SUNDAY MARCH 21, 1999
Thampu & Swami Agnivesh
stars of Bollywood agitate when their interests are on 'fire'.
Teachers strike to promote their interests. Their students take
them to court to teach them that they should not. Muslims,
Christians, Sikhs and Hindus come out in the open when their respective
interests are at stake. The poor and the dalits, who comprise
the majority in this country, cry alone when they are betrayed,
burned or butchered. Each party, each group, is busy nurturing
its own constituency. Public
debates on issues of national importance are becoming feebler
and feebler. Even at the turn of the present decade, there was
a semblance of national debate preceding the GATT agreement. But
there was none vis-à-vis Pokhran II. And the contestation of this
controversial event died down sooner than the dust in Pokhran
10 million Indians are infected with HIV, and will die in the
near future. And the media indifference to this vast tragedy
is near total. Almost like in a conspiracy, the true implications
of the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) and the Patents' Bill
are kept closely guarded secrets from the Indian public. Arm-twisted
by the World Trade Organization, the government intends to impose
these explosive measures as fait accompli on the people. Hardly
anyone seems to mind!
and indifference to the need to resist forces of vested interests
are the characteristic features of the nineties. This is a significant
conjunction of contraries. Resistance is necessary even to protect
self-interests. But the irony is that, because self-centredness
is necessarily shortsighted, the need to resist all oppressive
forces in order to create the rationale for protecting one's own
interests is not obvious to most people. This truth dawns only
too late. As a German Bishop said about the Nazi times: "First
they came for the Jews, I kept quiet because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Marxists, and I did not protest because
I was not a Marxist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I kept
quiet because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me; and
by then there was none left to help me."
In today's times, the will to resist evil, and the corresponding
preference to avoid the cost in defending what is right, are the
two sides of the coin of contemporary existence. How has this
come about? What are the reasons for this change?
In the first place, there is a growing cynicism about the effectiveness
of public actions, including resistance movements. This is
no ordinary cynicism. This is an integral part of the human predicament,
characterized by loss of faith in a larger-than-life force we
call God. The exclusion of God from the contemporary worldview
has brought about the erosion of significance from all human enterprises.
This is not a myth of conventional piety, but a fact of modern
human predicament. To history, this has introduced chaos; to literature,
the death of the plot; to public life, the decline of the principle
of accountability; to culture, the forces of drift and purposelessness.
powerful truth was obvious to Gandhiji. To him, the struggle
for freedom was essentially a spiritual enterprise. God was at
the centre of it. Politics had to be purified by prayer. There
is no other way known to the human species, to invest human actions
at any level with enduring significance. The alternative to
God-centredness is a situation plagued by inconsistency, meaninglessness,
and the free-play of vested interests. This, indeed, is our problem
In place of the God-centered worldview sustained by religion,
we have the coreless culture of materialism. In such a worldview,
we have a multiplicity of forces, but no point of coherence.
The facts, figures and facilities of life multiply. But the strength
to organize them and a shaping vision to maintain them are absent.
In the resultant situation, the isolated event has its reality
and importance. But it is so, only to the immediate context and
the group involved. In our fractured existence, the inter-dependence
of individuals and peoples is not apparent to people. This has
a crippling effect on every aspect of our social life. This situation
is harmful to human wellbeing, but is eminently suitable to the
forces of injustice and exploitation.
materialism fosters a culture of self-indulgence, which can turn
every human being into a passive and isolated consumer of pleasure,
unmindful of the suffering and oppression around him. Pleasure
has a weakening effect on the individual. It insulates him from
others. It organizes his energies and obsessions in a way that
leaves no room for the neighbour. This inhibits the development
of altruistic concerns in public life. The managers of the State
tend to develop a vested interest in promoting a culture of indulgence
and passivity among the people, if only to preserve the status
quo and to enfeeble the spirit of resistance and revolution. So
we see TV transmitters, for example, even in those regions where
primary schools and potable water may not be available.
and poverty: It is
a well-recognized principle that there is a connection between
courage and poverty on the one hand, and between unregimented
thinking and austerity of life. The richer a people get, the
less willing they become to risk their interests. The poor have
nothing to lose, and so they do not hesitate. But the poor are
mostly dependent on the elite for leadership and guidance. Until
the elite in a society succumb to crass materialism, there is
always a chance that a few of its members will be gripped by the
forces of history and used as catalysts for the awakening of the
people. That is especially so, if the elite have not altogether
lost their spiritual sensitivities, and the intuition of their
own accountability to history. The unprecedented affluence
of the Indian upper middle class, and the sensing of this prospect
by the expectant middle class, is an important reason for the
death of the revolutionary fervour at the present time.
emotional deficit: Added to this is the
reality of the emotional deficit that characterizes contemporary
life and culture. We are connected to our fellow human beings
by our emotions, foremost of which are love and compassion.
Unless we love, we do not feel for others; and unless we feel
for them, we shall not respond to their needs or be moved by their
suffering. The instrumentality of human beings, the impersonality
of their intercourse, the shallowness of modern culture, thanks
to materialism aggravated by urbanization and the devaluation
of emotions, are all factors that we need to reckon in this context.
The collapse of faith, and the resultant cynicism, worsens the
The decline of faith creates a mindset in which enterprises out
of proportion with the means available are unlikely to be undertaken.
Since, in our times, public life is organized on a mega scale,
its challenges also tend to be gigantic. Moreover, we do not have
the stamina to sustain an effort over a period of time. This discourages
initiatives. We are not short on good sentiments and intentions.
It is the eagerness to act on them that is lacking. In addition
to all these, there is the added problem of the diffusion of the
forces of good. There are far too many groups and agencies
making waves in their own little pockets, like 'ineffectual angels
beating in the void their luminous wings in vain'. In contrast,
the vested interests are well focused and coordinated. They have
a sense of immediacy, a clarity of purpose and a high level of
motivation, all of which are found wanting in the opposite camp.
tyranny of the trivia
we need to reckon with the tyranny of the trivia in our life.
Today most people are almost buried under the burden of their
routine life. They have neither the energy, nor the time, nor
the inclination to mind anything else. The change-and-culture
managers of our times aggravate this problem by deliberately promoting
the regimentation of human thinking and doing. What is encouraged,
in a thousand tacit ways, is the pursuit of the commonplace: doing
the done thing. The done thing, in nine cases out of ten,
happens to be running the daily routine, and seeking the best
deal for oneself out of every situation. Resisting the forces
of injustice and corruption is more akin to revolution than to
routine. It calls for the capacity for self-denial, which is the
secret of spiritual freedom, without which the heroism of resistance
cannot be cultivated or practised.
sense of community
state of affairs is unlikely to change unless we reinforce, even
against the drift of our times, a sense of community in our midst.
It is within the community ethos that human solidarity and inter-dependence
become clear to people. Jesus' instruction that we should do
unto others what we would that they should do unto us, makes
good sense only within a community context. It is this basic heritage
that we have squandered in the pursuit of modernity and the urban-consumerist-materialistic
culture. We have, in the process, become rootless, heartless items
of mortality thrown together in a faceless massified society,
devoid of compassion and fellow feeling.
idea of stewardship is basic to a sense of community. Stewardship
is different from management, precisely in its sensitivity to
the needs of others, beyond the compulsions of transactional and
legal obligations. Seen from the angle of stewardship, each
one must hold himself responsible for the health and wholeness
of the total context. He cannot offer alibis and remain apathetic.
As Jesus said, "Whatever you have done to the least of these,
that you have done to me". This is the very opposite of our
current outlook, by which we wake up and react only when our vested
interests are touched. It does not take unusual wisdom to know
that the custodians of a community's vested interests have their
own vested interests. What needs to be done, instead, is to challenge
and urge one's community to look beyond its confines and address
the common causes in the given context. This should be obvious
enough; for only within a society where the basic norms of justice
and fair-play are safeguarded can individual communities also
grow and flourish.
individuals and NGOs who are active in defending what is right
and just, are living through a period of considerable discouragement.
They feel that the Juggernaut of the Establishment rides over
them, and nothing they can do is good enough to arrest its implacable
progress. That being the case, it is not surprising that there
is growing cynicism among the people about the possibility of
stemming the present rot.
too is a fallacy. The fact that no appreciable change in the present
trend is being made does not mean that it is futile to try, and
nothing can be done. The fact of the matter, on the other hand,
could well be that the way we go about this business is not appropriate
or effective. We need to ask how massive and large scale changes
are being engineered every now and then. After all, in less
than a decade the entire economic mechanism of this vast country
has been fine-tuned to globalization and privatization. Almost
overnight, India was turned into a nuclear weapons State.
The very feel of this country has been changed. So it cannot be
that radical changes are impossible. It may well be that the forces
of sanity in public life are too scattered and unfocused to make
a dent. The possibility of a change for the better, nonetheless,
needs to be affirmed unequivocally.
of now, there is a need for the NGOs working in this field to
come together periodically to share their experiences, to learn
from each other, and above all to reinforce each other's effectiveness.
There is an urgent need for a paradigm-shift in this regard. From
the present outlook of running some programme or the other, the
NGOs have to shift to making a difference. They need to be informed,
in other words, with a sense of mission to reinforce the wholeness
of public life, and to renew the moral and spiritual foundations
of our society. It is futile to work in a vertical or isolated
fashion. The need of the hour is to evolve common strategies and
a plan of action commensurate with the challenges involved.
though the NGOs have done commendable work in their respective
areas, they have not had much success in raising the level of
public awareness on the issues that they address. Much of the
public apathy we encounter today is the result of ignorance. The
second reason is the imbalance between needs and means, as perceived
by the common man. This makes most people despair of any breakthrough.
It is in this respect that better coordination between NGOs and
their visible unity in the eye of the public will help boost the
morale of the people.
key to effectiveness has always been the willingness to pay the
price, which comes out of total commitment. It is in this context
that we need to worry about the decline in the NGO culture in
recent times. It is not infrequently that people become rich in
the name of the poor, or on account of earthquakes, floods and
droughts. The life-style of NGO executives leaves much to be desired.
The more the NGO movement is infected with affluence, the less
zealous will its managers be to push relentlessly towards the
goals envisaged. The fire of commitment dies out under the rain
of profit-motive and the compromises it smuggles in.
is, in the end, a spiritual struggle. Much as we need strategies
and material resources, they are of no consequence unless set
ablaze by the fire of the Spirit. The multiple maladies of our
times have mushroomed in the twilight of our spiritual and moral
decay. Those who encounter vested interests stand in danger of
being infected by what they combat. As and when that happens,
it will perforce enfeeble their energy to resist the forces of
evil. They may continue to produce edited sounds and sights of
protest, without the burning zeal it takes to make a difference.