Four Indians have been selected for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation’s youth leadership programme, Faiths Act Fellowship, the first time that the country finds representation among 30 fellows.
The year-long fellowship pairs each young person with someone of another faith to undertake practical work in local communities to help tackle global poverty. These youngsters will be tasked with building understanding between different religious communities by mobilising them around the common cause of eradicating deaths from malaria, which this year alone caused more than 750,000 unnecessary deaths.
The four Indian Fellows will work together in interfaith pairs with two non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in New Delhi for the next year.
Aparajita Bharti, a 21-year-old Buddhist from Vikas Puri is going to be paired with Sarmistha Pattanayak, a 24-year-old Hindu from Bhubaneswar. Ayesha Nusrat, a 22-year-old Muslim from New Delhi will be linked with Rohit S, a 21-year-old Hindu from Bangalore. They will receive a month of training in London before starting their year-long interfaith service.
Of the 687 young people who applied from India, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, the maximum number – about 30% - was from Indians. This means 54 contenders for each place available in India, a ratio of 54:1.
So, what made the foundation pick these four youngsters over others? Parna Taylor, director of strategy and communications at the foundation, tells us why.
“The selection process was rigorous with written applications, telephone interviews and group and individual interviews held in New Delhi. Each of the four selected Indian fellows demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities, the skills to mobilise different faith communities to work together on a common cause and experience of multi-faith and humanitarian work,” she says. Here’s more on these winning profiles:
Aparajita Bharti is from New Delhi and a member of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organisation whose members follow Nichiren Diashonin’s Buddhism. She is a business graduate from the Delhi University and her keen interest in development and politics led her into working as a legislative assistant to a Member of Parliament. She is also a theatre enthusiast and enjoys scripting, directing and acting in plays. At college, she was a keen participant in street plays, aimed at creating awareness about the pressing needs of society. She also started a student outreach group Aarambh, aimed at imparting English communication skills to underprivileged girls in communities near her college.
Sarmistha Pattanayak, 24, was born in Durgapur, West Bengal. She travelled to and completed her schooling in Paradip, Secunderabad, Chennai, Bhubaneswar and Kolkata. A Hindu by birth, one of the lessons she learnt early in life was that human beings are not defined by their religion but by their humanity and compassion. She has a master’s in personnel management and industrial relations from Orissa’s Utkal University and during that time, she started volunteering with a non-governmental organisation. The experience made her realise that her passion lay in working with children and that she wanted to pursue a career in the development sector. She, therefore, moved to Bangalore to gain some experience and joined the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy as an associate where she teaches children how to be active citizens.
Ayesha Nusrat is a 22-year-old Indian Muslim, born in Munnar, a hill station in Southern India. In 2006, she moved to Delhi where she graduated in psychology from Jamia Millia Islamia. This May, she is expected to complete her master’s in human rights and duties education. Gender studies instigated and instilled in her the concern and commitment to work for human rights, and she has been a self-proclaimed activist ever since. Nusrat was selected as one of the three students from India to participate in the Summer School “Muslims in the West” held at the University of Erfurt in August 2010. She received an award there for her presentation “Living Diaspora: Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina”. As an intern with Swechha (We for Change), she and her team members participated in the Right to Education campaign. She has also worked as an intern in Jamghat, a shelter for disadvantaged children.
Rohit S is a 21-year-old Hindu from Bangalore and has an active interest in Christianity and Buddhism. While studying business management at Dayanand Sagar Institute of Management, he realised the need to get more practical exposure. So, he got into social entrepreneurship. He has been a trainer and coach on the executive leadership team of People First, an organisation which has trained more than 12,000 people. He co-founded Alchemy Career Solutions and successfully led teams and was a personal coach for the marketing team on Meta Coaching interventions and currently works at the organisation CoEvolve. Over the past three years he has trained and coached more than 4000 people. He is also deeply inspired by MK Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
When he leant he had been selected, the Bangalore boy said, “I come from a family where service was highlighted and the only way to lead a fulfilling life was to make a difference and make my life count by giving back. What inspired me was as always to be amidst the precious few people in the world who stood to contribute selflessly. My mom always said it is our duty to strive to share our blessings with our fellow people.”
Tony Blair, founder and patron of the foundation, said, “We wanted to expand the fellowship into India this year as the country and its people have much to teach the world of interfaith; it is a living, breathing example of the concept of interfaith with so many different cultures and faiths having lived together side by side for hundreds of years. The Indian people have experienced the tensions and opportunities that such diversity brings. The four Indian fellows we have selected will enrich the programme deeply.”
The fellows are from a diverse cross section of the faith traditions: 10% are Hindu, 30% Muslim, 3.3% Sikh, 3.3%, 6.6% Buddhist, 3.3%, Bahá’í, 26% Christian, 3.3% Quaker and 17% Jewish, including the various denominations.