Our hope is ourselves

Our hope is ourselves

Ringing in 2011

Our hope is ourselves

It’s the dawn of a new year. A time when we celebrate hope for the coming year. A hope that in every problem that is Articulated, there is a solution hidden somewhere. That we, the people of India, are the saviours of this country... Omair Ahmad reiterates the role of citizens in making this world a better place.

Every time you pick up a newspaper or tune into a TV news channel, you are confronted with bad news. The old newspaper adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” means that every headline screams out the names of mankind’s misdemeanours. Murder, robbery and corruption — both material and moral — seem to define humanity if we look at what is written and spoken about. This is not just true of news, but also of the stories we tell each other.

The greatest stories, movies and plays tend to be tragedies. The three highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation) are Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977) and The Sound of Music (1965). The first revolves around the American Civil War, one of the most brutal wars ever fought over one of the most repugnant issue — slavery.

The second, while being a science fiction epic, is again about a civil war in which a totalitarian galactic empire uses a satellite to annihilate whole planets. The third is set in the background of the rise of Nazi Germany — one of the most evil empires that humanity has managed to create. We don’t have as good data for Bollywood films, at least not adjusted for inflation, but two films stand out. The massive superhit movie, Sholay, was released in 1975, and for more than 19 years no film could surpass its box office success. Before that was Mughal-e-Azam which dominated the box office for 15 years from 1960 until Sholay was released.

The first film is about a gang of dacoits terrorising a village, and ends in multiple deaths among both heroes and villains. The second film is centred around an empire brought to civil war, pitting son against father, and a country against itself because of a doomed love affair. 

Something about these stories, with great troubles at their core, must appeal to us, otherwise we would not spend billions of dollars, or hundreds of crores, to see them. The problems of the world, whether overcome, eluded, or simply faced with some measure of dignity, shape the most powerful stories that we can create. This tells us something quite vital about humanity and how we engage with problems. 

“In politics, we write about what troubles us, in the hope of finding a solution.” This is one of the first lessons I learned in a course I did on Political Philosophy. Over the years I have come to regard this as probably one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. Humans are social creatures with a vast ability to communicate. Some of this we have inherited through evolution, and then we add to it through technology — from the telegraph to the telephone, from Facebook to Twitter. All of these media help us become more truly ourselves — because we are only truly ever human in our interactions with others. But the problems that we are often speaking about are also often caused by other humans! 

Behind politics

To understand this we have to take apart the word ‘politics’. The root of the word comes from the Greek word ‘polis’, or city. In small rural communities, wandering tribal bands, or tightly-knit families, the rules are fairly clear. If there is a problem, there is a clear authority that decides what is right or wrong, and assigns the responsibility to implement a solution.

This is less true of cities, where people from different communities, from different families, from different tribes, have to interact with each other. Each may consider that their way is the right way, and in such a position how do they learn to find a solution? 

They talk. Preferably they talk politely (another word that comes from ‘polis’), and tell each other what the problem is. This is the job of politicians, to take differing points of views and match them, to argue and persuade, until some sort of solution is agreed upon. This agreement then becomes the guiding rule — the law — that all the people have agreed to abide by, and is then policed (yet another word that is derived from ‘polis’) so that nobody violates this agreement.

This is the ideal scenario, but of course, it does not have to turn out that way. It is possible that politicians fail. They do not use the right words, or are not able to find a good compromise. Sometimes this happens because of arrogance or ignorance, sometimes because of a failure of imagination, and at other times because of simple stupidity. In such cases the end result is usually violence. “War,” said Clauswitz, “is simply the pursuit of politics by other means.” In the case of violence the other people are defined as the problem, and are attacked until they are eliminated, or change their behaviour in favour of the stronger, or more violent, party.

This is why the words “in the hope of finding a solution” are so important. Our ability to talk to others about our problems is based on hope — the hope that the other person can help us solve the problem, and that we can convince that other person to help us. At the core of this hope is the belief that other people are part of the solution, and that by speaking of our problems we can help each other. 

This hope is what keeps democracy alive. The Preamble of the Indian Constitution begins with the words, “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the Nation.”

Justice. Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. Dignity. These are things that the Constitution promises us, but in each newspaper headline, in each commentary on the state of the country today, these principles are the very ones being violated. Who will right the wrongs, who will win these great gifts for the citizens of this country? The Constitution says it plainly: “We, the people of India.”

The problems we read about, that we hear about, are not just some idle facts about the status of people in this country, they are an appeal from a billion Indians to a billion Indians. They are both the cry of anguish and a hope that that anguish will be ended. This is a conversation of the country with itself. There is nobody else to appeal to, nobody who can deal with these issues, nobody who will benefit more, or could care as much. There is only us, we, the people of India. 

Meeting challenges

There are three factors then, that we should see when we are faced with the challenges that confront us today, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. The first is that the challenges are our own. We do not have the choice of indifference. We, as full citizens, in a free, democratic country, have the full responsibility to deal with them. Secondly, we have to understand that these problems will not end, even if some of the worst of them can be ameliorated. By the very definition of politics, our problems lie in learning how to deal with each other. In a country of a billion people, with hundreds and thousands of families, communities and tribes, we will always have to deal with the challenge of adjustment. We can do so politely, with intelligent politics, and police the agreements, but always, always, there will be more.

Thirdly, over and above everything, there is hope. The sound of a million problems being flung before us is also the sound of belief — like a huge ocean roaring out our name in an unending appeal. We, the people of India, are the saviours of this country. In every problem that is articulated, there is a hope that a solution will be found, that somebody, maybe many somebodies, will hear and help. In the headlines there is always the hidden text, the voice of India, and of the world, saying, “This can be made better. By us. Let us find a way.”