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Is Activism Meaningless?

Every young person, particularly, from the lower middle class and middle class, feels a sense of anger, guilt and frustration at the state of inequities, injustices and the sufferings all around us. Some events of extreme deprivation, brutality or inhumanity, further drive us to question the nature of the society that we live in and how we could live with such harsh realities in this age and time.

Each of us try to look for answers to these questions in our own way. While our answers are shaped by the environment that we are brought up in, the political/philosophical outlook of one’s family, and by friends and teachers, there could be three or four broader streams of answers one might feel content with.

One, there’s always the good old grandmotherly wisdom, that has been oft-repeated across generations: “If everyone does their job well, be a good Samaritan, helpful neighbor – if everyone builds a healthy and prosperous family – the world would turn into a healthy and prosperous place. After all, the humankind is nothing but the sum total of families.”

This proposition sounds very true and relieving. If one truly believes in this, there’s no sense of guilt and you are not impelled to do anything else for the society, except for building a healthy and prosperous family. However realistic and practical this may sound, the truth is quite far from this. In an ideal world, yes, this is how things should work. Alas, we are far from an idle world by at least a light year. Imagine, if Gandhi had focused all his energies to make his family prosperous and disciplined, instead of dedicating his life to lead the Independence movement and thus inspiring not only the people of this country, but many nations. Imagine if those that fought for an eight-hour work day, healthy working conditions and better wages, were good human beings, who minded their business and lived only for their families.

Second: the NGO way. Even those who profess the first thought process to address the crises in the world, would also want you to do some charity and thus, earn a place in the good books of the God(s). You could get instant gratification and also forget about the larger issues of oppression, poverty, deprivation. The NGOs provide that perfect platform to channelize one’s charity and one can’t help but feel that a larger goal is being achieved. Most of those who consider themselves apolitical and even take pride in being apolitical are more likely to choose this way. There is no denial that there are NGOs that work with the right intent and make a difference to many lives. However, the NGO phenomenon, only acts as a political safety valve for the powers that be. It deflects the attention of the youth from the real issues, by giving a false sense of accomplishment, without actually questioning the roots of the issues. As Arundathi Roy argues here “The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job.”

Third, the metaphysical one – Karma philosophy. “You do not have control over what is happening in this world. In fact, your life itself is not totally in your control, All the sufferings are result of the sins committed in your earlier lives.” While there are many takers of this. This is increasingly being questioned, and more and more people are finding this to be a silly excuse to evade one’s responsibility towards society. The Nihilists would also broadly be under this category, sans the karma philosophy.

Fourth: the least taken path – political activism. Politics is more often than not considered murky and dirty. It’s not very uncommon to paint all types of politics as corrupt and irredeemable. In most lower middle and middle class most families, it’s a taboo to be a part of any political party, particularly if that requires activism from your side. We are told that, the politics is best left for the politicians. If we persist and ask how a change can be made without political activism, we are given the freedom to choose from one of above three ways to soothe our guilt and ignore the harsh reality.

Politics decides your fees.

Politics decides your rent.

Politics decides the price of your bread.

Politics decides the quality of air we breathe.

Then how can you not decide your politics.

The fact is that everything around is directly or indirectly effected by politics. Politics controls our lives in more ways than we are willing to admit. There are many brave people, who realize this and take the less traveled path of activism. Political activism might not always be associated with a political party or organization. It takes different forms and shapes. A person that spends their energy, time and money to file an RTI application, when they find something’s not right is a political activist. A person, who chooses to file a PIL against an unjust law/order and fights against it is a political activist. A comedian who lays thread bare the hypocrisies of the fundamentalist organizations is doing some sort of political activism.

While there’s no substitute for the real hard work, many of the full-time activists do at the grass root levels, there are many other auxiliary forms that aid the grass root level workers. Yes, there’s slacktivism – a term coined to describe to arm chair revolutionaries, who are confined only to online petitions and social media pages and groups. These might add to the effort of the political activists, for instance, they give voice to the alternative views which otherwise, do not get any space in the social and real media. However, to believe the off -field or online work alone is an end itself is delusional.

Political activism is fraught with many dangers. As a society, that sees everything through the lens of quid pro quid transactions or “What’s in it for me?”, the acceptance of political activists is very dismal. They are often viewed with suspicion as people with hidden agendas – an agenda might involve some financial benefits. Those that lack the courage and determination to study the ground reality and get take on the murky field of politics, often brand political activism as self-serving prophecy and pointless.

Another argument against activism, that is recently gaining currency, is that activists make no difference – only scientists and highly skilled professionals make all the difference. It’s no one’s case that scientists and professionals, do not make the world richer and better. However, it’s politics that decides who benefits from the work of the scientists and professionals. We could very well see scientists creating a world where all diseases are cured and even the grievous injuries are healed in less than an hour. But this could be available only to the super rich, a la the movie “Elyissium”. Today’s reality is not far from that. We have a few scores cornering half of the earth’s total wealth and the bottom 10% living in extremely impoverished conditions. Only, if we question the governments and it’s agents and demand what’s rightfully ours, only if we fight for a just world with all our might, we could achieve a better tomorrow.

The world would have been very very different, if Babasaheb chose to become a great lawyer and expert on jurisprudence; if the likes Martin Luther King Jr. chose to become great professionals; if Bhagat Singh were to become a great historian, if Ernesto Che Guevara had become the best cardiologist in Latin America. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to the naysayers.

In conclusion, let’s remember what Bhagat Singh said: “‘Study’ was the cry that reverberated in the corridors of my mind. Study to enable yourself to face the arguments advanced by opposition. Study to arm yourself with arguments in favor of your cult. I began to study.” We all can begin our activism by studying and then to take the plunge to make the world a better place.

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