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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | The relevance of a ‘ziddi’ spirit when the good is unanchored

The long arc of history will not bend towards justice unless weall of uskeep at it

The intellectual encountered a teacher. The young man teaches in a Naxalite-hit district. The intellectual is not a self-professed one. The gist of their dialogue follows:

Intellectual: So, what is your ideology?

Teacher: I don’t have an ideology, sir. I teach children.

Intellectual: Doesn’t that mean that you are so immersed in your ideology that you don’t even know? Like fish not knowing what is water. What guides you?

Teacher: I don’t know about ideology sir, but I think the Constitution is sufficient to guide me.

Intellectual: But what is your stand? On state repression? On annihilation of tribal life by all sides? On exploitative and extractive development? You are in a war zone. You must have a stand.

Teacher: Well sir, my stand is that I will stand here and teach. You can starve me, but I will teach. You can beat me up, but I will teach. If you kill me, then any way I am gone. So, that is my stand, sir.

The intellectual recognized the presence of a higher power and left. The passing of 2018 and the coming of 2019 is of no significance to the teacher. When the war started is irrelevant to him and its end is nowhere in sight. However, two things he does know. If he were not to teach, whenever that end is to be, it will be pushed out further. And that his teaching may not bring an end to the suffering of the children, but does create the possibility that one day they too will take a stand.

Equality, humaneness and decency have not gained ground across the world in 2018. The dreams of our Constitution are no closer to reality. The little girl from Kathua is forgotten. To take a stand is the best we can do. To recognize that we are in the battlefield of a war with no end in sight. The long arc of history will not bend towards justice unless we keep at it. Institutions, organizations, groups and individuals, all have to be at it. Like the teacher, there are many at it. Which is why 2018 was no worse than 2017. The war stands in balance. For every inch of gain, there has been an inch of loss.

My role gave me the opportunity to meet hundreds of them last year and perhaps you may have met many more. If we want the arc to bend a little more, to shift the balance in 2019, we can observe the five things that are common to these people who take a stand and keep at it.

First, they are all constructive. Critique, dissent and protest are all necessary, but insufficient to make for a better world. Developing alternatives, opening paths and building without destroying is more necessary. They embrace the grind of getting things done in our messy reality, including failure, frustration and occasional success.

Second, they act in their sphere. Systemic changes are essential. Structurally embedded and historically dominant forces are all around us. Sources of power rarely provide ballast for change, usually acting to preserve what is there. They obsess over none of this. It doesn’t faze them. They know how easy it is to freeze with inaction, to feel like a helpless pawn, and fade to inconsequentiality. So, they act in the sphere that they can. For a few, sometimes there is visibility of their actions being a part of a bigger struggle, perhaps inching toward progress. However, for most, most of the time, it is just about making a difference in their own immediate small world. That is alright; they keep at it.

Third, they relate to people, forming communities and coalitions. They see the human being and not an ideology. Hindutvawadi, leftist or mercenary, they will have a cup of chai with everyone. They accept people in their bewildering complexity, never reducing them to one dimension of their identity. They work with everyone. As they reach out to the human, they usually find one. Then it is not impossible to find common human concerns that can bind a community and build coalitions.

Fourth, they work on the ground. We have deluded ourselves into believing that there is some inexorable momentum towards equality, freedom, justice and more, because of the Constitution. And that we, individual citizens, are entitled to this trajectory of improvement, with no contribution aside from some trenchant critique. Or at most our role is to hector all, ensconced in secure jobs, with our intellectual fineries.

However, they know that the Constitution is a promise to be fulfilled. It is only a call to action. They know that legislation can only set up the guardrails of our democratic dream, which the judiciary can try to insure. They know that we are not entitled to a better world. Changing the hearts and minds of people is the only way, which can only be done on the ground, only one human at a time, and they are at it.

Fifth, they are ziddi, meaning they are unrelenting under all circumstances. Their ziddi spirit cannot be starved or beaten. In wars with no end in sight, this counts. In a world where the good, the right and the truth are all unanchored and unsure, this counts more than anything else.

None of this makes for an uplifting new-year column. However, meeting the teacher is uplifting. Go out and hunt out a few like him. Even better, become one of them in 2019, swelling the ranks of those who take a stand with their ziddi spirit.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.

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