“When I was a child, I switched schools about eight to nine times in 12 years. Every time I went to a new school, I had to make new friends, and I was always the outsider. People who are not part of the mainstream often have to deal with this, and that made a big impression on me,” says Ashok Panikkar, CEO of Meta-Culture, South Asia’s first specialised organisation dedicated to the field and practice of conflict resolution, relationship management and dialogue.
Yes. That sounded a little bit complex to me too. But he explains, “Imagine a situation in which there is only one cookie and there are two of you. And the cookie is not big enough for both of you as well. What do you do? You can fight physically or verbally, you can ask your parents to decide, or talk to your brother and say, “We have one cookie what are you going to do?” If you do this, you negotiate. But this is not what usually happens. And if it happens, most of the time you don’t have the right skills to negotiate. Unfortunately, the same things happen with CEOs of big companies. In my experience, I have seen many of them fighting for cookies. We help them stop fighting for cookies through dialogue and negotiation.”
But this wasn’t Ashok’s career choice after he finished his studies. “In 1975, the options that are available today did not exist, and the most unconventional course that one could pursue was graphic design. It gave me the opportunity to have a creative life, but after many years working in the field, I did not find enough meaning in it. So, while running my graphic design firm, I started to teach creative and critical thinking, which eventually led me to cross-cultural & diversity training and conflict resolution,” says Ashok. He was 36, and this illustrated Steve Jobs’s famous lines: “Keep looking, don’t settle.”
He travelled the world for two years; spending a year travelling in India and the other year abroad. He finally found something interesting, a master’s in Critical and Creative Thinking in Boston and applied for it. From that moment his life changed. He got a job as a part-time professor and later he started to work for a NGO specialised in conflict resolution. There he understood that he had found what he was looking for: a meaningful job.
After nine years, he decided to come back to India to start his own social enterprise. “I’m more an entrepreneur than an employee. I have my own way of doing things, and I prefer working with that. In 2004, I asked myself if I wanted to continue working in the field of conflict resolution, and I realized I did. But I also understood that India was the right country to start such a company because there is a dire need for conflict resolution organisation such as Meta-Culture,” says Ashok.
Initially, it was not easy for him at all. “Customers, friends, associates, clients all were reacting violently. They were telling me, “Who are you to come to India and to do this work? Go back to the US!” The ones who liked my ideas were not willing to pay for it. The only way to survive was to borrow money from the banks to keep my business going. Right now, the situation is better. For the past two years we have had more work,” explains Ashok.
Those years gave him a different success. “Our first big project was a conflict analysis in Orissa after violence occurred between Hindus and Christians. “We are often called to solve interfaith conflicts,” says Ashok. But he believes that their masterpiece to-date is a project they ran in the garment sector. “For more than two years, we brought different stakeholders from the garment, civil society, and parallel sectors to the dialogue table. We brought factory owners, NGOs, trade unions, people from the government, the ILO, the FLO and researchers together. We talked about the state of the industry and how the outcome of it was better relationships among the stakeholders. If there were problems with the factory, NGOs didn’t have go on strike or to the Press, but they talked. We moved them from a fight mode to a negotiation mode,” adds Ashok.
With dialogue and negotiation everything can be solved. If they can solve problems of corporate organisations and industries, why not try solving society’s problems? With this purpose they started Public Intelligence Project. “We are an electing democracy, but not a participatory one. We have to equip our society to solve big problems: inter-religious problems, problems between castes, and resources. We need to learn how to negotiate with each other. If we don’t do it, we will become fascists, and our democracy will be in serious trouble,” states Ashok. “The Public Intelligence Project aims to create a culture of democracy. We will run workshops in schools and colleges, and advocate for freedom of expression. We will keep trying to explain to people that this is necessary. It’s not the same job as bringing electricity to a village or building schools. We need to change the country by changing its people. Schools and electricity are important, but it is not enough,” he adds.
This project is not to defend or empower parties, but citizens. “It’s not about one party or another. It’s about a system. The environment becomes right for fascism or extremism which silences alternative voices and shuts out expression because the culture is not a culture of democracy,” says Ashok.
Ashok has finally found meaning in his life and his advice to youngsters who do not have a clear direction in their lives is, “Don’t listen to your elders. They don’t have the answers. Don’t plan your life around a profitable career. In 10 years, your skills are going to change anyway. In today’s world you can’t take anything for granted. Don’t follow the mainstream. Look at the world, and create a role for yourself, but be creative.”
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