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Protest by all means, but take it beyond

Satheesh Namasivayam
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Dear young Indian protester,

A year ago, you gained the nation’s attention for protesting against rampant governmental corruption. As 2012 ended, you have garnered attention yet again. This time, it is not the extreme action of an indefinite fasting by an old man that galvanised you; rather, it is the extreme, barbaric violation, and murder, of someone as old as you are. In both, you have been authentically stirred up by your emotions; praised by some for the unprecedented mobilisation you have brought to bear; and reviled by others who perceive your demands for instant laws as undemocratic, blackmailing action.

Let’s quickly revisit how some writers in this newspaper alone have criticised your action in Delhi a week ago. You have been castigated as a member of an “unenlightened brigade” or a “marauding mob.” You have been rebuked for your “temptation for anarchy.” You have been chastised for behaving as if you have a licence to defy, disrupt, and disobey. You and your fellow protesters have been called “vendors of street power” and “connoisseurs of chaos.”

Do not let such harsh words dampen your spirits, or diminish your intensity, to see change.

It was a small group of unruly, activist women, who led a successful movement to amend the constitution of the United States in order to gain women’s right to vote, nearly 140 years after independence. To pressure their government to act immediately on their demand, those protesters picketed a wartime President — President Woodrow Wilson who was commanding his forces in World War I. Those women stood silently, day after day, at the gates of the White House, holding banners in support of women’s suffrage. They were condemned by their own society for pursuing an uncivil act; called traitors for demeaning a wartime President; and accused of causing enormous disturbances. But for those disruptions and difficulties, the United States, as a society, would not have moved on the issue of women’s voting rights.

You do not need licence to lead. But you have to recognise that disrupting the status quo alone is not leading. Such disruptions, at best, help you gain widespread attention, which you very much need, and enable you to mobilise others. Compared to those who have been given the licence to lead (a position of power, title, membership in Parliament, etc.), you have to — as someone without such licence — struggle to get attention for yourself and the cause you represent. Once you gain that attention though, what you do with it will determine whether you elevate or enfeeble the country. If you mobilise and elevate us all, you will lead; and if you mobilise, but enervate us all, you will mislead. Therefore, I urge you to consider four ways of graduating from protesting to leading.

First, recognise that laws have a role, but also limitations, in substantively changing ingrained societal values. For instance, untouchability was legally abolished a long time ago. But till this day, Dalits struggle for equal access in numerous areas of their lives. Any one law will be grossly inadequate in changing the culture of caste inequality, the culture of corruption or the culture of violence against women. Even a series of laws will not be sufficient. While you can protest to enact laws, you have to lead yourself and others to evolve from our current values, attitudes and behaviours. Laws can spur, but not mandate, such evolution in people. Hand-holding people to evolve from their mindsets is the work you have to undertake if you want to see lasting change in society.

Second, learn how to frame your issue to make progress in this evolutionary work. Such framing will determine whether you remain a protester or graduate as a leader. Consider, for example, the slogan ‘India against Corruption.’ The slogan does what it is meant to do — externalising the enemy ‘corruption.’ But it conveniently forgets the fact that we are part of the problem — part of the culture of corruption. There is not one India in the context of corruption, but many. Most of us who affirm that we are against corruption may also be corrupt in some form. Part of the demon exists in each of us.

It is also true for the culture of violence against women. Remember, Gandhiji did not stop with framing the problem what he was against — himsa, violence; he also articulated what we should aspire for — ahimsa, non-violence. After violent clashes and the death of 23 policemen in Chauri Chaura, Gandhiji spent a substantial number of years helping people learn new ways of following the path of ahimsa, with his own definitions of what that future non-violent value-state should be.

Third, every group you deal with — be it your community or the country — has influential factions, which have a significant say with the rest of the group. If you know how to partner or work with these forces, you can influence your group better in its evolution. Indians are enormously influenced by five major factions; the power of these five forces in influencing Indians is tacitly understood in political circles. Those five influential Indian factions are: religious and spiritual groups, Bollywood (and also the regional film industries such as Kollywood and Tollywood), the media, political parties, and the judiciary.

Rarely do all the five influential factions come together strongly for a cause. For example, the extraordinary confluence of most of these influential forces — and their ability to mobilise people in masses — is what made the government negotiate with Anna Hazare last year. To lead society to do its evolutionary work, you have to learn to move, partner or work with these influential forces.

Finally, the work is within you as much as it is outside. Gandhiji said, “What I want to achieve — what I have been striving and pining to achieve these 30 years — is self-realisation.” You do not go too far in the work of leadership without beginning the evolutionary work on self. Your sense of purpose is what will act as your internal compass. And its strength is what will impel you to continue engaging in your acts of leadership as you plough along. At this moment of sorrow and grief, and in the new year, turning inward to discover that purpose could be a great start.

(Satheesh Namasivayam is the co-author of Leading without Licence. Email: satheesh.namasivyam@post.harvard.edu)

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