About prajnya

Prajnya is a non-profit centre for research, public education and networking, working on issues relating to peace, justice and security. We are based in Chennai, India.

Us, and some fundamental questions

A Founder’s Reflections

Swarna Rajagopalan

This post has been many months in the writing and yet it is written without a road-map.

September 9, 2017 marks the tenth anniversary of Prajnya’s launch and we’re busy making plans for the celebration weekend as well as this year.  Last November, I took the call that we would no longer debate imminent closure; we seemed to be here to stay, at least for a while.

But in recent months, I have been thinking of something very fundamental: Who are we? And as the only one in the organisation who remembers most things from the very beginning until this moment–actually a fourteen year span–I thought it was worth recording all the possible answers to this question as of this moment, while I remember them. As a historian-of-sorts, I am always thinking of the possibility that someday we will have been significant enough that someone will wonder about our history. That a women’s history project will feature us.

In the first few years of imagining Prajnya, I never used the term ‘NGO.’ In my mind, Prajnya was going to be many different things and this may have described one attribute. I had never really been part of the social sector as it had evolved in the last two decades so I wasn’t thinking about a definition vis-a-vis anyone else, but just my imagination for this ‘space’ I wanted to create.

And ‘space’ was the word I used most, as a place-holder, you might say.  In the first draft of our first vision document, I wrote these words that still appear on our website:

Why yet another…?

  • Non-governmental organization? Because civil society’s engagement with peace, justice and security issues cannot be limited to a few fora.
  • Public policy research organization? Because a plurality of perspectives is the foundation of learning.
  • Publications and multi-media source? Because teaching, advocacy and communication bring learning to fruit.
  • Networking hub? Because communication, networking and community-building is an essential part of the Prajnya vision.

I was thinking on paper. What I was imagining was something bigger, more inchoate–a space, someday physical, making it possible to think across disciplines, holistically, without borders; a canvas for many media–both of exploration and of expression; an agenda that animates the interstices between existing fields; and a promise not to race to the limelight. We would be there, we would breathe, we would build, we would nurture, we would evolve. We would be all these things and then, something more, created by the imagination of everyone who joined our journey.

Needless to say, once I started the process of founding Prajnya, I needed to find more limiting words, and words that would instantly be understood by others outside my head. Lawyer friends helped me identify the structure that would give me the greatest autonomy to stick to my original vision–a Trust. So we established that.

And then, as we began to function, we needed words to describe ourselves to people. I sometimes used ‘space’ and watched people space out! Volunteers used ‘amaippu’ (organisation) to describe us in Tamil but we did not have even one full-time person until 2015! Sometimes, I heard them say ‘mayyam’ (centre) but we had no premises of our own. “Fair enough,” I would think, “but not exactly right.” Over the years, I learnt to tune out that critique. In English too, volunteers and I would use words like ‘organisation,’ ‘non-profit,’ ‘non-profit centre’ and even ‘NGO.’ Given that our vision was not conventional (“we shall deliver services,” “we are a social movement,” “we do advocacy”), it was handy to use the word that was most likely to make sense to people.

In the beginning, I would attempt to describe our vision as it was in my head. People would listen closely, glazing over, and then say, “You should pick one thing and do it with focus.” Good advice, but not what I had imagined. Over the years, I realised that it was hard for even our volunteers to comprehend, remember and articulate the entirety of what I had imagined and founded. Introducing Prajnya or speaking about it, each one would simply recall, with pride and passion, the little piece of it with which they had been involved. I rarely stepped in to correct them, basking in their feeling of ownership instead. I realised understanding Prajnya would be for most people like the blind men and the elephant. I would just have to factor in that reality.

A few months ago, I realised there was another dimension to this fundamental confusion. Most people now encounter us as an ‘NGO’ though we rarely use the word ourselves (as we still avoid nouns!). This includes donors, partners, resource persons, volunteers and most important, job applicants. Today’s NGO world is so corporate–offices, a full complement of staff, grants, reporting. This is a good thing insofar as it has brought transparency and accountability to this sector. Salaries range from government to corporate levels and for middle class/upper class kids, working in the social sector is no longer an option that has to entail sacrifice and delayed gratification. Jholas are now almost extinct!

My revelation was this: I had founded and continued to run Prajnya in the mould of two quite different organisations than today’s corporate NGOs. First, when I imagine our work, our place in society, our approach and values, I imagine them in the mould of the women’s organisations and civil rights groups of post-Emergency India, which were early formative experiences. Poorly and personally resourced, all hands to deck, cause before personal growth, these were collectives unfettered by protocol and and social obligations and quite autonomous in their political positions. And they were and are political. Sometimes, by contrast, politics in today’s NGOs is like a designer accessory. The organisations I saw as a teen–the Forum against Oppression of Women, PUCL in Bombay–came from a different place and brought together people from many different causes and backgrounds.

Second, I wanted Prajnya to emulate the standards of intellectual excellence I had seen in places like the Centre for Policy Research and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. I wanted it to host the eclectic and creative scholarship of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai whose revival I briefly got to witness. The catch is, that excellence requires resources. Again CPR’s model (then, at least) of self-financing through contract work was a possibility but I have never been able to bring that to Prajnya.

I saw these two moulds–and continue to see them–as complementing each other and I wanted to bring them together in this ‘space’ I fashioned. I haven’t quite managed it.

In our early years, we budgeted and planned like an NGO but raised money and grew with volunteer work just like those women’s organisations I had grown up with. I simply did not–arguably, do not–know how else to do this. In the last five years, the expectation has arisen that we would be like a contemporary NGO–have grants, corporate donations, good salaries, nice location–and when we look around and see that we don’t, there is a sense of failure. I sense it in the volunteers and then I internalise it.

But in recent months, I have thought more and more: Is that who we are? It seems as if the road to our vision must pass through the toll-gates of such corporate NGO-isation. People tell me how to monetise our work and people shake their heads and say, “You must learn to say this in a way that people don’t feel guilty and will give you money.” I took a lot of this marketing advice in our early years and like the Panchatantra tale of the father, son and donkey, there were no happy endings. I was miserable and contorted, and we still had no large endowment or campus. And if I were now to confess that the thought of that makes my spirit grind to a halt, I am sure I would be considered stupid, impractical, wasting people’s time when I am unwilling to help us out by changing.

The truth is, like most founders in the social sector, I am here because I have identified work that desperately needs to be done. Actually, I am going to stop saying ‘social sector’ and say ‘public sphere’–that may free me up a bit. I did not come in with a business plan or a fundraising strategy because although it is fashionable to use the term ‘social entrepreneur’, I am not an entrepreneur. I am here to do what I can, with others who feel the same way. Ideas and words are my strength and those who are drawn to Prajnya tend to be similar.

Being small, growing at a glacial rate, is frustrating because our hearts and minds spin out ways to work faster than we can move.  But when faced with the pressure to become someone else in order to do this work, I think now of the time and effort that would involve, and would rather invest that in doing whatever is possible.

Is this the only way to grow? Is speaking a corporate language the only way to raise resources? Are external indicators of how much we have, where we sit, how many we employ, how many we reach, the only indicators of our ‘success’? Or should we celebrate our persistence? Does our success lie in those who have supported us for years and those who support us in every way they can and every chance they get? After ten years, we look around and see friends and believers everywhere, and it is a harvest of warmth and friendship that Prajnya reaps–is that our success, that we have created through our sincere effort, networks for change wherever we have gone? Is there a word to describe us? Is this not a path we can stay with?

It seems to me, as the founder of Prajnya, that our biggest celebration would be to make our own way work for us, to stay true to our temperament and imagination and to show the world that this is also a way to be–away from the jargon, the expectations, the marketing and the hype.


Gender Violence Programme Vacancy at Prajnya, deadline December 5

Programme Officer
The Prajnya Trust
Location: Chennai, India
Last Date: December 5, 2016
Email: jobs.prajnya@gmail.com

The Prajnya Trust is a Chennai based NGO working on women’s rights, women’s history, gender based violence and peace education. For almost a decade, our gender violence awareness and gender equality outreach programmes have engaged thousands across Chennai and beyond, facilitating conversations about violence, equality and justice.

We’re looking for a full time Programme Officer for the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce (GRIT) at Prajnya. This is a leadership position with tremendous learning and growth opportunities, with an inside view of social and policy sectors and the platform to make a real contribution to social change.

The Programme Officer will be primarily responsible for:

  • Planning, logistics and implementation of gender violence related programmes;
  • Sustaining existing GRIT processes (mainly training) and initiating new processes;
  • Interface with existing NGO, educational, government and corporate partners;
  • Identifying and building relationships with new partners for GRIT;
  • Research and writing projects about gender-based violence;
  • Documentation of all GRIT activities;
  • Media planning and social media management.

Essential qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in any subject;
  • Minimum 1- 2 years work experience in the development sector;
  • Passion for human rights and social justice work;
  • Excellent writing and drafting skills in English; Tamil is a bonus;
  • Ability to multi-task;
  • Essential that the person be a self-starter, highly motivated.

Preferred qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in a social science subject;
  • 2 to 3 years of work experience in the development sector.

Please note:

  • This is a Chennai-based position;
  • Fluency in spoken English and Tamil, and written English are essential.

All interested candidates must email their CVs, a writing sample and a brief covering note to jobs.prajnya@gmail.com by 5 December 2016. Remuneration will be based on experience.

How far can Rs. 3 lakh go?

It’s fundraising time for the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign! We’re back after two years to remind you that you have been a staunch supporter of our public education work to create awareness about gender violence, its prevention and available remedies. It’s time again to express that support.

And thank you in advance!

Bills, backbones, basics: Would you please help?

The backbone of an organisation is its administration–the people who do the maintenance and compliance work of tracking its books, vouchers, receipts and ledgers; the people who make xerox copies and the people who keep its spaces clean. At a certain point in its growth, the administrative cost of an organisation includes that space–rent, maintenance, desks, ink, paper and utilities. And although these do not make up the public profile of the organisation, they are what make that profile possible. 

At Prajnya, we could not hold the poetry readings and the campaigns and the training sessions without the back-up of the office, where our handouts are printed and sorted, where our programme materials are assembled and where we meet to make plans and execute them. We could not seek support for this work without someone to write the receipts and deposit the cheques and keep track of our expenses.

Each year, that now costs us around Rs. 300,000 (or 4000 Euro or 4500 USD). Each year, we need to raise it afresh. 

If you would like to help us pay these everyday bills, you can find information on making a donation here. For your convenience, that information is copied here:

The Prajnya Trust was registered under section 12AA of the Income Tax Act 1961 (695/06-07). The Prajnya Trust PAN is AABTT4334M.

Donations to Prajnya now qualify for tax deduction. Donations to Prajnya from 01-04-2008 to 31-03-2011 qualify for deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act, 1961 as per I.T. Dept. Notification DIT (E) No. 2(573)2006-07 dated 26-09-2008.

Please note: In view of the amendment brought about by Finance (No.2) Act/ 2009 regiarding automatic renewal of exemption u/S 80G, approval granted earlier to the Trust is valid in perpetuity.

We are not able to accept donations of any sort from non-Indian individuals or organizations. If you hold an Indian passport, however, you can donate no matter where you live, PROVIDED you also scan and send a copy of the first page of your passport.

The Home Ministry clarifies this:

“Contributions made by a citizen of India living in another country (i.e., Non-Resident Indian), from his personal savings,through the normal banking channels, is not treated as foreign contribution. However, while accepting any donations from such NRI, it is advisable to obtain his passport details to ascertain that he/she is an Indian passport holder.”

See also this blogpost on the same subject.


You can send a cheque or DD (drawn on Chennai) payable to “The Prajnya Trust” to our registered office address. Email us for the address, please.

Details for electronic transfer:
Account name: The Prajnya Trust
Bank & branch: HDFC Bank, T.Nagar, Chennai 600 017
Account number: 02062560002557


Please email us to inform us of your donation, donation date, amount and transaction details.

We prefer not to accept cash donations; however, we do not rule them out altogether.

Celebrating a milestone: Prajnya’s first full-time team member

Today is a momentous day in Prajnya’s history.

Our first full-time staff member joins us officially as Programme Officer for the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce. Ragamalika Karthikeyan will look after our research, public education and network-building activities in the gender violence awareness work that we do. Ragamalika has played a variety of roles in Prajnya, first as media coordinator for the 2013 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence and since then in a voluntary capacity with programmes, training and communications. We are delighted to have someone in this role who already knows the domain; knows the organisation, its history and functioning style; comes to us with an array of useful skills and proven commitment to this work.

A year ago, we were not sure we would ever be able to hire a full-time person, even though we were clear that our survival as an organisation depended on it. That has become a possibility thanks to our first three Vasundhara donors: Sivakumar Surampudi, Ramesh Narayan and Ingrid Srinath. They have committed to supporting this position for three years, enabling us to consolidate our work in the area of gender violence awareness and gender equality. We are very grateful for their vision (realising that social change requires mundane appurtenances like salaries) and for their generosity. Most of all, we are grateful for their faith in us. They cannot imagine how grateful!

All these years, we have made plans and promises, but the vagaries of a volunteer team’s part-time availability have meant that our best efforts have still fallen short of our own aspirations. We begin a new journey today–one in which we will gradually professionalise the team in order to sustain our present work and to scale up a little. Our volunteers are still around, but we can finally shift some responsibility from their overburdened shoulders.

We will continue to need your support and encouragement in the time to come. Keep rooting for us!

Swarna’s note: What I really want to do is to insert a large dancing, partying, celebrating image here to share with you what a happy moment this is for us. This little piece of clipart will however have to do!


Invitation to Vasundhara, a special circle of Prajnya supporters

IMG_1027The Deccan Plateau with its lava-covered surfaces forms
some of the most stable land in India.
You can give us just such a stable base from which to work.

Prajnya is seeking the Founding Members of Vasundhara,
a special circle of supporters
who hold firm the ground beneath our feet.

For eight years, Prajnya has been a team of committed volunteers holding other jobs,
working with small individual donations,
doing what we could manage at the pace we could manage.

And we’ve managed:

  • a successful 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence every year for six years;
  • scores of training sessions for gender violence awareness;
  • done almost a dozen oral history interviews;
  • curated three special photo-calls for the Prajnya Archives;
  • piloted a peace education programme;
  • created dozens of resources on gender equality and peace;
  • engaged actively on social networks as public education work;
  • interacted with thousands across Chennai on these critical issues.

But this is it. We’re at our inflection point.
Help write the trajectory of our future.

  • Will we be able to keep our promise to the community?
  • Will we be able to undertake gender violence sensitisation,
    training for policy compliance and public outreach across sectors
    commensurate with need and demand?
  • Will we be able to fulfil our research and communication mandate
    making information available to citizens who seek it?
  • Will we be able to create the synergistic partnerships
    that social change requires? 
  • Or will we turn away those who seek to work with us
    for want of human resources?

Where do we go from here?

A commitment by a dozen Vasundhara members to support us
with a gift of Rs. 100,000/- per year for three years
will allow us to hire a professional team—
will consolidate the ground beneath our feet.
So will YOU enable this journey and walk with us?

If you would like to join Vasundhara, do email (prajnyatrust@gmail.com).
Donations to Prajnya qualify for tax deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

Update: Who can donate to Prajnya, and how

Since our inception, we have been reluctant to accept donations from NRI friends and supporters of Prajnya. However, it has recently been brought to our notice that while we cannot receive funds from foreign passport holders, PIOs and OCIs, we can in fact accept your donation if you hold an Indian passport. You just need to make sure we have a copy of your passport on file.

Here are the relevant clarifications from the Ministry of Home Affairs:

Q.8 Whether donation given by Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) is treated as ‘foreign contribution’?

Ans. Contributions made by a citizen of India living in another country (i.e., Non-Resident Indian), from his personal savings,through the normal banking channels, is not treated as foreign contribution. However, while accepting any donations from such NRI, it is advisable to obtain his passport details to ascertain that he/she is an Indian passport holder.

Q.9 Whether donation given by an individual of Indian origin and having foreign nationality is treated as ‘foreign contribution’?

Ans. Yes. Donation from an Indian who has acquired foreign citizenship is treated as foreign contribution. This will also apply to PIO card holders and to Overseas Citizens of India. However, this will not apply to ‘Non-resident Indians’, who still hold Indian citizenship.

This comes as a great relief to us in a year when our fundraising drive in April-May was not very successful; our human resources are at an all-time low; we have an office and an administrator’s salary to pay for and not quite enough in the bank. You’ve asked repeatedly about donating. Today is when we really need your help.

This is how you can donate:

  1. You can send a cheque or DD (drawn on Chennai) payable to “The Prajnya Trust” to our registered office address. Email us for the address, please.
  2. Details for electronic transfer:
    Account name: The Prajnya Trust
    Bank & branch: HDFC Bank, T.Nagar, Chennai 600 017
    Account number: 02062560002557
    RTGS/ NEFT IFSC: HDFC0000206

Please email us <prajnyatrust@gmail.com> to inform us of your donation, donation date, amount and transaction details. And don’t forget to attached a scanned copy of the ID pages of your Indian passport.

With your help, we can do anything!

April 14, 2013

Dear friends,

It’s a new financial year, and the beginning of a new calendar year for many of us. Prajnya enters this year with a little unspent money, from late-in-the-year donations and workshops we did—and for us, this is a relatively new experience. It emboldens us to dream—of doing more, of doing bigger and better, of moving into our space, of paying for a core team. But dreams cost less than reality.

Nevertheless, at Prajnya, we have never let reality deter us. We had faith that if we started doing what we could, friends who share our values would soon walk with us and become part of our dream. As you have. Have we remembered to thank you, and have we thanked you profusely enough?

For our most visible and active programme, the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce, 2013-14 is going to be a year of ‘deepening’ activities. So far, we have tried to reach as many people as possible to get them to think and talk about sexual and gender-based violence. After the December gang-rape in Delhi, awareness is much greater. We would like to take the next step to do more training, dialogue, research-based information initiatives and closed, focused, substantive conversations. This year of quieter, deeper public education work will cost us around Rs. 250,000.00, out of which Rs. 200,000.00 is our budget (for programme, materials and human resources costs) for the 2013 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence.

The less visible part of our work, done under the rubric of the Prajnya Resource Centre on Women in Politics and Policy, is in the area of women’s history. Apart from the many activities that cost us virtually nothing, we would like to take some of the oral history work we have done a little further—transcription, editing, perhaps podcasting—and we would like to hold outreach activities for both oral history and the Prajnya Archives. A little deepening and a little widening, in this case! We would like to make Rs. 50,000.00 available to this work.

In all, we anticipate that with an additional Rs. 300,000.00 that we raise between April 14, 2013 and May 31, 2013, we should be able to sustain our activities at the present level, while deepening our impact.

This is going to be a year of some comings and goings in our team. No one ever really leaves because everyone volunteers, but we anticipate that there will be some changes in how much time and what kind of time people will be able to give. The ability to outsource some work (such as transcription) or to pay trainers an honorarium will go a long way to allowing us to function. We are anxious that while people are newly aware and eager to be informed or to act on women’s rights and security, we should be available to do this work. This should not be the year that we lie low because of a lack of human and other resources. Please help us make this transition.

We are also very ready to move into an office of our own (rented, gifted or loaned). We anticipate that between rent, overheads, maintenance and human resources, this will add around Rs. 600,000.00 a year to our budget. In this appeal, we are not asking you for that. With all the challenges of our present situation (borrowed space, volunteers on varying schedules, nowhere to hold a small meeting), it is more important to us that we have the money we need to get the work done. We trust the rest will follow. Somehow, someday, soon.

To summarise: between April 14 and May 31, 2013, Prajnya is trying to raise Rs. 300,000.00 (Rs. 3 lakhs) to support its activities in 2013-14. We would be extremely grateful for your support.

This is how you can donate:

  • By cheque or DD (payable at Chennai) in the name of “The Prajnya Trust” to our registered office address. Email us (prajnyatrust@gmail.com) for an address.
  • By electronic transfer:
    • Account name: The Prajnya Trust
    • Bank & branch: HDFC Bank, T.Nagar, Chennai 600 017
    • Account number: 02062560002557
    • RTGS/ NEFT IFSC: HDFC0000206
    • Please email us (prajnyatrust@gmail.com) to inform us of your donation, donation date, amount and transaction details.
  • We prefer not to receive cash donations.

Please note: Donations to Prajnya qualify for tax deduction. [Donations to Prajnya from 01-04-2008 to 31-03-2011 qualify for deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act, 1961 as per I.T. Dept. Notification DIT (E) No. 2(573)2006-07 dated 26-09-2008. In view of the amendment brought about by Finance (No.2) Act/ 2009 regiarding automatic renewal of exemption u/S 80G, approval granted earlier to the Trust is valid in perpetuity.]


We are, because you support us. Thank you!


Swarna Rajagopalan
Managing Trustee, Prajnya

Little drops of water

We are in the middle of the two-day film festival on gender violence, Our Lives… to Live. Day 1 was great, a packed hall, rapt audience, great films, old friends and new.

The highlight (for me, Swarna) was this:

A frail, elderly gentleman slowly ambled up the ramp, slightly breathless, visibly tired by the auto-journey, saying, “I have never been here before although I have been getting their invitations for years. The signboard is too small.” He then asked for some water and went to settle down in the auditorium. He had taken our brochures and gender violence handouts in with him. Three hours later he emerged, sought out Anupama and apologized for having to leave (“I can’t sit for much longer”) and said he would try to return on Day 2. Also, he would like to make a donation. He left a hundred rupee note with us.

What a precious donation! When I think of him, coming all the way by auto from Villivakkam, sitting on a ‘naarkaali’ (a chair, this one wooden) for three hours, and then going back all the way by auto… he spent almost 600 rupees surely and a whole afternoon, just to watch these films… but thought too of giving something to our work. This gift is very precious to us.

The concern, the commitment, the support we saw in him buoyed our spirits no end.

People ask: So who funds you? That’s the answer: people like him. They fund us, they encourage us and they reinforce our commitment to doing what we can, as we can, where we can.