In Search Of Guiding Principles

The Arundhati Roy article ‘Walking with the Comrades’ in Outlook and the subsequent rants against and for it online make for interesting reading. Roy goes into Dandakaranya as the personal guest of the Maoists and comes back with what is ostensibly an inside view of the rebels who constitute according to Manmohan Singh, ‘the gravest internal security threat’ to India. What it of course turns out to be is a nice piece of writing that is unabashedly one-sided in its view – definitely not good journalism by any stretch of the imagination. We know Arundhati Roy believes the country needs a revolution and here was an opportunity to show and tell the world the romance of the on-the-run, gun-toting, Che-like revolutionary. There is no questioning of the Maoist approach (terrifying in my view), no thinking through if Gandhian ways wouldn’t be better for the tribals and for the world at large. If I was not such a fan of Roy’s writing, I would have not bothered to go beyond the first page of the 10 page article, rubbishing it as leftist propaganda.

But this is not a critique of the article. Reading it gave me pause. It was obvious which way Roy’s sympathies lay. She has in the past been critical of Indian democracy, the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate greed. She sees herself, to paraphrase her brilliant and only piece of fiction, as the god of small things – fighting for the little, unknown, defenseless people, against powerful governments and big companies. Vedanta and Chidambaram are evil; out to strip and cheat the tribals of everything they value. Just as America is an imperialistic power out to establish its hegemony in the world. And there are no two ways about it.

What does it take for someone to completely believe? In a political theory or an economic one, in god, in an after-life, in the supremacy of a race or gender. To believe that something is absolutely right and the opposite is plain wrong. Like Arundhati Roy and her anti-big dam stance…or Gandhi and his non-violence…or Bush and his war on terror…or my cousin and his ‘the free market is the answer to everything’ theory…

I think that to truly believe in something, you need to be blind to a lot else. To believe in the Maoists, you need to be blind to the historical inhumanity that political theory has engendered in the twentieth century (and possibly in Dandakaranya itself, among the children forced to become soldiers). To believe in capitalism and Adam Smith, you need to be blind to its consequences on Roy’s ‘small things’. To believe in god, you need to blind yourself to everything that disproves its existence (Dawkins excellent book, for example). To believe in the absolute rightness and strength of non-violence, you need to be blind to the existence of pure evil (wonder if satyagraha could have been a weapon against Hitler).

Because there will always be individual circumstances that can put paid to belief. Is America’s free market system conducive to India’s growth challenges? Can Dawkin’s certainty about the non-existence of god explain the solace religion can bring to desperation?

I struggle with forming strong points of view – about religion, politics, economics, even about people. And I am sometimes repulsed by others who form them easily and with such certitude. There are some personal absolutes I can live by – truth and honesty, positivity and hope, an equal world for all, compassion, an absence of hatred, a respect for life, any life. But beyond that, what could be the absolutes? Theories – political, economic, social, religious – are just thought through opinions. Not a one-size fits all answer, but frameworks which will need to be moulded to individual circumstances.

If there is one belief I think the world would be better off living with, it is this: an acknowledgement that there could be different ways to reach the same goal, and that yours is a choice you make without ever being blinded to the others on the table; that while you give your all to that choice, there is always a recognition that a course correction or a modification might be required, that your choice might prove to be the wrong one and that you should learn as you go along. And along the way, the only absolutes you adhere to are a commitment to humanity and human rights, a hatred of any kind of hatred, and a lack of cynicism.

Is it too middle-of-the-road to be interesting? Is the lack of sharp edges smacking too much of compromise? Maybe. But do I believe the world will be a better place without the kind of polarization and uncompromising stances taken today? I do. Strongly and firmly. The Arundhati Roys have a place in this world. They paint one side of the picture. An extremely important side; yet it is but one side. There has to be a recognition of the other – a choice of democracy and peaceful resistance; of activism within the boundaries of law. It is a choice we made as a nation 60 odd years back. And we keep at it, while hearing and taking into account what Roy is saying…acknowledging that there are a lot of things that need to be corrected, understanding that what we call progress might not translate well to the people most affected, that a few cannot be sacrificed for the good of the many. There are always two sides to a story.


Anonymous said…
interesting, but at a point in time, you'd need to take a stand..this-forever-on-fence bleeding-heart-liberal thing is fine to score points in coffee house debates, but nothing ever got done by people like these..
small talk said…
I am not arguing against taking a stance. Of course you do need to if you want to get things done. All I am arguing against is a rigidity and inflexibility in it. Also what I am arguing against is ideology for the sake of ideology. And bleeding heart liberalism by the way is what makes the world humane...
Anonymous said…
Interesting read...! Truth is not singular and thus the fights over it. Not sure, if "we all" chose as a nation something 60 years ago (or if "all" can chose anything ever at all). Nevertheless, very nice thoughts and nothing to disagree.

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