Why I Gave Up On 'Social Activism'
By Yoginder Sikand
19 April, 2012
Just the other day, Raja, a dear friend of mine from Kashmir, forwarded me a wonderful anecdote. It isn't often, I have to confess, that he does such things. Most often, his postings are drab and mournful and monotonously predictable: reports about hordes of Kashmiris taking to the streets in yet another demonstration demanding 'freedom from Indian oppression'; an interview with a Muslim cleric pontificating on some esoteric or controversial subject or the other; news about rival sets of Muslims squabbling among themselves, as they always have, and will always do, over the 'true' meaning of their faith; a story about the latest demented outpourings of a noted Hindutva ideologue--subjects that no longer interest me in the least, I have to say, although they once did.
But the anecdote that he sent me this time was truly a precious gem. It neatly summarised, in a manner I never could have done myself, much of what I've been thinking about these last couple of months, ever since I won for myself the luxury of no longer having to slog for a living against my will. It was the story of a wise man who, in his youth, spent hours every day tearfully entreating God to radically transform the whole world and turn it upside down into a veritable paradise so that all the problems that people face would finally and firmly end. But the man's youthful enthusiasm for this global 'Revolution' doesn't last long, and once he gets married and sires children his prayers become less ambitious in their scope. He now prays simply for the transformation of his wife and children so that they begin to think and act as he thinks they should. He spends years beseeching God for this to happen--in vain, of course--till he arrives at old age and knows that he is about to die. Thereupon, he turns to God in repentance and says, 'I've spent my whole life asking You to change others for the better, but I've never thought of asking You to help me change--into a good and loving person. Please, Lord, now let at least that happen!'
This delightful anecdote neatly sums up the story of my life till now, and that is why I found it so endearing. Ever since I left home, at the age of eighteen, I've been desperately trying to change the world, as a self-appointed missionary of the 'Revolution'. I began identifying with communities in India that saw themselves as 'oppressed', and took it upon myself to champion their 'cause'. How desperately I craved to be recognised as one among them! That is how I became what is called a 'social activist', and began writing mainly about Muslims, but also about Adivasis and Dalits and other such 'marginalised groups', attending their conferences and participating in their protest demonstrations, and even churning out ponderous tomes about them, all of which further reinforced my belief that I was indeed a seriously committed do-gooder.
For two whole decades, writing on such 'marginalised groups' and their 'problems'--many of them real, others imaginary and yet many others self-created--and participating in the 'struggle' against 'caste/class oppression', 'gender injustice' and 'imperialism' was almost my sole occupation. In these many years, I must have written well over a thousand articles that, in my eyes, championed the cause of the 'oppressed' and of the 'Revolution'. Hardly a week passed without my churning out a piece or two on the subject. 'It's my way of contributing to the Revolution,' I would tell myself, seriously believing that my writings were making a major difference to 'The Cause'. Only I know what smug satisfaction this gave me! I know you'll find it absurd but I even began to imagine that if I ceased writing on the issues that I so sincerely obsessed about, it would make a major dent in prospects for the 'Revolution' to ever arrive!
All that energy and enthusiasm that went into my contribution as a 'social activist' and in the cause of the 'Revolution' paid me well in material terms, however, though I have to say that this wasn't the only or even major reason why I was in the business of championing the 'Revolution' in the first place. I won generous scholarships to go abroad to do a Ph.D. and then two post-doctoral projects to study various aspects of 'marginalised groups' in India. I was invited to attend conferences in over two dozen countries to pontificate on the same subjects. I was appointed as a full professor in an Indian university and was paid handsomely for the articles and books that I continued to churn out, machine-like, all about the 'oppressed'. In addition, I was assigned projects by several NGOs to study the 'oppressed', for which I was well rewarded financially. Although I have to say that I did not quite intend this to begin with, writing and conferencing about the 'oppressed' soon turned into a lucrative source of livelihood for me. I was actually, and quite literally, living off the misery of the 'oppressed', although I did not fully realise it then.
But all that came with a heavy personal price. The more I identified with the 'Revolution' of the 'oppressed', the more unbearably negative I became as a person. For one thing, the sense of being indispensable to the 'Revolution' and to the 'struggle' for 'justice' for 'oppressed communities', of playing a crucial part in championing 'The Cause' through my writings and public speaking, gave a tremendous boost to my battered ego. Being a 'social activist' made me feel nice, for once, about myself. It made me think of myself as selfless and all so very goody-goody and pious, while leading me to look down on others as allegedly miserably self-centred and uncaring. I was, after all, a 'social activist, 'devoting' and 'sacrificing' my life for the sake of the 'oppressed', or so I fondly imagined, while just about everyone else , I told myself, was mean and selfish, concerned only about their own material advancement.
Being a 'social activist' and a supposed 'expert' on the problems of 'oppressed communities' also helped me to stand out among the crowd, in this way satisfying my inner urge to be somehow different from others so that, finally, I would gain their attention, even if in a negative way. As a child, there was nothing more than I craved for, and was denied, than recognition and acceptance and the feeling of being wanted, and the notice I began to receive as a supposed 'expert' on various 'marginalised communities' served to fulfil that desperate urge and fill that deep psychological vacuum.
Being a 'social activist', I imagined that the sources of all oppression and negativity were external--'out there', in the 'world beyond'--in classes, castes, structures and ideologies that I identified as 'oppressive'--Brahmins and Banias, Jews and Americans and their Saudi-Wahhabi stooges, Feudalism, Communalism, Capitalism, Casteism, Zionism, Brahminism, Religious Fundamentalism, Imperialism and so on. If these were successfully combatted, I was led to believe, all the problems of the world would be set straight. Directing my energies and anger onto these external forces, I saw no need at all to introspect and recognise, leave alone solve, my own inner negativities, which I left completely ignored and unaddressed all these many years. It was truly a very convenient way of running away from my own inner dilemmas, insecurities and incompleteness. In hankering after the 'Revolution' and for the sake of 'The Cause', I saw no need whatsoever to make myself a better human being. That would have been an 'unnecessary diversion' from the 'real' task of 'reforming' others and 'combatting social injustice'.
Imagining myself as crusading on behalf of the 'oppressed' and as being a key player in the 'struggle' for 'social justice' for a host of 'marginalised communities' turned me completely blind to every good thing in those whom I began to see as their 'oppressors' (in the Indian context, mainly 'upper' caste/class Hindus) and in what was termed, in the jargon of the 'progressives' whose ranks I so desperately wanted to join, the 'present oppressive system'. There was nothing at all good in Hindu traditions or in America or in Capitalist Modernity, for instance, I convinced myself, for I was hooked onto the 'progressive' and 'radical' rhetoric that 'upper' caste Hindus in general (including most of my own family!) and almost every single American was complicit in perpetuating 'oppression'. If you had to be counted as a 'social activist', you simply couldn't see or find anything worthy at all in 'upper' caste Hindus or in Americans, and, if you did, your sincerity and commitment were gravely suspect. So deep-rooted was this negative mentality among 'social activists' supposedly committed to the 'oppressed' that for a 'progressive' to discern anything positive about 'the present system' or Indic spirituality, for instance, was about the most serious anathema conceivable.
The hatred that often passed for 'progressivism' in 'activist' circles was truly astounding, and I fell lock-stock-and-barrel for it. One was trained only to look for the negative in every nook and corner, and, if it didn't exist where one looked, to imagine and fervently believe that it did. One's whole life became one great protest. Protesting against real or imaginary injustice was almost the only respectable thing to do. It was as if there was nothing at all good in the world to celebrate, and even as if celebration and joy were themselves an 'unnecessary diversion' or a 'unaffordable luxury' that truly committed 'activists' had to carefully shun. That explained why many 'progressives' and 'radicals' were horrifically negative as human beings, many of them being irritatingly obnoxious, judgemental, cantankerous, dour and sullen. Their penchant for protest made them only more so. Believing themselves to be somehow morally superior to others because they had, so they thought, devoted themselves to the 'oppressed' made many of them painfully sanctimonious and proud. Of course, I need not clarify that this was not always the case, and I did have the good fortune of meeting a number of other activists, truly sincere in their commitment, who were among the most loving and compassionate souls I've ever come across. But these were rare exceptions, I have to admit.
For many of us (including myself, too), the negativity that was blessed as 'progressivism' in 'activist' circles was a convenient and respectable ruse to give vent to our own personal turmoils, inner insecurities and complexes, which were often rooted in troubled childhoods or broken marriages. I took to this negativity like a duck takes to water--in part to compensate for my own psychological traumas. It provided me just the excuse that I needed to express all the hidden hatred for my family that I harboured deep inside me since a child, for what more potent way was there for me to rebel against my decidedly 'upper' class and largely Hindu family than to denounce them as part of the 'oppressive ruling class/caste system'? What better way to get back at them for all that I had suffered at their hands than by taking up the 'cause' of Muslims and Dalits and ultra-leftists, folks who saw rich Hindus like my family as their real 'oppressors'? I had had an extremely troubled childhood, and so all I ever wanted was to get as far away as possible from my folks as I possibly could. They were rich and, for the most part, Hindu, and it was thus that I desperately craved to identify myself with all that they were not and would dread to be. I have to admit that it was this, more than any genuine concern for the 'oppressed', that drove me on for over twenty years for the sake of 'The Cause' that I so obsessively championed.
Negativism, then, was a defining feature of being 'progressive', and that's what I began to revel in. But such negativism was almost entirely one-sided in 'activist' circles, for to be counted as a 'real' 'social activist' it was simply unthinkable that the 'oppressed' could be faulted for almost anything at all. For a 'social activist' to even mention, leave alone condemn, the foibles of the 'oppressed communities'--gender injustice or caste rivalries among Dalits or the obscurantism and misogyny preached in many Muslim madrasas or the terror attacks and killings of innocents by Naxalites and radical Islamists--was tantamount to nothing less than treason. Reports about such matters were generally dismissed as 'malicious ruling-class propaganda' or 'malicious Brahminical brainwashing' or even as an 'understandable reaction of vulnerable minority communities to ruling caste/class/imperialist oppression'. Sometimes, if these were grudgingly admitted to be true, they were sought to be passed over in silence in order to 'respect the sensibilities of the oppressed' or as 'minor contradictions' that ought not to be addressed on the grounds that it would allegedly 'divide' the oppressed, 'sabotage' the struggle against 'oppression' and thereby 'play into the hands of the real opressors'. If you only just pointed out that there were serious faults in the madrasas that needed to be urgently addressed (even for the sake of the Muslim children who studied therein) or that Muslim Personal Law was seriously biased against Muslim women or that many Dalits who had taken advantage of the system of protective discrimination behaved with fellow Dalits almost as shabbily as did their 'upper' caste Hindu 'oppressors', you were sure to be shouted down as a 'government agent' or a 'paid stooge of Hindutva forces', not only by fellow 'progressives' but also by a whole host of voices among the communities whom you had spent years trying to defend and promote. If you even so much as mildly hinted that the conditions of Muslims in India weren't half as bad as sections of the Urdu media wanted people to believe or that the Muslims in this country had much more freedom than in any Muslim-majority state or that untouchability was no longer as rampant as it once was in some parts, you were bound to be accused of betrayal and your motives were rumoured to be entirely suspect. If you acknowledged that probably less Muslims were killed by Hindus in riots in India every year than the number of fellow Muslims slaughtered by their co-religionists in the 'Islamic' Republic of Pakistan or in God-forsaken Afghanistan or that the plight of religious minorities in many Muslim countries, particularly those ruled by theocratic regimes, was much worse than in India or that some Dalit officials were neck-deep in corruption, you were bound to be hollered at for allegedly being a 'traitor' to 'The Cause' of the 'oppressed'. The very same folks who egged you on to write about their problems and to take the Hindutva beast by its horns (for they were either too scared to do it themselves or didn't have the same writing skills or the same access to the English media) would shrilly denounce you as an 'agent' of this or the other 'power' if, in your quest to be honest and balanced, you pointed out even some of the mildest of their faults. It was as if by definition the 'oppressed' were spotless angels who could do no wrong and their 'oppressors' wholly and incorrigibly demonic.
It was amazing how, barring some really genuine folks, whose sincerity and commitment simply cannot be doubted, many of us 'activists' actually thrived on this one-sided negativity that we lived on and churned out day-in and day-out. It was as if without it we would have no reason at all to justify our own existence, for it served as a very convenient peg to hang our own inner traumas on. For some folks, spewing negativity in the name of 'social activism' and 'protesting against social injustice' was all that they were capable of doing and, in fact, the only reason for them to carry on living. Decrying 'social injustice' was the only thing they could talk of, and attending one protest demonstration after another their only form of entertainment. Never for a moment did many such folks ever feel the need to introspect, for every ill that they could think of was traced to and laid at the door of the 'oppressors'. I could imagine at least some of them seriously believing they were God's little innocent lambs, all very pious and unblemished.
Protesting against 'social oppression' had truly become a profession for many, who turned into what are called 'professional social activists'. Negative news and developments were quickly seized upon by them to write about and demonstrate against, to pontificate about in seminars and to appear on TV to debate over and thereby worm their way into the public limelight, and even to wangle well-funded research projects, academic assignments and jaunts abroad in exotic locations, where they would share their 'expertise' about the 'oppressed communities' and exhibit their 'radical commitment' to them, often being handsomely paid for this service. I was guilty of the same misdemeanour, too, in some very fundamental ways, I have to admit here.
Some folks I know made pretty neat fortunes this way, setting up NGOs and 'think-tanks' ostensibly to study and 'work with' 'oppressed communities', and raked in vast amounts of money from gullible foreign donors. In fact, barring a few really committed souls, a whole host of 'progressives' in the NGO, academic and media world, made their living out of the misery of the 'oppressed', earning in this way not just their daily bread but also the really serious money that they needed to buy their cars and houses and to send their children to the 'best' English-medium schools and then for higher studies to the USA (which they never tired of reviling in public, of course), where they, too, would often sojourn when their 'social activism' became just a bit too tiring, boring or bothersome. Not many of them, who never ceased showing-off their 'commitment' to the 'oppressed' communities and their visceral hatred for 'oppressor' castes, would, I suspect, want to be treated in an Adivasi-run nursing home or to send their children to a Muslim-run school.
But, to set the record straight, it wasn't just us 'professional social activists' from rich or middle-class Hindu families who had taken upon themselves the onerous task of crusading on behalf of the 'oppressed communities' who behaved in this way. A great many folk from these very same 'oppressed' communities-- Muslims, Dalits and such others--were also heavily into the business of 'social activism', supposedly on behalf of their own people. They, too, set up their NGOs, often with hefty financial aid from generous foreign patrons. They, too, enjoyed their all-paid-for trips and conferencing stints abroad, and many of them made sure that their own children had built comfortable nests for themselves in Europe or West Asia or even in America, which, like us, they never ceased to revile as the fundamental cause of global oppression.
So, that, in brief, was the world I had chosen to inhabit, for over twenty years, till, finally and thankfully, sometime last year the idiocy of it all suddenly dawned on me. I lost complete faith and interest in the 'social activism' that had kept me going and had supplied my life with purpose and meaning all along. Although I recognised that social injustice was indeed a universal reality, and a harsh one at that, especially for certain minority groups, I had to admit that 'minorities' were often as guilty of it, in their own ways (such as victimising women and other minorities within their own communities) as were 'majorities', and that no community had a monopoly over virtue or vice. A tyrannical Muslim or Dalit husband or father was as oppressive as a Brahmin one, as far as I was concerned. And I realised, too (and it is really a wonder why it never struck me before) that there were good and bad things about every person on the face of this earth. No one, it dawned on me, is perfect, not even the most 'oppressed' man or woman alive, and, likewise, no person is wholly evil, not even the most tyrannical 'oppressor' around. The world and the people who inhabit it, I now knew, were infinitely far more complex that the 'progressives' I hung around with made it out to be. And to assume, as they did, that merely changing a 'system' or pitting communities against each other would end all oppression seemed downright stupid to me, and even entirely counter-productive from the point of view of the quest for social justice. As long as human beings didn't change as individuals, it made, I now knew, no difference whatsoever what sort of 'system' they lived under or what religion they followed or what ideology they championed or what radical rhetoric they spewed. It was how each of us were as individuals that really mattered, and no matter how loudly one protested and demonstrated against 'oppression', as long as people, including the 'oppressed', remained just as they were as people, with all the negativities that we all are burdened with, oppression would still remain intact, even though its forms might change and today's 'oppressed' might become tomorrow's 'oppressors'. The only Revolution worth striving for, I now realised, was the 'inner' one.
My only task, I found, was now to focus on my own 'inner' revolution, and not any other. In the mindless quest for 'reforming' others, championing the 'cause' of the 'oppresed' and 'struggling' to usher in the 'Revolution', never for a moment had I turned my attention to this in all these twenty years. I now knew that all I had to do was to deal with reforming myself, and no one else at all. After all, I hadn't come into this world laden with a heavier cross than that or burdened by a bigger mandate--to change society or to save the world, for instance, as I once pompously imagined. You may say I was being selfish, and maybe I was. But, then, maybe I really was not, for it was only if I truly reformed and psychologically healed myself and made myself whole and kind and loving, I now came to realise, that I could truly and sincerely help others. But as long as I didn't do that, and kept postponing it, the 'help' that I rendered others in the name of 'social activism' would remain, as it had over the last two decades, a miserable exercise in self-serving hypocrisy.
And this meant that I no longer needed or wanted to use the extreme negativity, blessed in the name of 'protesting against oppression' or 'struggling for social justice', that I had once so fervently championed as a means to vent my own inner insecurities. That's why I decided that I just had to refuse to allow myself to continue to wallow in the negativity and hatred that my supposed 'concern' for the 'oppressed' had driven me into. And so it happened that I stopped writing on the subjects I had for so long obsessed about and was paid handsomely for. I resigned from my job at a research centre, where I was supposed to spew out wisdom on 'oppressed communities'. I realised that I would no longer be invited to spout my 'wisdom' and 'expertise' on the 'oppressed' at conferences, in India and abroad, and that the well-funded projects to study and highlight the problems of the 'oppressed' that I had once so desperately hankered after were now a thing of the past. Knowing all this, I felt a heavy burden lift itself from off my tired shoulders. I decided that there was nothing more that I wanted or needed now than to lead the rest of my life watching the clouds gently pass by and smiling at the birds chirping high up in the trees. That was how my 'inner' revolution was going to happen. I no longer nursed ambitions more grand than this.
I knew now that I didn't want to change the world any longer, painfully aware that no matter how much I tried, the world's problems would always remain and might even get worse.Why waste whatever remained of my life chasing the mirage of a problem-free world? If one problem were solved through human efforts, a hundred new ones would take its place, sooner or later, I thought to myself as I reflected on the dismal fate of all the many Revolutions the world has witnessed till date, most of them enormously bloody, all being hungrily devoured by their own progeny. I no longer had any illusions about myself as a 'social activist' and crusader for a 'Revolution' that would put an end to the need for all revolutions. If there was indeed a God, I told myself, it was She/It/He who should take care of the world and its ills, and for me to arrogate to myself this responsibility was downright ridiculous. It was too much of an effort, and, at 45, I no longer had the energy for it all. In any case, I knew, if my motives in becoming a 'social activist' twenty-odd years ago were far from altruistic, it was improbable that I could ever sincerely be one. Let those better equipped and more genuinely motivated than me shoulder that task, I said to myself.
I now saw clearly through the hollowness of the revolutionary rhetoric that I was hooked on to for years. Leave alone the whole world or the 'system', I couldn't even change my family and close friends, to bring them to think and behave as I wanted them to. It was quite enough, I realised, like the wise man whose story my friend Raja sent me the other day, if I dreamt of changing just myself in order to become a better, happier, more gentle, compassionate and loving person and to cleanse myself of all the enormous negativity that I've bottled up deep inside. That was really the only, and the best, that I could do. And if everyone else thought that way too, I knew, there would be no need at all to dream of 'Revolution' or of changing others in order to bring about a better world.
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