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Anger management

The truth is that a 'normal' man also cares about human dignity, perhaps less obviously than those at the WSF simply because they aren?t there at the WSF, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2004 14:20 IST

God knows this world is full of cheats, exploiters, filchers, Scrooges and crooks. So, yes, it is bad form to be critical about the good guys even when they are being silly. But then, silliness can lead to its own crookedness and music-hall tragedies. On the face of it, the ongoing World Social Forum 2004 is a celebration of what can be called the ‘feel bad’ factor. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To question the notion that God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world is a legitimate exercise that needn’t upset even believers simply because there are lots of things going on in this world to actually feel strongly upset about. The ‘India Shining’ campaign notwithstanding.

But then, how are the 80,000-odd delegates from 100 countries congregated in Mumbai exactly going about their business to rid the world of exploiters and bloodsuckers since January 16? Answer: by unleashing a lava-flow of rhetoric.

Here’s Nobel Prize-winning Iranian delegate Shirin Ebadi at the WSF: “We are here to announce our commitment to human dignity. Absolute poverty is against human dignity. We are here to announce that human rights are crucial. We are here to announce that suffering in war has no dignity. We are here to announce that human beings are born with special rights and respect for these rights is for every government compulsory.” We are here with you, Shirin.

Then there’s Medha Patkar: “Those living on natural resources of land, water, forest and fisheries do not eat rupees, dollars, euros or yens. They don’t eat electricity but live a life of dignity, human power and a humane vision of life.”

Nobody should have problems with what Ebadi, Patkar and many others are saying in Mumbai. In fact, to think otherwise is to be inhuman, to be Margaret Thatcher, and without having any regard for others — in effect, to be what all of those singing, dancing, placard-waving and gung-hoing in Mumbai consider qualities of a person worshipping Mammon (American-style corporatisation) these days.

But the truth is that the man in the living room also cares about human dignity and human rights — perhaps less obviously than those at the WSF simply because they aren’t there at the WSF. But like this specimen of the middle-class, the rousing tide in Mumbai too doesn’t seem to have too much to offer as concrete steps to correct wrongs.

Well, actually they do, in their own focused ways. Back in Iran, Ebadi as a lawyer has done very real work to fight and protect the rights of political prisoners. Patkar, too, through her Narmada Bachao Andolan, has brought the earlier tut-tutted issue of relocation of dispossessed people in the centre of the Big Dam debate in this country.

It’s when all these concerns — human rights, gender, caste, communalism, environment, MNCs — are brought together on a platform as vast and all-encompassing as the WSF that the issues get diffused. And through no real fault of those doing genuine good work (rather than those simply making placards and singing Hum Honge Kamyab), they end up sounding, the truth be told, rather silly.

And here’s just a smattering of our Jean D’Arc, Arundhati Roy: “The United States is using anti-women Islamic text to justify its war against the Taliban... trishuls can soon turn against women... Iraq is the culmination of neo-liberalism and imperialism...” And just to show that she has an all-redeeming Plan B all ready, Roy demands delegates to select two American companies, prepare a list of their offices spread around the world and then “shut them down”. Abbie Hoffman lives!

Yes, that would set the world right, wouldn’t it? (She could start her crusade to bring global corporates on their knees by shutting down the Dow Chemical Company, successor to Union Carbide. But that’s just a suggestion from a neo-imperialist, Money God-kissing stooge.)

While the Naomi Kleins of the world rage against the logo and corporate culture, and their desi versions spit venom on multinational corporations, it seems rather remarkable how seamlessly the war on Iraq, human rights violations, communal violence, caste violence and mental violence against short people all get linked up with that ugly bugbear: neo-liberalism.

The equal distribution of wealth is a worthy ideal. Because this is the bedrock of communism, the ideology, despite its many horrific mutations on display, remains more than a palatable idea for the liberal at heart. While earlier Indian governments had tried the socialist model of economy, no one can doubt that it was a pretence to serve the poor. Garibi, let’s be honest, hasn’t been hatao-ed, not by a long shot.

With liberalisation, the earlier pretence is missing. Instead, it is the mantra of ‘It is glorious to be rich’ — or at least ‘to be not poor’ — that is taking over. The question is whether this ‘wealth’ will somehow, with some checks and valves in place, trickle down to the masses. The people at the WSF think not. Some less apocalyptic rhetoricians simply see an opportunity that is better than what was provided by the older model. So, it basically boils down to a tussle between pretence and hope. Or if you’re more cynical, between one kind of cynical powerplay and another.

Globalisation is not unani medicine. Those selling it as such are quacks, while those opposing it because they see it as such are deluded. According to those like Joseph Stiglitz, who understand the profits and perils of globalisation better than Arun Jaitley and Arundhati Roy (or, for that matter, myself), a nation like India needs liberalisation, but a managed one. All the people at WSF 2004 are good people who want a better world. But to have a Woodstock-type fest that clumps all the ills of the world in one basket, hoping for someone (Who? The governments are evil!) to pick up and throw that basket into the sea, is to invite the tag of being, well, naive.

In his book, The Last Liberal And Other Essays, historian Ramachandra Guha (no fascist, neo-imperialist pig he) writes about pioneer environmental activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt, spearhead of the Chipko movement: “It was Bhatt who first taught Indian environmentalists that it was not enough just to protest against destruction: they must also set about the process of reconstruction. Seeking always to improve the lives of the poor, Bhatt has sought to humanise modern science rather than reject it, to democratise bureaucracy rather than demonise it.”

Perhaps, there’s a lesson or two our good people in Mumbai could learn from Bhatt. And yes, another world is possible. But alas, the best of intentions and telekinesis alone aren’t the right fuel for the job.