31 March 2006

The rebirth of outrage

Americans seem so friendly by nature, yet they are outraged by the happenings in their own land or around the world. If it isn’t about Iraq, it’s immigration policies. If it isn’t about outsourced jobs to India, it’s abortion. Why is outrage becoming such a defining feature of American life and politics? What causes this outrage? How do Americans respond as outraged citizens of the world?

If you want to know the answers to these questions, you may find the latest print edition of The Economist useful. It carries a story titled ‘The Rebirth of Outrage’ discussing this very issue. “Most Americans pride themselves on their tolerance,” mentions the story, yet “these days all too many American politicians, amateur and professional, are going around the country stirring things up.”

Want to know what America's outrage is all about? Why not read it right here and find out?

29 March 2006

By any means necessary

The use of force or violence to bring in change has been in effect from time immemorial. Kings, dictators, political parties, terrorists, the state police and even individuals – like a schoolteacher, a parent or a husband – have been known to use force to induce discipline and change in people. Looking at various political regimes and ideologies throughout history, or perhaps at one’s own life, we know it works. No-one doubts its practice… or effectiveness.

But, is it all bad? When faced with resistance, it seems like a logical recourse. From the point of view of self-defence, its inevitability cannot be denied. Some say that violence is show of ‘lack of intelligence’ because peaceful methods are always available to us. However, people do resort to violence, sometimes at the slightest instigation, to take what they feel is their own, or to effect a desired outcome, by any means necessary. And, to hell with peace and civilization!

What brings on this violence – or the thought of violence?

I’m sure there are many theories on this, and the one that appealed to me, when I came upon it recently on the Internet, is one which was proposed by RenĂ© Girard some forty years ago. In his theory, Girard connected violence, literature, mythology and religion, stating that human culture is based on sacrifice as the way out of mimetic, or imitative, violence between rivals. Not an easy theory by any means, but if the idea of violence repulses or attracts you, why not read on?

Jeramy Townsley, in a paper from 2003, titled ‘The Theory of Violence, Religion and the Scapegoat’, describes Girard’s concepts as follows [pretty heavy stuff]:

The starting point for Girard’s theory is “acquisitive mimesis”. Girard proposes that much of human behavior is based on “mimesis”, an all-encompassing expression of imitation, but focuses on acquisition and appropriation as the object of mimesis, contrary to most of the extant literature on imitative behavior (Girard 1979, 9). Girard describes a situation where two individuals desire the same object; as they both attempt to obtain this object, their behavior becomes conflictual, since there is only one object, but two people. “Violence is generated by this process; or rather, violence is the process itself when two or more partners try to prevent one another from appropriating the object they all desire through physical or other means” (Girard 1979, 9).

In this way, Girard takes issue with the dominant conflict models that focus on aggression or scarcity as the sources of conflict. Such models propose that “many of our problems are the direct result of concentration of wealth and power” as well as “exploitation and colonialism” (Farley, p. 17-18). While this perspective goes a long way in explaining various types of conflict that societies experience, Girard believes they are insufficient to explain the diversity of situations around which we find conflict. He believes that these insufficiencies are avoided when conflict is, instead, modeled on acquisitive mimesis, or “appropriative mimicry” (Girard 1979, 10).

He sees aggression as part of the problem of conflict, not part of the cause. Since conflict appears to be fairly ubiquitous, yet aggression is limited only to certain types of conflict, aggression may not be the correct model. Similarly, scarcity, while also a potential cause of conflict, again is not the source of the issue according to Girard. He does not believe that scarcity in the animal world would explain the violent challenges by lower males against dominant males. Imitation, however, also common to both humans and animals, he believes has more explanatory power to describe the origin and perpetuation of violence (Girard 1979, 10).

Yes, it’s pretty heavy stuff. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

27 March 2006

A little bit of theory from the rabble-rousers

In the name of protecting freedom of speech and religion, many political and religious leaders incite people into violence. It doesn’t take much, just a little spark. How do they do it so quickly? There’s no secret really; they play on human behaviour. You see, simple social and psychological patterns have the makings of great destruction embedded in them. In the wrong hands, who can tell what this kind of human behaviour will do?

Here’s a little bit of theory I picked up from the rabble-rousers:

When our sense of physical and psychological self has been violated, when our personal property is invaded, our blood begins to boil. Because this violation, this invasion of our property, means that the systems that provide the statutes of law, justice, fair trade and personal protection in our society have failed. In turn, our faith in our safety and security reduces drastically. We feel victimised. We feel we have lost our sense of democratic autonomy. We wish to re-possess (or reclaim) our safety, our security, our sense of respectability. We seek retribution.

Not only do we seek retribution, going by our constitutional rights, we seek out opportunities to defend our property and whatever is contained within its space by whatever means necessary. This is an interesting situation because, in this situation, our sense of self and property actually becomes our sense of self as property. Waves of self-preservation overwhelm us and, along with a disdain for failed law and order and the justice system, we assume power in our own hands to rectify the situation that has gone wrong in our personal world.

What’s fascinating about this human behaviour is that it attracts popular sympathy, gains fervour through incitement, and becomes a movement. A dangerous one at that because, at this point, the movement believes it is above the law, and so, quickly turns into an uncontrollable mob. Political and religious leaders know this theory all too well.

25 March 2006

Are we held captive?

My previous post is worth a read. Not because it’s great writing, but because it describes a grim reality. It recounts an instance from our lives – an instance which is becoming increasingly common in our country and even around the world.

The instance I’m referring to is the story of a US-published book on world history which was distributed and sold in India. The book happened to contain a cartoon of Prophet Mohammed in one of its pages. The cartoon was deemed disparaging – ‘blasphemous’ was the word used, I believe – by the Muslim community in India and the book had to be withdrawn from the shelves of the bookshops and from the libraries.

This had me thinking. Was the book withdrawn because it hurt the sensitivities and the sensibilities of the Muslim people in India? Or, was it withdrawn because everyone feared that the incident would upset the Muslim people so much that it would lead to secular violence in the country? Of course, nobody wants secular violence. But suppose the answers to these questions are a resounding ‘yes’, then what meaning does this hold for the citizens of India?

Does it mean that the Muslims in our country – a minority group – are actually holding us captive? Are we living in fear in our own motherland? If so, what does this mean for us – the free citizens of the largest democracy in the world? What social or cultural behaviour, what code of conduct, are we advocating for each other? What moral values are we passing on to our children? What democracy are we talking about if one small cartoon in an imported book on world history – with limited distribution – has the majority of the population in the country running for cover?

23 March 2006

"History of the World" under criticism

Here’s a new turn on the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, right here on our doorstep. This time, ‘Crossword’ – a favourite bookshop of mine – and the West Bengal government seem to be involved. So, what’s cooking? Here’s what I know:

Apparently, ‘Crossword’ imports a consignment of ‘History of the World: Earliest Times to the Present Day’ – a 900-page book on world history from a US publisher – and happily sells it to its customers. The West Bengal government also buys a consignment from ‘Crossword’ and distributes it to school libraries as a reference book.

After thousands of copies of the book have been sold, somebody notices that, in a chapter on Islamic world (page 171 I’ve been told), there’s a black and white sketch of Prophet Mohammed. As reported by Reuters, “It shows a short and bearded Prophet, clad in a robe, is seen holding the venerated Black Stone and placing it in a cloth in the Kaaba in Mecca after Islam's central shrine had been cleared of idols and sanctified in the seventh century.”

The word spreads. Muslim leaders become angry. They protest. According to the Reuters report, Hasan Ahmed Imran, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Bengal, has risen to the occasion and said, “The sketch is in extremely bad taste and is blasphemous. The book should be immediately withdrawn from everywhere in the world and the guilty people must apologise.”

‘Crossword’ takes the book of its shelves and stops selling it in India. The West Bengal School Education Minister, Sri Kanti Biswas, also rallies around: “The books will not be used in any of the schools of Bengal and all of them will be taken off the shelves of libraries.” The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fog Rasmussen, puts off his state visit to India.

For those interested, here’s a short narrative on the book:

History of the World: Earliest Times to the Present Day
Author: John Whitney Hall (Ed.)
Publisher: World Publishing
Format: Hardcover, 912 pages
Category: History, World

Overview (from www.BookCloseouts.com)
“This impressive publishing landmark traces the history of the world from the building of the pyramids by the ancient Egyptians to the war on terrorism in the twenty-first century. Vibrant prose brings to life each epoch in this majestic account of the story of mankind. History of the World is the skillful work of twenty-five renowned scholars, each an authority in his own field, who have joined under the editorial direction of noted historian John Whitney Hall to produce an awe-inspiring and original text nearly a million words in length.”

The book was probably first published in 1991, but I’m not sure of this fact.

22 March 2006

Quite a remarkable feat

Is India a democracy in the conventional sense (take the US as your benchmark) or merely a melting pot of separate communities collected under a common banner? Are people from all regions, communities, cultures and religions represented equally and fairly in our democracy? Does the government’s rhetoric reflect the opinion of the people from all sections of the demography?

Questions, questions, questions. When it comes to criticism, there’s a lot you can say against India. And, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you’ve shared your disapproval of your country on many counts. Guess what, you’re not alone. We are all responsible for this. India just doesn’t shape up in front of us. So, here’s a question for you: How would you view your government when it comes to encouraging social change in the country? Would you give them a poor rating or an average one? Or, perhaps, something better?

In spite of all the allegations against our ministers, I’d give the government a high score. And, why not? Look what they’ve got on their hands: A billion-plus population, poverty, illiteracy, and a multitude of languages, cultures, religions and diseases to deal with. Then you have the corruption and the personal agenda of the ministers and the bureaucrats. And, on top of that, a growing need for liberalisation to keep pace with the pressures of globalisation. A handful, wouldn’t you say? Yet, India continues to maintain its status of ‘a democracy’. Quite a remarkable feat, that.

21 March 2006

Social change beyond the state

“The democratic power of civil society becomes relevant at both these points of vigilance: first as a means of resisting tyranny within the state and laying the foundations of political equality and popular control, and second as a means of building democratic counter-power to the anti-democratic sources of power outside the state, which have long been eroding the power of the franchise.”
[Hilary Wainwright, “Civil Society, Democracy and Power” chapter in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2004/5]

Wherever there are relationships between people, between people and organisations, even between people and the environment, there is hope that harmony will prevail. There is hope that social change will improve our living conditions, our cultural and moral decadence, and remove the barriers that now stand between us and a better world.

This may sound like a utopian view, but according to Hilary Wainwright, this can happen through civil society organisations exercising their rights against repressive political (and economic) power... without resorting to violence. As a case study, she cites the example of the World Social Forum (WSF) which began as a local movement in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, but has now become a globally-reputed forum exercising international influence and achieving a great deal of political equality for many.

To me, the WSF is symbolic. What the WSF really represents is a model for others to follow. A model that supports the idea that social change beyond the state is possible – and can be achieved in a democracy. That, together, people can ensure that instances of injustice and oppression are reduced, that social order is achieved in harmony, that moral integrity is restored in a society, that elected governments are persuaded to implement their election promises.

It’s not everything, but it’s a start.

20 March 2006

How civil do we have to be?

Someone puts Holi colours on a boy. Someone else molests a girl. Stray incidents, but with severe consequences. Soon after, a fight breaks out between groups of people – presumably those representing the boy and the girl. Perfectly-civil residents pick up arms and become militant. The Police step in with lathis and tear gas – create more trouble with unruly behaviour. People protest against Police. Police retaliate. Shots are fired. People die. Curfew is declared in an otherwise peaceful town.

Perhaps it’s not as simple as that. But, that was Navi Mumbai last week.

What went wrong? How did a civil society turn violent? Are the citizens of Navi Mumbai so frustrated that stray incidents of misdemeanours can bring out the worst in them? And, what about the peacekeepers of our societies – the Police? Are they also so frustrated that they need to display unruly behaviour and use arms on demonstrating citizens? Citizens, like you and me, with the right to their franchise!

Mind you, we are talking about the world’s largest democracy here. A democracy built on precepts of non-violence; a democracy sworn to fight terrorism.

If democracy is about people with power, does it mean that, in India, we have too many people with power? Should we, then, redefine democracy to give it another meaning more suited to India’s social, cultural and political topography? And, what about civil society as a means to building a democracy… as a source of power for democratic change? Do we need to re-constitute this?

How civil do we have to be to exercise our social, cultural and political rights without resorting to violence?

16 March 2006

How democratic are we?

It’s one thing to be a democracy with multiple political parties, free elections and a parliament made up of elected representatives; and another, to live by equality in decision-making, exercising our franchise politically, culturally, in a family and in personal relationships. After all, to be truly democratic, we need to have control; we need to be free to make our own decisions.

The question is: Are we in control of our decision-making which affects our lives everyday?

How transparent is our government in sharing their decision-making with us? Or, our parents, the schools and colleges we’ve studied in, or our employers for that matter. How often have we felt undermined? How often have we thought of rebelling against the system? How often have we lost hope, believing that those who represent us do so not in our interests, but only to whet their appetites or to promote a personal agenda?

What then is the sign of a true democracy?

Should we introduce some sort of testing mechanism to assess the democratic nature of our systems? Should we institute a quality certification – an ISI or an ISO – to monitor the purity of our democratic process in real-life application? Should we reward faithfulness to the system and levy penalties for deviation?

These thoughts are absurd, of course. Except for figures for population and voting rights, there is no measure for democracy.

Historically, the institution of democracy has varied enormously… and is likely to do so in the future. No-one can claim its true form. At best, if it leads to liberalisation of political, social and cultural rights, we should feel happy. Democracy may have its roots in equality, but it’s not an easy concept to manage. Equality is neither for everyone, nor easily attainable.

14 March 2006

Power and democracy

In a democracy, power comes from its people.

No matter how much power India wields within its boundaries or internationally, one of its foundations has been to safeguard the freedom of its people. We don’t ride roughshod over others. And, we don’t disregard the cultural, social or religious rights of our people. On the contrary, we protect those who need our support.

Sometimes, this is a hindrance to our growth – or even to our political motivation. There’s always the temptation to make a compromise here or there; step on a few toes. After all, we have a lot going for us at the moment.

We are on the verge of becoming an economic power. Yet, we need to fight off protectionist barriers in various global forums that stand in our way.

With our build-up of military strength, we are also an emerging political power. Yet, in places, our borders are under dispute and we are unsure of some of our neighbours.

And most disturbingly, we are yet to control political instability in our country.

But, if in a democracy, power comes from its people, maybe there’s something we can all do to improve our situation. We can mitigate undemocratic ideologies or regimes that destroy our civil rights. We can introduce internal reforms in our social circles to accommodate and benefit from new systems and technologies. We can defend those who need our protection.

Therein lies the power of our democracy.

11 March 2006

What are we going to do with so much power?

India can now import nuclear fuel and technology, thanks to President Bush’s go-ahead signal. The question is: What are we going to do with so much nuclear power? Well, the whole world’s looking for the answer to that question too. But, right now, India is too busy living out an euphoric dream to give a proper answer to the world.

I say ‘proper answer’ because, I believe, no matter what India’s answer is to the world, the world is unlikely to take India at face value. And why is that? Simply because the world is not ready for another nuclear power. North Korea has already told everyone to get lost, and Iran seems to be talking a similar language. No one is happy about this. So, why add another ‘doubtful’ member to the list?

But, why should the world doubt India at all? We do not support terrorism. In fact, we have resolved to fight it. We have never broken any laws on weapons-making. Nor have we declared war on any country, in spite of serious differences with some of our neighbours. We are a peacefiul and responsible democracy. We need nuclear power to support our fast-growing energy needs. Faced with a similar problem, every developed and/or developing nation has – or has tried to – follow this route.

So, is India’s story so simple? The world thinks not. Both India and the US are under heavy criticism. Here’s an excerpt from an editorial from The Economist which voices a few of the world's concerns:

“By allowing it to import nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors, America will be directly easing the bottlenecks in its weapons programme (bizarrely, also agreeing to keep up fuel supplies even if India breaks America's other anti-proliferation laws, as some of its companies have in the past). Worse, India's experimental fast-breeder reactor programme, ideally suited to produce plutonium for warheads though previously claimed to be for civilian purposes, is to be exempted from all safeguards. That will allow India in future to produce scores of weapons a year, not just a handful.”

04 March 2006

We want your money

It’s not a plea anymore. It’s almost a demand.

Gone are the days when India pleaded for financial aid. When India was the epitome of the Third World, sitting in the corridors of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, offices in Washington DC and other financial institutions with its begging bowl. India of the yesteryears was a country ravaged by over-population, poverty, illiteracy, the caste system and lack of infrastructure.

But all that has changed. India now exports software and technology solutions to the rest of the world. The US, the center of world technology, is its primary market. What’s more, the US has poured in financial capital into our country, helping to set up businesses and R&D centers, as well as welcoming outsourced services. This has created a boom in the country for various industries, generating much-needed jobs for millions. Many more Indians now have money in their pockets to spend on their education and lifestyle… and invest elsewhere.

Our Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, summarises this situation well: “This is a very different India from what we were 20 years ago.” And, I believe him.

What is also interesting to note is the balance of equations this has created between India and the US, and India and the world. No longer is India a country with a begging bowl, but has now evolved into an economic power in its own right, asserting itself with logic and credibility. India’s newfound power comes from India’s pool of talent, which seems to be envied by everyone and is much in demand. India has something the world wants; and it is now on offer at a price that makes doing business with the world not just economically viable, but profitable.

However, there is a caveat. For India, the world may be the market, but India cannot live on talent alone. Talent is only one of the components of business and economic power. And, who knows this best than our very own Finance Minister. And so, he makes it clear to the person who matters most to India at the moment: US President George W Bush. According to a recent BBC news story, Mr Chidambaram told business leaders accompanying President Bush on his visit to India, “Let me tell you, we want your money.” Adding, “I want your technology also. I want your good management policies and good governance norms.”

A little in-your-face maybe, but at least he doesn’t beat around the bush.

02 March 2006

The blues in the US can put India in the red

India will become very important in the near future.

Indians have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and it has now surfaced for all to see. The world is no longer a stranger to the success of Indian businesses, spearheaded by the likes of the Ambanis, the Tatas, the Narayana Murthys, the Premjis, the Birlas and the Bajajs. Even the Mittals and the Hindujas from around the world are ready to put on their Indian garb and share their crowning glory with India.

Our story is that of a liberalising economy, something that is helping our recent rate of growth. The service sector has blossomed, with new industries growing in areas such as tourism, healthcare, management and communications consulting, besides the IT and ITES which the whole world talks about. Among the developing economies, our potential is second only to China, only because our business culture is not as thrifty, nor as protectionist, as the Chinese. There is every reason to believe that we shall continue on our growth path, at least, for the next ten years.

But, as things are, are we not overconfident?

For one thing, we are too reliant on the US for exports. The fact is, so are many other countries around the world… increasing the debt burden in the US. This makes us vulnerable to an economic downturn in the US, as it does for the other countries.

I mean, what if the blues hit the US economy suddenly? What if, for some reason such as a rise in the real interest rates, there’s a recession in the US? It’s bound to have a negative effect on India, right? A recession on US soil is likely to push the US economy into adopting protectionist measures. And this, in turn, is likely to cause a fall in demand for Indian exports to the US. As a result, our growth rate will be lowered, pushing our economic balance sheet into the red.

Meanwhile, with an over-populated agricultural sector which has very little going for it, and an industrial sector rapidly invaded by the Koreans and the Chinese, India may not have too many choices left for its economic development.

Isn’t it time we looked inwards and directed some of our entrepreneurial spirit for India’s long-term growth?