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Nitin Ajmera Addresses the Opening Plenary

Nitin Ajmera addressed the Opening Plenary at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

I bow down to the Lord that sits in every soul of every living being, the energy that flows in all of us that drives us to the best of ourselves. Jai Jainendra. I also send my warmest wishes on the Independence Day of my brothers and sisters of the country of Pakistan.

With the path shown by Lord Mahavira, blessings of my Gurus, values of my Jain faith, love and nurture of my parents, guidance of my teachers, critiques and reflections from my beautiful wife, support of my son, and by sharing and caring of my in-laws, families and friends. 

I, Nitin Ajmera, welcome you all to the ninth convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, here and now. The day has finally arrived. 

Every human being, every living being has a right to life, happiness, fulfillment, self-expression, equality, economic satisfaction, sustenance and growth. Let our conscience, yes, our conscience, have no basis on which we differentiate amongst all of us and let us give every one of us an equal chance to live and let live.

The message of Lord Mahavira that was relevant 2,500 years ago is relevant even today. Every soul has a freedom to choose. Freedom is our birthright. Freedom should be an expression of our feelings. But have we as a society defined the true essence of freedom?

As we all know, my right to freedom ends where your right begins. Our choices of action within our space of our freedom is karma of our own being. No one can dictate these choices to any other soul. And no one can be judgmental of the choices that the other individual has made. But lately, our freedom is confused and limited to an individual perspective and not viewed holistically from everyone’s perspective. 

In 2023, and a past few years building up to it, democracy is getting to what we know as 50.1%. We, the society in its metamorphosis, are seeing the far right and far left ideologies and they’re taking more roots in the ground. And in this definition of a percentage majority, we are starting to leave back our brothers and sisters, ignoring their human rights, perspectives, and quashing their dreams and aspirations. What we are leaving back, my friends, is 49.9 % of us.

Friends, hence we all con upon a theme of our convening, called to conscience, defending freedom and human rights. The night of November 1, 1984, New Delhi, India. My brother and I were put behind a closed door in a room. My mother, a little outside, and my dad with other neighboring uncles and aunts. Through the crack in the door, I saw my dad and neighboring uncles in a notable distance, asking men with lattes and spears in their hands, angry and willing, to herd fellow Sikh families on our block of houses. The group of men, including my dad, was stopping them for if they did anything, the entire block which included fellow Hindus, Jains, Christians and Muslims would also get affected. 

After quite a debate, these men moved away from our block and we were one of the blocks that night in Delhi when no violence took place. Next morning, Times of India reported Delhi and many cities in India on a blaze, riots everywhere after the assassination of the Prime Minister and curfew imposed with schools closed until further notice. Paranoid and bewildered, I, a 12-year boy, was witnessing communal anger and had no idea where, what and how this world will take me. All I was worried about was my friends in school from the Sikh community and what happened to them and their parents. Damandeep Singh, now a local Chicago resident, was in my class and amongst my good friends. When school opened on around November 14, 1984, I saw Damandeep being dropped by his dad to school. I took a sigh of relief as he and his father were okay and I cautiously, with no one noticing, went and gave him a hug. 

The event created a world of caution but over the course of my life, I converted it into the world of possibilities. We humans have to agree that we disagree. But when we do disagree, the only way to resolve our differences is through dialogue and bringing all perspectives to discussion. On that night, if the men of our neighborhood block did not take the guts to stop the angry mob, more lives and property would have been damaged. Those people did their part in saving their block of residence. They defended human rights of the people of one community in our block. Someone else would have done it in the block of Damandeep. 

My fathers and neighbors had a calling to the conscience that night. They defended human rights of people in our community, the right to live. And yes, freedom got defined in a new way for me then and resonates with me today. Doing service to others is the best virtue and hurting anyone else is the biggest infirmity. And that, my friends, is freedom. 

To serve others is freedom and to hurt others is not freedom. Period. 

My executive director, Reverend Stephen Avino and our amazing colleagues at our office, Miriam Quezada, Emma Carr, Emily Echeveria, Dr. Miriam Renaud, Jesse Smith, Miriam Balinski, Shannon Bolle, Danny Ramirez, Susan Trichman and Reverend Flynn Rush. We all have worked painstakingly since October of 2021 to bring to us this forum where dialogues are exchanged, communication is sought and solutions are designed.

If over the next five days, Stephen and his team and myself with the board in management, have created anything that is unpleasant that does not meet your expectations, I seek forgiveness, as by no means our intention is to hurt you by thought, words, or actions. With the help of our office colleagues and my co-chair, Reverend Dr. Scott Stearman and James Lynch, our secretary, Reverend Charlene Manuel, our treasurer, Imam Saafid Kovit, our program chair, Reverend Phyllis Curett, and my entire board, comprising of Sahar Alsahlani, Naeem Baig, Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Kehkashan Basu, Reverend Traci Blackmon, Debra Boudreaux, Lewis Cardinal, Dolly Dastoor, Dr. Mary Doak, Father Robert Flannery, Dr. Manohar Singh Greywall, David Hales, Rabbi Sidney Helbraun, Swami Ishatamananda, Dr. Laurel Kearns, Bruce Knotts, Tom Lemberg, Mahrukh Motafram, Carl Murrell, Kaleb Nyquist, Dr. Kusumita Pedersen, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, Congressman Bobby Rush, Venerable Dhammadipa Sak, Dr. Harpreet Singh, Sharon Singh, Ann Smith, and the man who found this location for our today’s convening, Reverend Dr. Michael Trice. I welcome you all to the ninth convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

As we walk down from the bridge from the north and the south side of this convention center, look up to the banners as they represent the journey we have all had in the various convenings of the Parliament. When you get to this Lakeside Center, look at the beautiful world that we can all create and not be divided into north and south blocks. Reach out to the fellow humans around you and greet them to understand their perspectives. For without dialogue, we cannot shatter walls as we need to continue to build a lot of bridges. Thank you all and let us have a constructive time over the next five days and in this way, celebrate humanity with all its differences. Thank you and Jai Janendra.

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