like- minded friends started under the SID umbrella forming SID-SAN which set as its task a volume on women in conflict situations in South Asia. The book, often referred to by the group of editors as ‘Our Book’ evolved as conflicts in different parts of the region changed their hues; the aim was to capture the liberating or empowering moment for women who get inducted into conflicts rather than coping mechanisms. In the course of the volume we met several times, had many discussions and disagreements, were frustrated at each others’ pace and ironically just when the volume was indeed near completion Smitu passed away. It is now dedicated to him and is on SID website. Smitu’s untimely and unexpected death has taken away a dear, warm and sensitive friend who was always welcome in my family and took a great deal of interest in my children and their lives. His departure leaves a void which would be difficult to fill – it was after all a space created over 20 years. Smitu and the many kinds of struggle Arturo Escobar I was fortunate to spend time with Smitu Kothari over a twenty-year time span in many places and at many types of events –in the USA, Europe, even once in Colombia. I count these opportunities among my blessings. I learned a lot from Smitu both intellectually and personally, since we always found time to enjoy ourselves and celebrate being together, often with a small group of friends. Like many others, I loved his singing. One of my fondest memories of Smitu’s is him singing Indian songs, or American songs, like the well-known ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’, by Simon and Garfunkel, which he sang with my partner Magda and others at our house in Chapel Hill on a couple of different occasions. Grassroots resistance to development was central to Smitu’s intellectual and political work. Whether talking about the most recent developments in adivasi struggles, or the historical mobilizations in the Narmada Valley, or about peaceful non-violent resistance by communities against ecological destruction and in defense of livelihoods in so many parts of India, he always spoke with passion against injustice and with a great sense of hope and commitment to the advancement of those struggles. Far from naïve, he had a grounded belief in the spiritual, cultural, and material power of organized communities to achieve social transformation. Smitu and I were the only men participating in the ‘Women and the Politics of Place’ project that Wendy (Harcourt) and I co-organized with a marvelous group of largely women activists and intellectuals. ‘When people are displaced, the very cohesion and interdependence of community life is broken’, he wrote in his interview chapter in the resulting book Women and the Politics of Place . For him, the violence of development often implied the loss of entire cultural worlds. Conversely, as he wrote in the same piece, a politics of place is about ‘the terms of connection between people and between groups of people, other species, and the surrounding physical worlds. They are also about the terms of connection between local and larger places, both earthly and spiritual.’ I think this statement summarizes well Smitu’s fundamental concerns. How are people organizing against the displacement caused by development and modernity? How can ‘we’ (intellectuals, activists, academics, students) contribute to such struggles?  What do these struggles have to do with more direct forms of democracy, the defense of the commons, planetary consciousness, and the assertion of pluralism against fundamentalisms? In 1998, Smitu organized and presided over a ‘global dialogue’ on ‘Expanding People’s Spaces in the Globalizing Economy’, held at the Hanasaari Cultural Center near Helsinki. Convened by the International Group for Grassroots Initiatives (IGGRI), a network connected with the alternative development movement in the global South, the dialogue’s aim was to share accounts of popular responses to development and globalization and to discuss innovative experiences with alternative economies by grassroots movements. Over 120 participants from the five continents, the large majority from grassroots organizations or representatives of social movement networks, attended the call. The range of topics was vast, from Davos to the regeneration of local economies, from commodification and eurocentrism to the spiritual values and the emergence of countervailing forces, and from the ravages of globalization to a panoply of cases around community struggles, local currencies, women’s projects, cultural resistance, and so forth, all of which were seen as crafting people’s autonomous spaces. At one point, Smitu recapitulated the discussions of the ‘ten kinds of struggle’; these included from struggles of ‘the human spirit’ over values and of ‘wisdom over information’ to struggles for ‘respect of natural cycles’ and democracy. On the last day, at the closing ceremony participants assembled in a circle on the lawn, in the middle of which a mandala was drawn. People were asked to come forward to fill up the mandala with leaves, pebbles, wild berries and flowers and to share stories. Everybody held hands in gratitude, and then we all departed with wishes for outer and inner peace and harmony. Doubtlessly, as he did with our project on women and place and the entire IGGRI network, Smitu had infused the Finnish event with his vision, wisdom and compassion. As I write these lines, I feel his spirit reaching out to us all from that circle on the lawn and from our many meetings, illuminating our own journeys, summoning us to enliven our spiritual lives and to contribute to healing the earth and the human community. To You Smitu Fatma Alloo  You went without a goodbye Smitu for goodbye it is not. Your spirit of justice in the wake of globalization is what will stay with us. I remember when I met you in one of these board meetings which was planning an international conference. You questioned the internationalism of it all when you realized that Africa was not represented in the programme. In your lectures to students you always spoke of Africa. When we visited Oldvai in Arusha, where the first fossil of a human being was found, you were emotionally moved. You said you felt the power of being. The richness and vastness of Africa you said made you believe that this is the Continent which would make a difference one day when its peoples realize its Pan African unity. You always tried to build a South-South network including the South of the North in any mobilization that mattered globally. Through you I also experienced the power of thought and consistent struggle in the face of all odds. You believed in thought as a liberating factor in human development and coupled with it the spirit of movements which moved you. You had your battles on  many a front - global, local and personal. It is rare that you find a man who struggles at a personal level and cries from the pain it creates. Smitu in dire days you would cry and you would sing. I will not forget when I witnessed you crying when a Dalit was telling his story. It was the kind of crying when one is in pain - like when you lost your mother. And then you sang-you sang for Emma, your daughter and your soul. You loved to sing and you had the voice for it too. You sang for pain and you sang for joy. When you first came to Zanzibar you were so overwhelmed by the beauty and the way it really was a globalization of cultures, as you put it. What did you do? You just started to sing a spirited and happy Bollywood song as we walked through the narrow streets of Zanzibar. You were so surprised when passer-bys joined in. You did not know that Bollywood is so popular here in my place, as you found out to your amazement. In you I found that versatility of a leader for whom nothing is impossible and no-one is above anyone. To a child you bent down and you became a child. To us women, your sensitivity to our issues and the time and effort you took to be there was so unusual. There were times we argued over contentious issues but your strength was you did have the capacity to think through things and change. Similarly you never hesitated to take us on when you disagreed. Like I said it is a special quality in a man. I suppose that is what endeared you to us - your friends. You actually taught me the deep meaning of friendship. You demanded from friendship as you gave to it also. You were the glue who held us together. Now you are gone but you have left us with that glue and here we are gathered through the journal  Development paying tribute to you Smitu. I can almost picture you smiling through your eyes. It is difficult to envisage that you are gone but I already miss you and our conversations on the internet -to share things that inspire me and to hear back by return e-mail from you. Thank you my dear, dear friend Smitu for letting me be part of your life. In Tribute to Smitu Kothari Franck Amalric For a few years, between 1995 and 2001, I had the chance to work closely, albeit at a distance, with Smitu Kothari within the frame of the Society for International Development Sustainable Livelihoods Programme and, in parallel, of International Group for Grassroots Initiatives (IGGRI). One major idea that I recall from working with Smitu is that material poverty is not the only form, nor even perhaps the main form, of human suffering and injustice in our world. To see social injustice as greater than economic poverty remains a radical position to hold within international development circles, and one which placed Smitu squarely among the radicals in development. And yet, perhaps because it was assumed that in holding that position Smitu was bearer of a Gandhian and therefore utopian legacy, not everyone understood nor could accept, that Smitu’s point was fundamentally an empirical one. I heard him speak to many audiences, from journalists in Delhi , to development practitioners in policy making circles in The Hague , and every single time his primary and main concern was to speak about people, women, men, children and communities. He spoke about the whole picture, their daily lives, their sufferings, their livelihoods,
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