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Das Chopras Devinder

Devinder Das Chopra first came into contact with SCI in New Delhi, India in 1950 and attended work camps in India as a college student. In 1955 he went to Egypt with a UNESCO grant to attend the Co-ordination Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS) program, then to Lebanon and subsequently to Europe with SCI, returning to India in mid-1957. On his second return he became the first-ever SCI Asian Secretary, opening work and contacts in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Malaysia and coordinating work in India, Pakistan and Japan. In 1965 he joined the Peace Corps staff in India, later Christian Children’s Fund and ended his career with UNICEF, serving in Hyderabad and Yemen. After retirement he became Chairperson of the Indian Branch and served as a SCI International Committee member, while living outside of New Delhi with his wife, Sudesh.

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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Devinder das Chopra

My involvement with SCI -1951-1965

First contact with SCI

Representatives from SCI came to my College, St Stephen’s, in late 1950. Ralph Hegnauer (Swiss) talked to the assembly of about 400 allmale student body; he spoke with a heavy German accent. Some elements were lost to the assembly I am sure! The team of Max Parker(US), Franz Schenck (Switzerland), Wolfgang Gerber (Germany) and Dorothy Abbott (UK) as far as I can recollect, was asked by the Principal to meet with the interested students later in the staff room. About 24 of us met them and asked questions. The SCI work in Faridabad near Delhi, in rehabilitating refugees from West Pakistan, was mentioned and the upcoming workcamp in Khajjiar, Himachal Pradesh was referred to and invitations for us to join in, later in summer.
Some of us active in the College Social Service League; began our introduction to SCI in Faridabad followed later to the workcamp in Khajjiar. All that came to pass in 1951. It was during that time one got introduced to the Quaker Centre located near our College and one met Horace Alexander and Marjorie Sykes (both also SCI members) as well as Roshan Lal Aggarwal who was active with SCI in Faridabad. He taught Hindi to SCIers and members of the Friends Centre.
The Oppligers (Mary and Pierre) were regulars at the Quaker Centre. Pierre Oppliger was the first formal SCI representative in India, the liaison between the government and the SCI team. Pierre had taught French to Indira Gandhi when she studied in Switzerland, and established important connections. That is how the railway concessions for SCIers – half price of the 3rd class fare - came into the statute book. This facility for all SCI-ers from anywhere in the world, still exists and has been a boon for people traveling to workcamps.
The silent Meets at the Friends Centre, the weekend camps and the Khajjiar workcamp had a major impact on my life then and beyond. Apart from the week-end camps, I joined SCI service every summer while the rest of the family vacationed in the hills. The fifties wrought a major change in me while studying for my Masters. SCI for me became ‘education beyond the classroom’. I had become aware of life’s realities and realized that a shot at Government service or the private sector was not my ‘cup of tea’. With an understanding and an open family, I was allowed to go my way though, I know, my father was disappointed that I was not going in for the Foreign or Administrative service in Government. The ‘halo’ to go that route I suspect had been affected by what I went through during the first seven years of the fifties. SCI had got me hooked! A look back, even 50 years later presents no regrets! Yet, there were times when I commiserated with myself, had I taken the right decision since ‘social work & community development’ were unlikely to present any shining career one was opting out for! The reality in fact is that SCI-work provided me, what I should say “a peg”, values and a vocation in the long run! For that and more, one will ever remain beholden to the many SCIers I associated with under our skies. Their passion, commitment, and the very concept of ‘conscientious objection to military service’ were eye-openers for most of us fed on ‘Ramdhun’ and Gandhian precepts of living and serving others in difficult circumstances. The LTV’s simplicity of dress and food contrasted with their high ideals, character and values – on occasions and subjectively speaking, I have wondered where that breed has gone! Or, is it that I have so changed, grown with age and cannot identify that kind with ease any more?!
The other impact was to forget one’s “refugee” status, (our family had lost everything during the Partition) since one saw abject poverty as one got exposed to India’s hinterland, through those early years with SCI. An exposure then triggered for me, in those early days, tough vignettes of rural India and Pakistan. The inequalities that exist in our society can never be ignored, for sure. But to have lived amidst it all and among the have-nots carried its own depressing message and impact. To have lived with those who came from overseas carried its immediate message to some among us. One felt smothered (inspired or overwhelmed?) by that, as I did. The passion and style of living followed by the team was so simple, but with such rich values, as demonstrated by the SCI –LTVs like Ralph and Idy Hegnauer, to cite one example, it left a life-long impact on my thinking. The inequalities and low economic standards left one kind of depressed. In particular where food, clothing and shelter for the common folks are concerned, one felt helpless. Yet, it also made one recognise that one must find ways to do something about it, if that could ever be possible. (This I saw then and now half a century’s ‘look-back’ remains an unrealistic and an unfair expectation from a non-profit like SCI or any other.)
That feeling and urge has remained with me ever since the days of the fifties and the sixties. The government uses the term ‘BPL’, that is ‘below the poverty line’ population, for subsidised schemes and food ration cards throughout the country. The numbers of the ‘have-nots’ today may be the same as the then total population of India in 1951-52 – say about 350 million. The country now is over a billion, and still rising!

My background provided motivation to join SCI

Our family had migrated as refugees from Lahore in 1947. We had lost everything and the family was concerned with finding new roots and earning a livelihood. It struck me odd that the outsider (foreigner) was concerned to give up his peace for the sake of the refugees or the poor rural folk here, in strife torn India. The least one could do was to be concerned and to do our part for our own. Post Khajjiar, my first work camp, I wrote an article for the ‘Stephanian’ magazine of the College. The Principal had us, the SCI-ers, over at his residence where we talked about our experiences. The subject of conscientious objection, Franz’s cycle trip to India and the poverty of the hill folks got discussed at length. These issues it was clear had made an impact on our young minds. Of the six who went from College, two (Absalom Peters and I) for sure became loyal followers of SCI’s ideals. My grandfather had me sit with him and talk about what we had accomplished in Khajjiar, what the white folk and we ate and how our weeks had been spent in the hills. The values imbibed from the dignity of labour, taking turns to cook our meals and clean our utensils, work with the team to make a pipe line for their drinking water supply from a mountain spring, were all new events and experiences for the family and I to go over as something unique. I was then (and now), reminded of how a middle aged man, with swollen feet, had spent a day with us in Lahore in 1944, having walked and trudged from Burma, seeking help during those WW-II years. How my grandparents and parents had helped him has remained with me ever since. Did this exposure and sensitivity during my first 10 years leave me with a message and concern for the rest of my life? Why need I have got my ‘destiny’ entwined with SCI’s here, just a few years later, from 1951 onwards? It was so writ, I think.

My early SCI work in India

The discussions at the camp in the evenings on SCI’s relationship with India in the past, the issues of Peace and non-violence, camp fires, visit with the Ghumans near our Forest Rest House (he was a Sikh Colonel in the army with a Scottish wife, an architect Principal running the Delhi School of Architecture), and the weekend hike to the beautiful town of Chamba, enlarged our view of the world and our surroundings. We paid Rs 100 (I forget the exact amount) for the 6 weeks’ food in the camp and had already paid for our rail and bus travel up and back home. (In 2001 I took my family and our grandson to Khajjiar. The pine trees, the rest house, the village with its temple all were there with a better upkeep. The pipe line we made did not exist any more replaced by the State’s pipeline.) This excursion cum learning process led next to working on the week-ends at the Ashok Vihar, Mehrauli, in making a Youth Hostel under the leadership of St. John (Jack) Catchpool, Director of the Quaker Centre. He had involved the US and Indian staff of the Technical Co-operation Mission (TCM) of the US Embassy and its Ambassador, Chester Bowles. I never knew then that 50 years later I would be living in its vicinity!
Weekend camps in Faridabad, short term camps in Mandodhar TB Sanatorium (where Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Madame Louise Morin of the All India Radio-French service visited us for half a day), a work camp in Musiaree, near Murree in West Pakistan, Sewagram, near Wardha in Maharashtra, etc. are all experiences that enlarged my view of the India I belonged to and its poverty belt which one normally would never have been exposed to, really speaking. In Mandodhar, near Sanawar-Kasauli hills, we renovated the TB Sanatorium where we met with Pierre Oppliger, Bijit Ghosh (later Director School of Planning and Architecture and for many years the President of SCI-Inida) and Dr Indera Paul Singh, Anthropologist, just then returned from Germany, who later became a long standing Committee member and supporter of SCI.
Ethelwyn Best from the UK had become the SCI Representative, based in Faridabad. She came home to convince my parents that my volunteering and going to Pakistan to attend the Musiaree work camp was in the right spirit and safe. Based on her word and surety, the family sanctioned my going along with a few others like Absalom Peters. (Since 6 of us from College had earlier been part of a goodwill delegation to Forman Christian College, Lahore with the sponsorship of Jack Catchpool and support of our Principal, this permission became easier. Also one already had the IndoPak passport to proceed on the SCI mission.) The work of stone cutting and road building in Musiaree was tough; it was a unique experience among the West Pakistanis with Marius and Marianne Studinger-Boelsma as the camp leaders. At the community, people-to-people levels, friendly relations were an easier proposition than what one reads in the press over the Kashmir issue or the occasional communal riots. Knowing Punjabi and being non-vegetarian further helped one to integrate amongst the Pakistanis, though differences on why India should not keep J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) became points of heated discussion at times in the evenings. I remember sharing the view that Pandit Ji’s (Nehru, the Indian Premier) ploy was to talk of a plebiscite but that it would never take place, ever since India had agreed to get divided in order to win freedom. In fact, they had gained Pakistan literally on a platter thanks to the white man’s role of divide and rule! Such frank and aggressive views were not conducive to goodwill among our Pak friends. One explained how the division invited an aggressive onslaught of the majority community (Hindus) while the minorities (including Muslims) had felt discriminated against for centuries – this was to be their rationale and justification for a new nationhood. Divide and rule took its toll and we have not seen the end of it all, yet! Divisions continue still.
Those were the years of learning indeed. As I look back I do marvel and value the fact that my parents allowed me to go to Pakistan, as early as 1952! In terms of physical accomplishment on the ground through such SCI services, one cannot say all that much. Those were sometimes days of hard work. The learning experience to listen, to hear the other’s viewpoint brought home, time and again the meaning of the term: ‘every coin has its two sides. To accept and reconcile is not easy yet, in life that is the way out … but I (like many others) have remained a slow learner or impatience has set in now, with age!

Going abroad with SCI – 1955-1957

Devinder in Egypt 1957

Mixing cement, El Khemis 1963

The period 1950-’55 saw me do my post graduation and bag the Certificate Course in German language. SCI services literally affected my career and future growth that created a cleavage of sorts in the family. There was a fair urging to go in for the Indian Foreign Service or the Administrative service and become a Government officer. While all this was under review, a telegram from Dorothy Abbott arrived offering me a UNESCO fellowship to attend Co-ordination Committee for International Voluntary Service sponsored work camp in Sirs El Layyan, Fiume in Egypt, followed by two SCI camps in Sidon and Hezzeen in Lebanon. Advice sought from our Vice Principal, Mr Walker, as to whether that would be the right course of action, he said: “Six years in College is equal to six weeks overseas-Go” and I quoted that to my parents!
That then led to my movement out which has kept me on the march, literally all these fifty years-- 1955-2005. In Sirs-el-Layyan Eric and Moira Dickson and Hans Peter Mueller handled the work camp attended by the Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, West European, Indian and Pakistani volunteers. Group discussions were largely anti Semitic and anti Anglo-American and blamed them for having left the Palestinians homeless. That cleavage, discord, death and destruction in the Arab lands has remained with us for half a century.
My point made to my peers, from time to time, in Egypt or Lebanon, (and years later in the other Arab states where I served the UN) that they accept the creation of Israel, as we Indians had accepted the division and creation of Pakistan, I was ridiculed by the youthful participants. A John Shiber or a Mohammad said we were a weak people and ought to have fought such a division. That a Gandhi could never ever be a solution to their situation – as it has not been in south Asia, they would retort. No peace maker has ever made a difference in the Arab world. (In 1957 negotiating potential projects for SCI’s International Secretariat in Port Said after 4 weeks of discussions everything fell apart because the host government would not accept SCI volunteers with a Jewish background.) Were they, my peers in workcamps right, I question myself, half a century later? Because today, after four wars, a further division (Bangladesh out of East Pakistan) and the nuclear threat on the threshold within the Indo-Pak scenario, it carries its own treacherous message in the coming decade and beyond. Friendships and mutual respect at a people-to-people level can certainly get replicated, over time. Yet, power politics within a nation or with one’s neighbours will dog our steps, continually. Idealism of the individual activist is fine. It cannot come through where potential combatants wield the ultimate power – UN or no UN!
I returned home for a few months and was immediately involved in the newly formed Indian Branch activities and looking back see how the skills learned then were helpful later on. We were putting together a Constitution and its bye-laws, and we all learned how to conduct meetings and committees, and how to fund raise. One such event was the first international Ball that A.S. Seshan and I organized at the then Wenger’s Restaurant (where I was to first meet my future wife, Sudesh, in 1960!). The ball was inaugurated by the British High Commissioner to India, arranged by Seshan since he worked for the British Information Services at their Library.

My first formative years, in voluntarism left me starry eyed, now when I look back. The ‘cherry on the cake’ may be the UNESCO fellowship and the next two and a half years in and out of SCI in West Europe. It, however, left me mid-stream, career wise, as I look back now over the years. Unsettling yes it was and my buffer through the years was our joint family system. One somehow carried on!

Back again to Europe, then Asian Secretary

Returning again to Europe, I joined the Russian international workcamp Kupinov-Ukraine (Aug-1958) where Albert Guiborat (Dorothy Abbott’s future husband) came in as a volunteer, he brought a note from the International office of SCI, as to whether I would be willing to serve SCI in opening an Asian office, based in Delhi.
I talked with my parents in Delhi and my grandfather in Manchester (at  that time), and then decided to move on to Poland - Cisna II (unending road making) workcamp under George Douarte's leadership, and ending finally at Clichy-based SCI office in September 1958. Learning of a different kind: report making, writing the Minutes, including other chores of an NGO was ‘a training’ of sorts. It is then that I attended the Ablon East West workcamp with Polish volunteers. Living in Clichy’s top floor in winter was not easy. My winters in Europe and part of my field work at LSE-London (where Frank Judd’s mother taught me) amongst the old peoples’ welfare.-.all that and more decided for me that the West was never going to be my ‘cup of tea’ to ever settle down. The SCI – International Committee decided to take me on as an 'understudy to the IS' which role I fulfilled from September to March/April 1959. (During that time I served for a short while in Le Moulins where M. Ton Ton ran the show.)
The Asian office was set up from my home in May 1959 and operated from there for the rest of that year. It functioned later from a garage in 3, East Park Road, New Delhi from some time in 1960, and where the SCIIndian Branch operated as well. Valli joined me there as Assistant Asian Secretary. Those were the days of advocacy in India and our neighbouring countries. SCI’s name in selective quarters carried one far. Work among the Tibetan refugees was pioneered by Vithal Rao and I at the refugee camps in Assam. The support and advocacy at the right quarters by good friend Mrs Freda Bedi did the trick at the highest levels!. The Central Relief Committee (CRC) and the concerned Ministry in the Govt. allowed only the SCI volunteers from India or overseas to work amongst the refugees. SCI’s reputation led to Mrs Tsering Dolma (HH Dalai Lama’s sister) request through the CRC for SCI to set up the Kasauli Nursery for the very young since the Dharamsala Nurseries were over crowded and infants were dying. LTVs from Japan, France, UK etc. rendered some dedicated service and for which SCI was known far and wide. One’s advocacy depended on that. The rest of it was moving papers, running around and doing what is called in bureaucratic parlance, co-ordination work—with the national branch and the other NGOs and so on!
Facilitating and programming for the LTVs coming to India followed by Sri Lanka and Pakistan and exchange of volunteers to Europe became one of the tasks, among others. Pioneering SCI style service in Thailand and Malaysia was not easy. Receptivity by the local NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) or institutions remained our weak links. Pakistan (West) too remained lukewarm despite repeated visits. While East Pakistan with Anowar Hussain and Ataur Rahman with others, moved forward with great ability. SCI struck roots in Sri Lanka, Nepal, East Pakistan, with the Indian and Japanese branches providing good volunteers in the region and beyond to Europe. LTVs from the U.K. started to outnumber the ones coming from the other European branches. Grants from the Lockwood Committee had facilitated that process with an enlargement of volunteer service in that country. Volunteer placement process with other local NGOs became one option for us. Dynamism of the IVS- the British branch - and legitimate “rumblings” from our end at the Asian office and Sato san became an issue during 1963. I was by then getting frustrated with my role getting defined as an “activist”& an AS.!
Working on shoe string budgets, archaic communication channels, traveling by ship to Japan or to Europe (considering what it is now), five years of trying to achieve the unachievable (!) had to come to a conclusion.
I finally put in my written intention to leave the Asian Secretary's post, giving Ralph Hegnauer my formal resignation Nov-Dec 1963, in Marly LeRoi ICM meeting, 12 months ahead of time, that is, to be effective end 1964. Thus an era for me came to a conclusive end. I had been a ‘paid’ activist before moving on to pastures afresh.

Post SCI career

I set up a lathe manufacturing unit, bequeathed the same to my brother and started working for the Tibetan refugees, voluntarily, later joining His Holiness the Dalai Lama's office professionally, as a General Manager in the resettlement of Tibetan refugees in setting up a lime hydrating Plant in Sataun, Himachal Pradesh, near Dehra Dun. After setting up the Plant, I moved away in November-1967 to join the US Peace Corps as Associate Director in Bhopal-M.P. The above act was based on their repeated requests to join and after they asked me to visit the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) in the field.
Looking back on my time with the Peace Corps in India, I now realize that all my previous experiences, especially in the non-bureaucratic world of SCI with its emphasis on reconciliation, enabled me to change the course of the Peace Corps’ demise in India. As a direct result of the war that produced the new nation, Bangladesh, in 1972 Moraji Desai ordered the Peace Corps out of India. As I was then the officiating Country Director (as the American was away on a long home leave), I took the initiative to arrange a meeting with Mr. Santhi, the senior most Joint Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Finance, charged with handling the Peace Corps. I counseled that it was best to convert the ‘throw-out’ dictum to a phased withdrawal – allowing those already serving to stay and those en route to quietly go to their projects, but with no replacements. In this way useful projects could have time to transition without causing an unwanted disruption of services, and an acrimonious public fight in the press could be avoided, avoiding India’s getting a bad name with a popular programme with the American public. Mr. Santhi (God bless his soul – he was an honourable senior civil service man and a poet in his own right) agreed to all that I had to say and oversaw its implementation. There was, however, some fall-out with the Americans, as I was summoned three days later to meet with Mr. David Schneider, Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. in India. He was not pleased that I had not first consulted with the Embassy before meeting Mr. Santhi, and this should not happen again. Yet he also appreciated what had been done and agreed with it. I told him that it was NOT in my job description that I would have prior consultation with the Embassy before I did my job, and my loyalty was to my flag and the volunteers. Period. We parted as friends! In the end, instead of volunteers being kicked out in early 1972, they were there until early 1975.
For me those had been happy and productive years where support to PCVs and American colleagues created understanding and friendships right through life. However, sadly it caused some alienation from SCI as SCI-ers, of some standing, and friends among them, shared their sense of disappointment that I had joined the Peace Corps. Some saw it as contrary to SCI philosophy and a sell-out, plus there was a general anti-
Americanism at the time. Later, my years with UNICEF’s Special Child Relief Programme, and the Christian Childrens Fund (CCF) provided me with satisfying job opportunities. Service with UNICEF again brought my professional career to its formal conclusion in 1994.

Concluding thoughts

Work for Peace, creating opportunities for volunteers the world over through organizations like SCI and many more, is a blessing in free and democratic societies. My association with SCI through my younger days saw me through in my professional jobs in all that I did, later. Voluntary service, idealism or SCI staff ‘salaries’ prepared one for professional tasks elsewhere! (It was not easy to function from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on a shoe-string budget cum salary I must say here!) Pastures new provided less of idealism and more of managerial programming and volunteer support with literally hundreds of PCVs and staff because they were blessed with immense resources. Thus, with the spirit of SCI (deeds, not words; dedicated fieldwork, honesty of purpose and integrity) one got valued and accepted in the communities one worked with. I was most proud of administering programmes where thousands of hand pumps were provided to rural and urban slum communities. This taught me how project approaches should evolve into policy, and thus help ‘go to scale’. We also provided water seal latrines and affordable healthcare including immunizations and oral rehydration training to mothers and health workers, women’s income generation, provision of basic services in scores of small and medium towns, learning and working in districts with mothers and malnourished children with high levels of kwashikor (protein deficiency causing distended bellies, etc.) and marasmus (extreme malnutrition) due to floods and drought. etc., had immense practical, real effect for a large number of people and provided one a sense of having lived up to the standards demanded and expected of each other. My formative years with SCI proved to be a major and a positive factor whether with the office of His Holiness, or the US Peace Corps, the Christian Childrens Fund or UNICEF. It is because of that background and ‘training’ in SCI that one could move through life! It could never have been otherwise because one could have stagnated in a government or a private sector job in India or even overseas! (In the process, perhaps, a wee bit of India - and I - gained! One normally never says that I know - but I do say it now!)
SCI continues here and elsewhere, with the usual gusto and disagreements on what is acceptable and what is right and what is ‘not so right’. I know this from close quarters having picked up threads in the course of the past 9-10 years. SCI is rightly concerned with the very high turnover of volunteers (in Europe) with very few staying on in the fraternity. From Asia I am part of the Volunteer Management System (VMS) team that is trying to find ways to enlarge the core groups of SCI, everywhere. Two years ago I was nominated (unanimously) to take over as President of SCI. An honour, indeed. In view of my years (not that I am that old!) I declined and withdrew at the last moment. I became aware of the generation gap one has with the current youth and the leadership. I may have caused a disappointment to some of our good friends. But that is easily forgotten.
And it was such a pleasure to have met Thedy von Fellenberg at the ICM after 45 years!

Devinder Das Chopra, June 2015
Devinder Das Chopra, June 2015

I continue to provide time to the LINK magazine of UNICEF, the India Alliance for Child Rights, the Consumer Forum and SCI here and elsewhere… And I always carry with me the image of scores of inspired and highly motivated, good Volunteers. One wishes there was less of stultified, old leadership in the Indian branch of today and more of the young faces and leadership to manage and run the show! The Japanese branch has kind of “weakened” over the years. The Sri Lankans manage their work with some agility despite the issues of war and peace in their lovely island. Malaysian branch has been very active with a dynamic leadership. The movement may have grown to double the number of the earlier days. SCI, all said and done continues to ‘muddle through’ with a weak financial base, high idealism, continuous evaluations, and strategic planning in its work for peace. One will move on, but there will always be an SCI!!
One query I will throw up before I close: why is it that SCI truly speaking has not been able to ‘strike root’ in the Islamic world (with the exception of Bangladesh and Malaysia)? ‘Investments’ of time, human resource and funds were made but to what end? And, why not? Is it where we may have failed, or they have failed us?
In concluding my reflections of my past in SCI and beyond, the following seven issues stand out, also as the challenges of this century:

 




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