Mumbai: Major Gopal Mitra (41) may desire to borrow vision for few moments to salute the Indian tricolour flying high at the UNICEF headquarters in New York on his first day of a new job tomorrow. A former Indian Army officer, Mitra is the first disabled person from India to be appointed at the headquarters of a major UN agency.
Mitra is joining the UNICEF as programme specialist, and his role will involve providing technical support to enhance the inclusion of children with disabilities in policies and programmes at global, regional and national levels. The UNICEF works for child rights in more than 190 countries.
Speaking exclusively to SMD from the UK, Mitra said, "Had I not lost my vision in the insurgency operation in J&K, done my Masters in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) and followed that with an MSc in Development Management from the London School of Economics (LSE), I would not be where I am today."
After graduating from the LSE, he joined Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), an international disability NGO in the UK as the inclusive education manager for the South Asia Region and provided technical support to inclusive education programmes in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. His work in the region helped facilitate access to education of children with disabilities in regular schools.
Major Mitra is also an ardent campaigner of disability rights. He moved to LCD's central office in London in 2008 as the international campaigns coordinator where he looked after the Young Voices project which brings together young persons with disabilities from 18 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America as future leaders of the disability movement to campaign for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Mitra feels, "Young people with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalised of the world's youth. Estimates suggest that there are between 180 and 220 million youth with disabilities worldwide, and nearly 80 per cent of them live in developing countries. So our point is if people with disabilities are not included by the government in programmes and policy making, it is not a only violation of human rights of the disabled, but also a huge loss of potential to the nation."
Today, many progressive countries have signed international treaties passed by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 adopting the UN convention on the rights of person with disability. More than 100 national governments across the world have ratified this treaty, which makes it obligatory for national government to reach out and reduce the barriers that disabled people face to live as equal members in the society.
From the Indian Army to London
Mitra joined the Indian Military Academy and was commissioned in the Indian Army in June 1995. He served extensively in Counter Insurgency operations both in North East India and Kashmir. He was also engaged in active operations during the Kargil War in 1999.
In 2000, he was severely injured while leading a "search and destroy" operation in the Kupwara district of Kashmir, and suffered profound visual impairment. Mitra survived many near-fatal injuries, 60 stitches across his face, several reconstructive surgeries and almost two years in the hospital.
During this period, the Army sent him to the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehradun for a rehabilitation programme. At the National Association for the Blind (NAB, Delhi) he also received training in using JAWS (Job Access with Speech), a software which enables persons with visual impairment to use regular computers by vocalising the keystrokes and reading out the text on the screen.
In 2003, he married Sreerupa, who is the daughter of Capt. (Retd) Jayanta Kumar Sengupta, who was also visually impaired in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. Mitra too decided to take up a career in development and the Indian Army supported him to undertake an MA in Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai from 2003-2005.