Valson Thampu & Swami Agnivesh

The 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--vis Pokhran II. And the contestation of this controversial event died down sooner than the dust in Pokhran settled.

Nearly 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!

Self-interest 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.

This 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 today.

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.

Consumerist 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.

Courage 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.

The 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 situation.

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.

The tyranny of the trivia

Finally, 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.

A sense of community

This 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.

The 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.

Mood of melancholy

Today, 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.

This 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.

As 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.

Even 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.

The 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.

Everything 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.



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