Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Rebel fights on- (Part 1)

(First part of my interview with Canadian Esther Friede where she opens out on the hassles she is currently facing in her long-drawn fight with the land-mafia over her Ashram in Haridwar.) 

Esther with a girl in her Ashram
I had been first introduced to Esther Friede more than a year back courtesy a journalist friend of mine. Back then I used to work for a media house which ‘proclaimed’ to be the Mother Teresa of today’s world and wanted to fight for all the good news the world had ever seen. Hence I would always be on the lookout for any kind of a positive or inspiring story. When I heard about Esther’s story from my friend – ‘Elderly Canadian woman, single-handedly fighting the land-mafia in Haridwar’- I was instantly intrigued and went on  to contact Esther immediately.  Back then I had no inkling that even more than a year after the story I wrote on her henceforth, I would be doing a follow-up story on my personal blog. The reasons for that are of course manifold.

Months after I had written the story on her many things changed in my life and quite significant out of those was my relation with Esther. She went on to be much more than a story’s subject for me and we gradually developed a good bond of friendship.(I shall dwell on this matter in a little more details in the second part of this story where we get to see a more personal side of Esther). However the story that I did eventually publish last year has a complicated tale too.

I had initially planned to visit Haridwar myself and meet Esther in person to conduct the interview. But as it turned out, my ‘Mother Teresa inspired’ bosses developed cold feet when they heard the land mafia was involved and moreover they never took any keen interest in the story itself. 'What’s so special about her anyways?’, 'How do you know if she is right?’ , ‘ The story doesn't seem inspiring enough’- these were some of the more general responses I got from them. The story remained stuck for more than two months, taking my frustration to its peak. They just didn't want to take any ‘risks’; this after claiming to show the world the plight of the needy people around us and all that crap. After several rounds of editing the story did eventually get published but not exactly in the way I wanted plus there were vibes I got that they had done me a huge favour by publishing such a 'controversial' story. There was also this small incident that happened a month after the story got published. Our reporters were supposed to present a few of our most inspiring stories for a public function. They chose three of my best, but that didn't have Esther's story in it. I argued vociferously for her story to be displayed at all costs as this was what 'helping the ones in need' is all about I said. They refused and chose to go ahead with some of my other 'better' works which had more 'renowned' people as the lead, helping them in grabbing eyeballs. I fumed within myself as I believed there couldn't be anything more inspiring than an elderly Westerner fighting a lone battle in our country for poor children. But many thought otherwise I guess. All of this left a bitter taste in my mouth and I decided to post the story here in my blog. That somehow changed things, and I got to share the unedited story with many people including Esther of course. As she still says, that story did help her get some attention and eventually helped her cause, albeit not majorly. The response on this story was pretty mild from others in my circle, but till date it remains one of the closest to my heart; something which I really believed in (and still do).

Over the months post the story I never failed to follow up on Esther to know what her status was. She did get some minor relief when they managed to get a ``stay`` through the SDM(Sub-Divisional Magistrate) which put on hold the fraudulent renewal of the registration of the society that the mafia received from the Registrar of Societies in May 2012. However, that was that and presently as she stays in Canada she and her Ashram members in Haridwar are being continually harassed by the land-mafia there. I tried to share her story with many journalists I know along with some NGO websites in the hope that maybe someone will see the honesty in her tale and try and help her out. But nothing has worked, none seem interested in this. I guess the story needs a little more ‘spice’ for our main-stream media to take it. After all when you have a Kareena Kapoor getting married who needs to hear about the plight of an elderly Canadian woman fighting for the cause of poor children in our country isn't it? I have thus decided to take this responsibility myself and let Esther have her say through this blog, and a bit more openly this time as the last time round I was burdened with restrictions. I know most of you wouldn't bother reading this story in the full and would just ‘like’ my link and give me a ‘good job’ comment. But I would still go ahead with this in the hope that something positive would come out of it in the end. I believe in Esther Friede and think that it’s shameful for us as Indians that we cannot look up to people like her and do anything for her cause. I will do my own bit in the way I know best, as much as I can. Taking cue from Esther’s own words she had once told me - “What is true and good must be fought for and we need to uphold the Light for all of society by doing what we are called to do in our own life.” – Amen to that.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. 1. Update us on your current situation. How much have you and your Ashram progressed in the fight against the land mafia? Has there been any silver lining in all this?

Ans. - We made some progress – at least with the administration when I managed to get a ``stay`` through the SDM which put on hold the fraudulent renewal of the registration of the society that the mafia received from the Registrar of Societies. That was good news.  That was in May 2012.

But, when the mafia saw that the tactics of using the legal and administrative systems to steal our land did not work, they started to resort to physical intimidation.  On September 5ththis year, about 20 men entered the grounds illegally and occupied the ashram property, scaring the residents.  Miraculously, our friends and supporters were able to mobilize the police – they showed them a copy of the legal stay.  The police drove them out of the ashram. 

When all this started, I thought perhaps there might be a silver lining to this difficulty.  But at this point, I still have not seen it.  Instead of doing service, our energies, and funding have to be focused on defending ourselves. So whom does this serve? Money goes into the pockets of lawyers instead of towards doing something worthwhile for the children, for people, for humanity. 

Still, I have to put this into the context of spiritual life, faith and trust in God.  Perhaps in some roundabout way, God has a greater plan yet when She sees that we have the perseverance and courage to face whatever difficulties come our way.  Perhaps this is some kind of a test.

Q.2.You say that the land mafia has harassed you even at your homeland in Canada. Elaborate.

Ans. - On the same day that the mafia invaded the ashram, their lawyers in Delhi mailed a harassing letter to me here in Canada.  They said their client – a Swami Kumar Shankar wanted to know where Swami Devanandaji (our Guru) was – whether he was alive or dead.  He accused me of using his name fraudulently for our ashram and threatened to launch a case of fraud against me for doing so.  I of course replied that this was a nuisance letter – most ashrams are named after their founders – for example, the well-known Ramakrishna Mission.  Most Christian and Hindu ashrams are named after a saint – it is common practice.  I wrote to the lawyers to spend their time doing legal work for people who really need legal help, not fraudulent swamis like their client. 

Q.3. Over the last 10 months or so since our last interview how much do you think the situation has changed? Are you still as determined as you were then in fighting the land mafia seeing all the hassles you are having to deal with?

Ans. - As I said in the first question above, we made some progress but that just caused the mafia to get bolder.  They were probably so confident they would succeed in their misuse of the system. But when that failed, they became barbaric, becoming physically menacing. Of course, I am even more indignant!  I have a hard time believing this drama – like some really reeeeaaaallllllyyybaaaaaad Bollywood movie – but it is happening in real life!  But yes, I am just as determined.

Q.4. How much of this fight are you still willing to wage on? You are in your 60`s now and you have to look after your life all alone. Surely all these will take their toll on you. Given that the situation doesn’t improve any further what would you do?

Ans. - I have had to surrender this to God right from the beginning. If I followed a course of just looking after myself, I don’t think I would even have stepped up to this problem at this stage in life.  I don’t need to, if I just want to follow a path of self-preservation.  I have all the potential for living a safe and relatively comfortable life in the west, doing work that is of service to others, and in the process, providing for my needs. I get a small government pension, good medical care which in Canada is government subsidized so I can rely on being physically well cared for, material conveniences are at my fingertips. I can drive anywhere safely and live quite independently for as long as my body and mind are stable.  I can follow my interests as I choose. I live in one of the most culturally diverse, clean and beautiful cities of the world.

Coming to India in the first place in the very beginning, was a risk as far as my personal welfare was concerned. I came across land – during the India Pakistan war of 1965.  Spiritual calling brings me here, despite the fact that it disrupts worldly life.  This means walking in faith – and that changes how one looks at things completely.  Living life by the Spirit, means giving up one’s own preconceived ideas of what to do and how life should be.  It also means being autonomous from within, instead of being externally defined, following the calling of one’s soul. This desecration of my Guru’s ashram, is enough reason to set aside personal concerns.  I can’t say how this will affect me, how much stamina I have to carry on.  Central to the Gita is the concept of leaving all the results of one’s actions in the Lord’s hands.  One acts, knowing full well that “I” am not the doer. The point of all action becomes spiritual realization.  The care of one’s body and life are in the hands of the Almighty.  

Q.5. If you had a chance to speak to the land mafia directly what would you say to them? Do you think any truce can be brought about between the two parties? Or is the animosity too strong for anything like that?

Ans. - The word ``mafia`` is some generic collective term for a group of people.  So I would ask each person in that mob, to face his Maker – to ask himself what his actions are leading him to and the consequences of such actions.  I would ask each one of them to examine his conscience, if any of them are still able to get in touch with it (maybe they don’t know what it is any more). I don`t know who these people are – and the ones in front are only the little people – who have probably been offered  a small piece of the financial gains pie– behind them are people of influence: developers, business people, politicians– and maybe even some religious folks, manipulating these people.  I would ask them all to give up their greed.  After all, they can`t take their material wealth with them when they die – but they will certainly take with them the karmas, the samskaras(deep impressions in their consciousness of their thoughts and deeds) which they created by their lies, deceits and harm to others.  These will surely follow them into the hereafter and life after life.

I would ask them to join with me to fund a charitable enterprise on the land they are trying to grab.  I don`t have animosity.  I feel sorry for them and the terrible karmas they are creating for themselves – what goes around comes around. I also think this is such a waste of human energy! I am doing what I am doing, standing up to them, not with animosity but because it is the right thing to do.  But human energy could be put to good productive use for the common good.  Why waste life doing evil, harassing people and storing up bad karma?  Why waste time, energy and resources paying lawyers to steal other people’s property just to make money– when the time energy and money could be funding something that would make life better for so many others and continue to uplift society for generations to come? Why not leave a worthwhile legacy for the world?

Q.6. Looking back, do you think you could have changed anything in this whole situation? Do you regret anything that you have done in this whole episode? If you were given one chance to go back and rectify anything from your past in this what would that be?

Ans. - At the moment, it is hard to see the forest for the trees, to use a cliché.  But looking back before the actual troubles erupted, I think the biggest mistake the trustees of the ashram made was hire, and then eventually fire the administrator, who initiated this problem.  I was against hiring him in the first place.  I was especially suspicious of how he helped the trustees oust the incumbent administrator and then put himself in the employ of the ashram.  I was not there at the time at the ashram so could not have input to the process.  Not only was I not there in India when all this took place, but the trustees did not even inform me of their intentions and subsequently of their actions – until it was all a done deal. I am beginning to think that perhaps he was planning something like this all along, by becoming a trusted person in the employ of the ashram.  He saw an opportunity for the future and jumped on it. In 2006 when I came to the ashram, I was told that someone had tried to go to the petwari and tehsildar to claim rights to the property but were refused.  I am quite sure it was him and his family. He probably thought he could take over the place initially by himself by claiming squatter’s rights because he was working the fields to grow crops.  Of course he was supposed to be growing crops in order to bring in income for the ashram. Now I think he was hoping that his activities would entitle him to make claims of ownership. When he didn’t succeed on his own, he went to the mafia. I think I made a mistake at that time by not confronting him.  I thought that by behaving decently with him and his family that he would reciprocate by behaving decently for the ashram.

My other mistake was right at the beginning when he was hired, I took a back seat in the running of the ashram because of my disagreement with the other trustees over their decision to oust the previous administrator and put this person in place. I didn’t act on the intuition I had inside about the direction they were taking the ashram. Again, my desire to avoid conflict, trying to keep the peace amongst us, tripped me up. I focused more on my own studies, education, talents and work instead of fighting hard for a vision of the ashram that I wanted to see take place.  If I could go back into the past, I would have tried harder to assert my views and object to the decisions of the other trustees and taken more leadership towards what I felt was the direction the ashram should take.   Sometimes fighting is necessary, as I am now finding out. I am pretty introverted and do not assert myself. I like to keep a low profile unless I am thrust into the limelight by circumstances. My name Esther means Star and my last name is the German word for Peace – so my name means Star of Peace, which does pretty accurately reflect my personality. By nature, I am always trying to look after the well-being of others and mediate peace, trying to avoid conflict, looking for peaceful constructive resolutions. I also think very highly of others and I always think people will see things the way I do and back me up. Maybe I have something to learn from all of this about defending justice - that it is a never-ending battle to maintain dharma.  Maybe this is supposed to wake me up to see that there is corruption and evil in the world and no one is immune from its effects and one has to learn to deal with it, stand up to it.

Q.7. This fight between you and the land mafia has been going on for quite some time. Do you seriously believe that any practical solution can be made given the inherent complications in the case? Also, you alone can’t continue this fight forever. Do you think any other person or people will continue fighting your cause if this case drags on. Do you have any concrete back-up plan for the future of the ashram, the children?

Ans. - This officially started in 2009 which is three years, although I discovered when looking through the paperwork of the case, that the mafia was preparing their fraudulent documents long before that. Since this development took us by surprise, it is not something for which we have plans.  I am seriously thinking about the best way forward for the future and when I have that figured out – you can do a follow up again.
Esther(center) leading meditation with the school children.
I have been developing plans for the use of the land for charitable purposes – I have been working on vision papers for the last few months since I came back from India.  Perhaps you would like to see my vision papers.  I started to write them as a way of combating the negativity of the current situation with the land mafia.  I thought to myself, I will just keep filling my own mind with visions of what should be done at the ashram and write them down.  If and when I get an opportunity, I could start to pitch the vision. If I can find people to buy into the vision who are bold enough, good will prevail.  I think that would be the best defense, to just boldly go ahead with a grand plan of major proportions for something amazing and show the world that crime does not pay and that truth, charitableness, good will win. What concerns me is that with India being so corrupt, are there any visionaries out there that will not fall prey to corruption, who would devote themselves to carry out these visions?  Even if I did not live to see the fruition, I would feel that justice prevailed if people would come forward to create something truly worthwhile that would bless humanity.

(To read the second part of the story click here.)

(To read the initial story that I had written on Esther click here.)

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