My first two months in India have been an absolute rollercoaster. I have slowly managed to figure out how to juggle my dual identity as an Indian American in India. I have learned to laugh at people’s bewilderment and responses of, “hey, you speak just like them too!” when I speak Tamil to a local resident and then turn to one of my expat friends and start speaking English in my New York accent.
After a relatively blissful month of feeling immersed in a new culture and getting started on my project the one –and-a-half-month blues hit me hard. After spending Diwali with my family in Chennai and attending a conference for work in Bangalore, I returned to Madurai and found myself feeling lost and uncertain about what this next phase of my fellowship would bring.
I quickly realized that a major source of my uneasiness was that I was beginning to have doubts about my project. I recently assisted my NGO with the completion of a report on the National Human Rights Commission of India. I am currently commencing work on my main project, a report on the national and state-level women’s commissions of India. The women’s commissions were set up with the goal of protecting and promoting the interests of women in India. The purpose of my report is to monitor the functioning of these commissions to ensure they are fulfilling their mandate and to make recommendations for change. While I started my work on this project with high hopes that I had the potential to contribute to the creation of institutions that could effectively respond to women’s rights concerns, I soon began to question this.
Every day I work in close proximity to many individuals who have faced violations of their rights or whose families have suffered such violations. I am both deeply troubled and inspired by their stories. Some of these individuals have become friends of mine and their friendship has changed the way I think about human rights and my role as a human rights activist. I have begun to realize that my ability to affect change is limited and that a myriad of factors and forces much bigger than me are at work either supporting or inhibiting people’s abilities to enjoy their rights. In light of this realization, the institutions I am seeking to remedy began to seem so far removed from the complex cultural and social factors that shape people’s lives. As a college student, I marveled at the idea of human rights institutions…in theory, it seemed like a noble idea. Now, upon taking a closer look, it seems like the creation of these institutions simply creates more bureaucracy and red tape through which victims need to navigate. Even if the Commissions are well meaning, the idea that a large institution can change people’s complex, individual experiences seems doubtful to me. Still, it is too early for me to reach any conclusions about the validity of human rights institutions or about anything else for that matter, at this stage in my fellowship.
While feeling uncertain about my work is troubling, it has also been humbling. I have realized that although finding answers and creating short-term, visible change during my time here may be unlikely, maybe the very act of questioning itself is the first step towards creating sustainable, long-term change.