Sunday, 22 March 2009

Witness to a discussion

One of the most troublesome things in today's world is finding a echo of your thoughts somewhere else. Some ideas and thoughts come as inspirations to pipeline thinkers like me-- and then without finding a resonance in anyone else, those waves die down, choked by the whimsical ways of a materialistic and sensually-gratified pop culture. It is therefore an occasion of some relief and hope when one finds someone who mirrors his beliefs through actions.

My admiration of Gandhiji and his ways has been well-documented in the first few posts of this blog, and though that has endured throughout, the way I interpreted him has considerably changed. Possibly because I've read more of him (notably, Louis Fischer's minutely-detailed biography), and more probably because with passing time and much thought, one is anyway likely to reach a more balanced and revised outlook than before. However, it is most honest to concede that I've had my doubts if Gandhism can be applied to something beyond an immensely small personal (mostly, ethical) sphere: the world at large, and especially now. A debate on exactly this topic ("Is Gandhism relevant in today's blind world?") was held at a college fest recently, presided over by somewhat eminent personalities, whom I shall introduce now. The moderator was Parnab Mukherjee, quite a name in the college quizzing circuit (and let me add, with a fair share of criticism)-- one with an admittedly impressive command over the English language coupled with a more-or-less good memory and superfluous confidence (though as I've found out on three occasions myself: not always factually correct or consistent). For those who don't know, Mr. Mukherjee associates himself with theatre that has some strong social context, or so we've been told. I'll however not question his credentials here, and get on with the introduction. The speakers are Janardhan Ghosh (a theatre-person), and Nanak Ganguly, artist and art-historian. Completing the trio of speakers was Tenzin Tsundue: pro-Tibetan activist, and small-time writer.

I was unlucky to have missed the start of the discussion and caught on from somewhere midway. In due course, the talk ambled on to how we, the ordinary people, can apply Gandhism to our lives. The collective suggestion (from the speakers) was rather good and well-meant: enjoy your little comfortable lives, and you're not compelled to follow Gandhiji's strict discipline yourself, but sometimes devote yourself to something that redeems the ordinariness of your existence. A social effort, maybe-- like teaching poor children for free. Or perhaps, working with any NGO you deem suitable. A priceless proposal given the fact that it is easier to take the good (and considerably more difficult) path in small doses-- it is implied, of course, that one has a conscience that prods him/her considerably to go ahead. Efforts like these do not pay back in material terms, the only thing he/she gets in return is gratitude and personal satisfaction, that too on the rare occasion. One is more likely to face undue criticism from his/her social strata for being a freak. That, unfortunately, is the way of this world. Among other things, the discussion turned to fashionable social activism. There is surely an element of truth in what Parnab Mukherjee said-- it is certainly more rewarding to associate oneself with social crises that get sustained media attention. For example, Narmada Bachao is certainly more 'hep' than the problem in the North-Eastern states: innocent people there are regularly oppressed by the lawkeepers and still have no voice to speak for them. Nandigram gets its due exposure (though little respite) in the media, and yet no one asks of the tribals being routinely crushed by some states in our country. It is however certainly wrong to assume that anyone and everyone associated with a more 'fashionable' crisis is automatically merely seeking some name among the country's intelligentsia/who's-who: there are genuine workers everywhere. This said, those who have taken one initiative are far more admirable than those who have not at all (the latter criticise the most, too!). When there is not really much to differentiate between sufferer and sufferer, why should there be concentration of attention in certain pockets of unrest and complete lack of representation in other unfortunate areas?

Not unexpectedly, the most convincing speaker among the lot was Tenzin Tsundue-- there was a marked modesty and candidness in what he said; moreover unlike the others, he had walked the talk, so to speak. Born to refugee-parents working on road construction sites up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Tsundue knows what it is to be a man without a country. Without a place he can call home without hesitation. What draws me towards this young man is his choice: he wants Tibet to be freed from the tyrannic rule of the Chinese, and yet is unwilling to use anything but non-violent methods. As many recent socio-economic surveys have shown, the dream-rise of China is not as happy as it seems-- the people have had to pay great costs. Minorities have been sidelined, poor people forced to work tediously for threadbare wages (incidentally, that explains the cheap cost of Made-in-China products), and the communist regime shows no respite in gaining an upper hand over the free-thinking individual. Even achievements in the Olympics have been won at a great price by the athletes. Distribution of wealth is far from uniform. China is bogged down by corruption: it is almost as rampant as in India, and human rights have been violated throughout. It is hard to call the bluff off a country as powerful as that, especially so for a minority of people-- the marginalised Tibetans. And yet the Tibetans, possibly influenced by the principles of Buddhism, have avoided unnecessary bloodshed. It is heartening to see a group of people having a cherished dream and yet not adopting the easier way out. Nonetheless it is worth conceding that violent methods are sure to meet failure in this case: it is a cakewalk for the government if the peaceful community decide to meet the lawmakers on the battlefield (the latter have advantages both numerically and resource-wise). On the other hand: even if it were the other way round, there would be greater chances of the new independent nation inheriting the same set of problems that affected its parent. Peaceful methods of sustained non-cooperation may take a long time in yielding results, but they have a huge moral advantage that cannot be won over by power, money or the weight of numbers.

Questions were invited from the audience and several did crop up, but I think the one that clinched the spotlight was the last. A defiant bloke stood up and proclaimed that it was his belief that all said and done, nothing could ever be achieved without a firm iron hand. Gandhism, so he said, is certainly bound to fail in today's world: it lays far too much emphasis on intangible factors like personal ethics and beliefs to be politically or socially viable. It was not the question that surprised me, (illiterate young folks these days have a habit to shoot without really knowing what they are uttering) but the response. There was a variety in the replies that made it interesting from an academic point-of-view: and finally clarified who's really what. Mr. Mukherjee promptly replied that it's all so good to work on a theory that supposes a just iron-hand-- reality is that an iron-hand does not merely administer, it crushes too. And it hurts the most when someone is on the receiving end of the sting-- so unless we really know what it is to be rounded up for violating the stringent rules of a dictatorial state (and possibly punished without proper trial!), it is unwise to assume that a concentrated power-centre is the ultimate political solution. What I've not added to his statement was his way of putting it. Nanak Ganguly iterated much the same, in his fake assumed American accent (I've no idea why certain Bengali intellectuals find accent to be an indicator of either erudition or personality!). What was common in both the above speakers was a certain aggression which betrayed their opinions. One cannot be aggressively Gandhian-- it is impossible to force anyone to believe in any doctrine, Gandhism or otherwise; one thinks and finds a resonance of the idea in his/her heart, or just doesn't. It is ironic that Mr. Mukherjee had been talking of people who give regular lip-service to such lofty ideals but never believe a word of it-- while I most certainly agree with the content of his oration, the tone makes me wonder if he (and other person) are not prone to the same mistake! Janardhan Ghosh added something of his own (which I unfortunately don't quite remember now), but was firm and polite as usual. Tenzin replied with his characteristic strong and modest conviction that it all rolls down to an ultimate matter of belief. He believes in whatever he has said, he lives accordingly (his lifestyle is close to his mentor's simplistic ideal-- the blueprint for socially concsious politicians that Gandhiji conceived), and he still has faith that the basic nature of man is good (the response to a call for a free Tibet, so says he, has been quite strong from the non-political man at large: for all its moral patronising, even the Indian government has backed out on giving political support to the cause fearing a decline in diplomatic goodwill). It is only a matter of who chooses what that determines character. Tenzin believes that his dream of an independent Tibet won without violent means will be realised one day, and that his country, when born, will be as close to his peaceful ideal as possible. What matters is that he believes, and so do his countrymen. With that, he concluded.

On a personal note, he has renewed my belief. And I cannot thank him enough for that!

P.S.-- A correction: I had Mr. Nanak Ganguly's profession wrong. He is an art historian. And yes, if I sound a little critical about some speakers, it is based only on my initial impressions (hence not rigid enough to have formed a conviction).