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.