The firstborn child of an engineer father and an artist-teacher mother, Saumya Aggarwal’s grandparents weren’t too pleased about a female grandchild at first. But then her grandma developed health issues. Since the baby’s presence seemed to be calming for the older woman, Saumya’s parents took the doctor’s advice and left her in her grandparents’ care in the ancient town of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh for the first three years of her life.
Even in infancy, Saumya had a job: of keeping the peace.
Less than two decades later, the baby with the calming effect grew up to be a peace builder and conflict-resolution expert, from giving talks in tense areas in Kashmir to working with Rohingya refugees.
Exceptionally talented even as a child, Saumya moved to Delhi to live with her parents when she was three. At school, she aced all competitions, from art, dance and debating to computers. After class eight, in fact, Saumya and her father often argued over the matter of participation in competitions, since he didn’t want distraction from her studies.
But when Saumya, who is a trained Odissi dancer, got an opportunity to perform in front of 50,000 people at the Commonwealth Games, her parents realised their daughter’s potential, and encouraged her more. Every year from then on, Saumya travelled out of Delhi for art or dance competitions, winning most of them.
While in first year at Ramjas College in Delhi University, Saumya made a friend who “was interested in peace and conflict”, and found herself drawn to it as well. The two trained themselves in the subject, and founded an organization to foster peace.
They held their first training workshop in 2016 in partnership with the Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development and the Commonwealth Foundation.
“That was the turning point,” says the 21-year-old. “I understood what I wanted to do.” Putting together a team of five core members with about 15 volunteers, they underwent development training and campaigned for Indo-Pak peace in partnerships with various organizations.
“We had to constantly ask ourselves, are we doing this for recognition, or are we committed?” recalls Saumya. When she was invited to conduct a workshop for 26 participants in Baramulla, including young children, she worked hard to make it meaningful for them.
“It was very difficult – the women were reluctant even to stand in a circle, the level of distrust is so high,” she recalls. “They wanted to talk of Kashmir and politics, we were trying to introduce them to the idea of inner peace, of responding to the outside world from a calmer place inside ourselves.” It was only on day three that she realised how important these modules were for them.
She and her team have now developed a social enterprise model and conduct workshops for up to 40 people on design thinking and conflict resolution. She was invited by UNDP to conduct a one-day workshop for over 150 participants from 45 countries at the Commonwealth Youth Summit in Malaysia earlier this year. And then she headed to London for more training (photo above). “It was a dream come true,” she says.
In a world full of clashes and chaos, we need more Saumyas to keep the peace.
First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine.