Dear Friends -

We are deeply saddened and distressed by the recent deaths of hundreds of innocent people in the name of religion. What disturbs us most amidst the violent carnage taking place in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and elsewhere throughout the Indian sub-continent is what appears to be the death of our own humanity. The reactions we are witnessing — of avenging anger with anger, violence with violence, gruesome death with even more gruesome death — is one sign of gross depravity. Another common reaction by the middle class — of statistical and institutionalized rationales, capitalizing on these events for political mileage — is another sign. A third reaction — of head-in-the-sand silence, interspersed with armchair finger-pointing and superficial lists of declarations/demands — is yet another sign. All of these signs stem from our profound loss of faith both in ourselves and towards our fellow human beings. They point to a deep crisis in our modern political-economic-educational institutions. This must be acknowledged and critically discussed, if we are to begin to recover our humanity, heal painful (old and new) wounds, and move towards re-imagining and living lives grounded in mutual trust, interdependence, wisdom and love. It is in this spirit of hope that we share the following reflections.

Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed horrendous acts (both before our eyes and through media images) and have heard several commentaries about the ‘logic’ behind these acts as well as appeals for self-restraint and peace. What strikes us most about the statements being issued by both the mainstream and alternative media, as well as by independent organizations and alliances, is the near-total lack of systemic analysis of the larger destructive Development paradigm and its institutions, values, policies, etc. In other words, if we understand that what we are seeing is not an accident, we must ask ourselves: What processes and systems shape and harden communal identities and pit neighbors and friends against one another?

Thus far, there has been no serious analysis of what is contributing to the growing number of highly schooled youth who are filled with very real feelings of rage, frustration, cynicism and desperation. There has been no discussion about how these events are related to the emergence of an industrial, high-tech, military nation state in India that is built on: the illegitimate centralization of institutionalized power; the murder of Nature and bio-diversity; a political economy of scarcity (characterized by over-consumption, commodification, competition and over-specialization); the splintering of family and community inter-dependent relationships; and the alienation of peoples’ creative wisdom and expressions. We believe that it is more than coincidence that the communal fires are blazing in Gujarat – the state which prides itself on being the ‘Japan of India’. We need to ask ourselves that if this is where Development has taken us, then where do we go from here? It is a systemic analysis of the larger context and direction of modern society, which we wish to call attention to here.

At the outset, we should clarify: Despite the rhetoric being broadcast to us night and day, we do NOT believe that these events are the result of an inherent, ingrained, or unavoidable clash between Hinduism and Islam. To conduct one’s analysis of these recent events purely within the framework of ‘communalism’, is to implicitly accept and legitimize the ‘Two-Nation Theory’ — the British-inspired notion that Hindus and Muslims are so fundamentally incompatible that they are justified in violently separating themselves and destroying each other. In addition, to continue to beat the drum of ‘communal conflict’ is to ignore both the larger culture of insecurity and fear being propagated by processes of Development, Modernization and Globalization, and the growth of private agendas/mafias/goondas who profit from this culture.

A narrow focus on communalism prevents us from having meaningful conversations about the root issues that are producing bitter tension and stress in our lives, such as: unsustainable and alienating urbanization, destruction of precious water-land-air resources, downsizing of livelihood options, displacement of millions of innocent people, reduction of critical subsidies on essential goods and medicines, loss of biodiversity due to petrochemical and genetic farming, intellectual property rights and patenting, arms trade, debt crisis, nuclear weapons, etc. It is quite ironic that all critical discussions on the latest national budget — which dubiously preaches privatization, free trade and information/bio-technology as the only path to greater equity in society — have been swept under the rug in the face of temple-building hype. Indeed, it would be difficult to talk about real peace without more widely discussing these root issues and their systemic implications (both nationally and internationally).

If these terrible events are to have any constructive value, it would be to wake us from our fifty-three year post-colonial somnabulism (sleep-walking), which encourages us to believe that we can pursue unlimited growth in production and consumption without any negative social repercussions. It is critical that we create more diverse spaces for critical dialogue about the fundamental assumptions underlying the systems that govern our lives. This will require that we break out of several pre-configured, jargonistic formulations about what is happening around us:

1. First, this story is not about quickly returning to ‘normalcy’ at any cost. Indeed, going back to ‘business as usual’ could prove disastrous in the long term. There have already been many attempts to cover up the ‘eruptions’ which rise from the deeper systemic crisis that is bubbling all around us. For example, the big media has repeatedly stated, "Increased presence of the army will have a soothing effect in Ahmedabad." We must ask ourselves what kind of perverse logic this is? That silence from the fear of the military can lead to peace and stability? Not only is the big media sensationalizing and empowering the extremist elements — by falsely suggesting that they represent a large number of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ — but they are also laying the foundation for increased control by the State-Market nexus. Daily we are being told that the only way for us to protect ourselves is to give the State, the police and the military better weapons, higher salaries, the latest technology — i.e., more Power. The institutions of Development have capitalized on our fears to breed more fear – a fear of the future, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the Other, a fear of our neighbors, a fear of ourselves.

Not surprisingly, this suggestion (for enhanced military power) comes at a time when many people are claiming that the State has become weak because of globalization. While this may be true in terms of the State’s ability to dole out welfare goods and services, we must ask what will be the effect of strengthening the military might of the State-Market. Will it do anything to improve the deteriorating condition of the majority of people in India? Who really will benefit from this enhanced brute power, and who will it be used against? The chances are that the first to be attacked in the name of ‘peace’ and the ‘greater common good’ will be those who express any dissent against State-Market-sponsored programs, policies or intrusions. It is foolhardy to believe that an expanded role for the military is a viable or desirable long-term (or even mid-term) solution for the Indian sub-continent.

2. This story is not simply about a few ‘corrupt politicians’, ‘slow courts’ or ‘complicit policemen’. Rather, it serves to highlight the real lack of spaces for meaningful dialogue and dissent in our society, particularly against forces of exploitation and destruction. These events should prompt us to raise fundamental questions around the illusions of democracy and freedom of expression — around the roles that the technocracy, the big media, the big industrialists, the Courts, the military, and Foreign Development Agencies play in controlling and manipulating the social majorities, in defining/standardizing our ‘identities’, our 'realities', our ‘needs’, and our ‘alternatives’. These institutions have no real accountability to or interest in listening to peoples unless they have large sums of money or political power. They are driven to make decisions with only their short-term interests and gains in sight (and are rewarded for this irrational behaviour). They see diversity of all forms as a ‘obstacle’ and a ‘problem’. By directing our attention to the constant threat of extremist groups (internally and externally) while themselves claiming to be ‘rational’, ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’, these institutions succeed not only in crushing the questions that should be raised about the legitimacy of their concentrated power, but also in extending their grip over civil society. They increase our levels of institutional dependency and paralysis, by undermining our faith in the capacities of local people to take care of each other and to resolve their own problems. As they expand, the possibilities for diverse forms of popular expressions and interactions are narrowed. We are forced to continue to use the same stagnant set of expert-led tools (e.g. marches, dharnas, letter-writing campaigns, court petitions, voting, etc.) that have been defined as ‘acceptable’ by these institutions to express our grief, disgust or protest. This has happened to such a degree that the tools themselves have become grossly trivialized.

3. This story is not about ‘poverty’ and ‘illiteracy’. Rather, it points to the hollowness of ‘success’. These violent incidents (burning, fighting, looting, murdering) raise fundamental questions about the entire educational enterprise, since the primary perpetrators are insensitive, unemployed/underemployed (without meaningful work and purpose), insecure educated youth. They have also been 'educated' to remain silent (or laughing, cheering) voyeurs of slaughter, witnessing brutal deaths with about the same amount of pleasure as a cricket match. They have been 'educated' to express themselves only through the violence of words, fists and weapons. They have been ‘educated’ to forsake their own abilities to think critically, creatively and with sensitivity. Instead, their mental make-up and actions are governed by a strange mix of blind hypocritical patriotism, competitive rivalry, consumeristic greed and decontextualized bits of information. These youth, lacking in self-esteem, sadly believe that joining the mob will provide them with safety in the future. They accept violence against human beings and Nature, as a necessary part of resolving problems and achieving National Progress. They hold no faith in the virtue of forgiveness.

Breaking free from the long somnabulism will also require that we shed well-established oppositional labels like secularists vs. communalists, Muslim vs. Hindu, capitalists vs. communists, etc. Such binary categories not only reinforce the dominant paradigm of destructive Development, but they limit our critiques of it. They trap us in alienating ‘either-you-are-for-us-or-against-us’ debates; they constrict our thinking, creativity and questioning of status quo frameworks; and, they reduce complex issues to jargonistic catch-phrases and sound-bytes. Worst of all, these labels colonize/kill all new possibilities for generating alternatives, since they completely reject both the power and the inter-connectedness of the human spirit. Without this bond, we can never feel the deep pain that our 'enemy' may be suffering with.

However, lifting the weight of binary categories does not mean that we reject the hope and strength inherent in Hinduism and Islam (and other religions) from public life. Rather, it is the opposite that is required. We need to reclaim these two traditions from the Hindutva and Jehadist forces and to re-emphasize their common missions in: searching to understand the multiplicity of truths that underlie life, struggling for justice and dignity, nurturing collective human goodness and creativity, and regenerating a profound harmony and love amongst all forms of life. We must begin to re-imagine who we are, to re-discover what it means to be Hindu, Muslim, or a believer in any faith, in the face of indoctrinating, destructive and unjust political-economic-educational systems. For this, we must be open to questioning what ‘sacred’ abstractions such as ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ actually mean in the 21st century. Who really benefits from these? Under what conditions do such abstract constructs become dangerous or fascist?

Who then is the struggle between? Not between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, but between ‘us’ and ‘us’. The dehumanizing lifestyles and mindsets that have been adopted by the elite and middle class, that continue to be packaged and sold via schools and the mainstream media, that grow from and grow into this modern industrial, high-tech, military society — these are what we must struggle with. Today, these ambitions permeate and corrode our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our clubs, our religious centers, our chat rooms, our dreams. Facing it requires that we need to stop blaming Others as well as break out of our middle class naivete. We must ask ourselves: How long can we continue to broadcast violent, competitive and consumeristic images to our children and expect them not to react with insensitivity and aggression? How long can we continue raise our families in homogenizing, fragmenting and polluting environments? How long can we continue to defer our personal leadership responsibilities to big institutions such as the Courts, the Police, the Politicians, the Army, the NGOs, the MNCs? How long can we continue to support institutions and frameworks that have been designed to privilege the values of ‘profit’ and ‘efficiency’ over people?

This is not a petition to sign. It is not a campaign to join. It is not a short-term, feel-good pill to pop. Rather, it is an invitation to all of those who wish to labor with us in Self-criticism, Self-understanding, and Self-renewal. Here we do not just mean the individual self, but rather the multi-dimensional Self of Swaraj. The Self interconnected with families, with communities, with people of different faiths, cultures, language groups. The Self that roots itself in soil and Nature. The Self that seeks out creative forms of expression. The Self that values simplicity and self-restraint over unlimited extravagance and material accumulation. This Self does not harbor any illusions that more bombs can lead to security, or artificial scarcity can lead to the good of all, or more high technology can solve all our problems, or trickle-down economics can lead to social justice, or homogenization can lead to unity. This Self does not leave it to the 'experts' to discuss and control the future of the planet. This Self does not believe that the only two options available to humanity are to either go ‘forward’ or ‘backward’. This is the Self -- in the spirit of Gandhiji and Tagore -- that dares to ask the tough questions about Progress and the assumptions underlying dominant political-economic-educational institutions, and is equally committed to the struggle to find new answers to them.

There are many other important aspects -- subtleties and complexities, details and possibilities -- which we haven’t been able to touch upon. We invite you to expand the dialogue by sharing your thoughts and feelings with us.

Shikshantar Andolan

21 Fatehpura

Udaipur, Rajasthan


March 19, 2002