For the greater good

The self-appointed conscience keeper in every society seems to be the activist but the label denotes a less self-absorbed and far more empathetic human being; a person with a cause to fight for. And that is no self-aggrandising motive!  The activist lives for others, listens to the oppressed, feels for the fragile. This ‘for others’ condition is further specialised into specific commitments  such as social justice, minority and Dalit rights, LGBT issues, environment, education, animal welfare, organic food, cultural activism and so on .

And so activists are inspiring people but, for many of us, they are intimidating as well. We feel inadequate in their presence; utter failures, in fact. We have after all only drawn from society, consumed, lived for ourselves, never seen the real hardships of the nirbal, have hardly ever dirtied our hands. We believe that providing education for the son of our house help or donating ‘X’ amount is social service. We understand socio-political-environmental issues not by facing them but from Facebook, Twitter and the headlines. We feel we are moral and ethical compromisers while they, the activists, are men and women of principles. It is also true that some activists by their body language and patronising tone perpetuate this air of superiority.

Let me make it clear that I have the greatest respect for activism because it entails, at various levels, the curbing of man’s greed. But I do find that activism can itself become a self serving, narrow tunnel within which the activist is trapped. In this trap exists that very same un-deflatable ego that blinds the activist, making him believe that his cause is the ‘end’. Like his antithesis, the CEO of a multinational, he too at times ignores the side effects or, should I say, the collateral damage caused by his thought and action. And like the fight for resources among the corporate tsars, here too that very battle for resources takes place, establishing its own turfs and turf-fights, as also hierarchies. It is ironic that within the world of activism also exist haves and have-nots! The battle among activists for financial, social and cultural space can become dirty, liberty becomes selective, jingoistic nationalism becomes an essential tool. From deep within the crevasses in the activist’s mind appear patriarchy, dogmatism and ‘poof’ goes idealism. But the fascinating aspect is that it is camouflaged behind the basic fact that the activist is working for others.

During the recent hungama about the beef ban in Maharashtra, one set of animal rights activists expressed great happiness about this decision. Their logic was simple “I don’t care about the reasons behind this ban or its socio-cultural implications. I am happy that at least cows will be spared”. Here the end has been met for the animal rights activist but at what cost? Caste, nutrition and cultural issues are not his/her concern. Another aspect that I find intriguing is how several activists involved in organic living tie their movement to Hindu religious superiority. ‘Shuddha Vegetarian’ or ‘satvik’ food,ahimsa, yoga and Ayurveda bundle themselves into an affirmation of Hindu culture. All of a sudden, caste becomes a distorted social evil of British-Raj origins while in its original fount — Manu — it was the much-needed varna classification. This is something even the celebrated socio-cultural-religious-political activist Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi battled with.

Some activists become hyper sensitive to comments from the west. I agree with some of the criticism ofIndia’s Daughter, but the fact remains that there was a lot in the movie that came as a powerful revelation. Irrespective of who produced or directed it, it needed to be seen. And so there were those who did not support the ban but were unhappy with the ‘foreign’ criticism! Culture and heritage activists have similar conflicts of being caught in a spider’s web of religion, class and history. In all this we see an inability to look beyond their limited need and condition.

I know that activists of various causes speak to each other, but I am not certain they listen enough. This lack of listening causes an inability to open their own selves to revisiting ideas about the larger world that may even push them to re-imagine their cause. Like all of us, they are protectionist about themselves and stay caged.

The danger to activism comes not so much from the outside as from itself, since it allows individuals to believe that their sphere of activity makes them introspective, contemplative and therefore transformative human beings and consequently somehow ‘superior’ people. As an individual it is essential for all of us to realise that being an activist, politician or a CEO is only a mode of functioning. Ultimately, it is who we are that needs addressing. Being in activism is only playing a role, being a self-inquiring human is living.

Originally written for The Hindu

Who am I?

During a recent conversation, I was asked: Is T.M. Krishna a rebel, a revolutionary or a communist? Around the same time an individual tweeted: ‘(T.M. Krishna) would be my favourite singer if he wasn’t a commie!’

Both shared the ‘communism’ thought. But What I found curious was the need in both to place an individual into a mould, description, an all-encompassing idea, something that defines him. We segregate opinions only to bring them together in clusters that place those opinions and their holders into different boxes. We do this not only to others but also to ourselves. In fact we comprehend, justify and celebrate our own ‘self’ based on these categories. Is it not, one might ask, ‘normal’ to classify and justify? Yes! But we must ask: Is something lost in the process? If not, we will reduce ourselves to pre-designed sculpted mannequins.

Let us look at a few ‘models’! Politically we say a person is of the ‘right’ or ‘left’. In a nuanced way, some are ‘left of right’ or ‘right of left’. When I visualise these directional descriptions of what are essentially ideational processes, I see the full spectrum. Every person has to fit into one of these strands; all that radiates from him will be painted over in the respective hue. In matters of religious belief, I have to be atheistic, theistic or agnostic; socially, liberal or conservative; artistically traditional, contemporary or experimental. We not only get placed or place ourselves in these different positions but also further interlink the religious, political, social and even the artistic. By making these ‘combos’, we complete our own colourful self-portrait.

But can a ‘theist’ not also be a commie? Can the liberal not be conservative on, say, gender issues? Can the artist be traditional, yet experimental? Let us go a little further. Cannot even the most hardcore communist feel, for a fleeting second, that something beyond his control has designed the events unfolding before him? Does the presence of these seemingly contradictory ideas reveal confusion, dishonesty or vulnerability? Each of us experiences these situational conflicts where our own actions or thoughts seem to be touching upon two opposing philosophies. We deal with these perceived dichotomies in many ways. We either pass them off as moments of weakness or conditioning and bury them deep within our subconscious, or argue that the personal must be separated from the public or wiggle out of the situation by the clever use of language.

Recently former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi faced an unusual situation. He has penned the script for a tele-serial on Ramanuja, the Vaishnavite philosopher and social reformer. In an interview, the self-proclaimed atheist was asked about the conflict between his atheism and Ramanuja’s strong unquestionable theism. He unconvincingly said that he respects Ramanuja as a social reformer, but disagrees with him on religious belief. When asked why he did not write about him earlier, he said, “There is no specific reason; I did not get an opportunity to write about Ramanuja then.”

I took no time in judging the octogenarian as intellectually dishonest and making an opportunistic political statement with the hope of gaining a few votes for his fragile party. I had “solved” the conflict that I saw as irreconcilable by placing the individual into the tightly closed trunk marked ‘atheist’ and keeping out that which ‘did not fit’ by labelling it a ‘lie’. To be sure, Karunanidhi himself needed to justify himself by getting the rationalist in him to remain boxed-up in that very same trunk trying to explain the covert presence of that non-rationalist.

But who created that tight iron trunk? Karunanidhi or the viewer: us? Since the ‘inner-self’ and the ‘outside’ are only extensions of one another, can we really point to the origin of identities? Does it even matter? We need to ask ourselves something more significant. Do we need to resolve these perceived conflicts? The moment we come in contact with such situations — whether with ourselves or in someone else — do we need to ‘clarify’ the picture, discard the seemingly inconsistent and spot the duplicity?

The truth of being human is that — individually and collectively — we are contradictory and it is in the conversations between these various voices within and around that we remain alive. When we constantly crunch people into constricted spaces, we are not only erasing the beauty of their multiple tones from our view, but also lowering ourselves further into a deep well from which our view is limited to a narrow circular opening.

In the desperate urge to rationalise our own life, we forget that we are creatures of ‘emotional thoughts’ (reads like a contradiction doesn’t it) that flirt with the rational but bond with the intangible. We are, at different times, right, left, theistic, atheist, traditional, modern, liberal and conservative. We should not have to trivialise any of those to bring ‘order’ to our lives. All we need to do is be aware of this multiplicity.

Originally written for The Hindu