Jul 4, 2009

A case for activism

Every now and then I hear about some clash between a pair of communities, or some random groups of people with causes that conflict with each other. Violence is not uncommon in these incidents. And no matter how commonplace these clashes become, I canot help being enveloped by a feeling of absolute despondency and frustration every time I hear such news. In stead of getting used to it, and developing the regressive but patently Indian attitude of 'chalta hai' or 'we are like this only', my feelings about are only getting stronger (That should be a good thing, right?)

Today, I shall try and pen down the issues and maybe a few solutions (or at least ideal scenarios) as I see them...

We are the 'yes, we can' generation of India. Till less than two decades back, just about any product of high quality you got in this country used to be imported. High quality consumer services didn't even exist. People with government jobs used to be considered financially and professionally secure and successful, and had little ambition and small aspirations. For a high quality of life (measured in material terms here), people used to dream about migrating to the West. Or even the Gulf. Even south-east Asian cities held great appeal. Anyone who had been abroad was a virtual celebrity, and the places they described sounded like Disneyland.

Cut to 2009. Most of the young, educated middle-class people live in multistorey apartments in cities. They wear Levi's jeans, with Adidas shoes, and Swatches. They drive Korean, Japanese, European or American designed cars, and own Korean-designed electronics. They use the same cosmetics as the Westerners. They watch movies in multiplexes where tickets cost Rs 300. And many of them have been overseas at least once, or will do so sometime in the next couple of years. Even our cricket team now displays attitude, belief and aggression like never before!

Now, I'm used to hearing a common refrain at just about this point. "You are only talking about an elite minority. Most people still live in conditions much worse..."

I fully agree. The benefits of economic growth in the last 18 years have not reached every one in the country. So, shouldn't our TOP priority - as a nation - be to ensure that there is more economic growth, and more opportunities, encompassing more people? Makes sense, right?

But take a look around. What are the issues that the masses seem to care about, and the political leadership leverages? Is it growth & development? NO WAY! The 'burning' issues are religion, caste, community, language... In stead of moving together as a united nation, we seem more intent to oneupmanship. 'I want more reservation for my caste everywhere', 'They are disrespecting my religion', 'I want some special status for my language', 'These things are against Indian culture', 'Mumbai city belongs to Maharashtrians', 'No privatization of PSUs', 'These rules/laws are not in our interest and are only intended to fill the pockets of some people with authority' ... all extremely regressive and narrow-minded statements, but you can club nearly all that you hear under the above themes.

As a nation we have a large number of common challenges - terrorism, education, sanitation & healthcare, infrastructure, law enforcement, economic development, availability of public goods & services - are only a few of the really serious challenges in front of us, that affect every single citizen in this country. The need of the hour is for all of us to unite, and focus all our efforts in these directions. These issues can all be solved, and quite easily, but they never will be, until voters begin to demand the solutions from the administration, and the performance of politicans and admin authorities starts determining their fate. I have written about this earlier.

In stead, what I witness all around is an almost-total disregard and a lack of trust for other people, especially those who do not fall within narrow buckets of sub-identities like 'Maratha', 'Tamil' or 'Yadav'. We seem to be more concerned about 'preserving' our sub-identities and 'cultures', and even claiming special entitlements for them, at whatever cost, without any concern about the big picture of a nation...

London, Singapore and others have consciously worked towards becoming 'world cities' where anyone and everyone can feel at home. This is how they've encouraged capable people from around the world to come and live there, and drive the growth & development of these places - in economic as well as socio-cultural terms. We have Mumbai being claimed by Maharashtrians and Bangalore being claimed by Kannadigas, who seem to resent their fellow country-men as 'outsiders', inspite of all the diversity and development they bring to their adopted home-cities.

We have people who label wearing jeans and visiting a pub as being 'against Indian culture'. What is 'Indian culture'? Who defines it? And who has the right to hurt others in it's defense? In my humble opinion, it is not right to label some outdated and regressive socio-cultural standards as 'Indian culture', and impose it on everyone. Let people wear Jeans if they find them comfortable. Let people visit pubs if they seek to relax and be entertained there. Let every individual make choices that make them happy, as long as it doesn't hurt others. THIS is the hallmark of every 'developed' country. And Indian culture - if anything - has historically been one of tolerance, inclusion and respect. Since when did throwing acid at a woman wearing jeans become 'Indian culture'?

History shows that growth & development has rarely been a mass phenomenon. It has always been led by a few who questioned the status quo, had a vision of how things should be, worked towards that, and inspired others to follow their example. There is no dearth of people capable of doing this in our country today. They need to put their hands up and lead. Follow rules, vote for candidates with performance records, show respect for others and act in favor of the greater good - and most importantly - confront regressive mindsets and behaviours! DO NOT fall in the 'chalta hai' and 'we are like this only' traps.

'Corporate India' has a million amazing examples of what we can achieve if we aspire and act. 'Social India' needs the same medicine.

Anyone for forming an 'urban activist' group?

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