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Confessions of a former social activist: A learning moment

Moral conviction is a good thing. Or so we assume. Deeply-rooted values enable us to engage the world in an ethical way. Ambiguity, doubt, scepticism undermine us, leading us down the garden path to dangerous relativism.

And yet when we look around – and within – us, what we see more often is ideological rigidity masquerading as moral certitude. Our national discourse consists entirely of polarised, circular debates between shrilly indignant camps, each convinced of its own superiority, intent on changing the other – or failing that, cowing them into submission. Our most staunchly held beliefs more often offer not wisdom or insight, but predictable, prefabricated explanations for all things – Gujarat, Kashmir, gang rapes, domestic violence, tribals, economic growth, the stock market.

There is no room here for a messy, contradictory reality – for anything that challenges a black-and-white vision of the world. I am right, you are wrong, and that's all that matters. We rarely consider the possibility that what is truly wrong is our own absolute, indisputable certainty.

Our most staunchly held beliefs more often offer not wisdom or insight, but predictable, prefabricated explanations for all things – gang rapes, tribals, economic growth. Reuters

So it is with surprise and admiration that I read Yoginder Sikand's soul-searching, and searingly honest essay on his long career as a social activist. Sikand, in his words, has spent a better part of his youth as a dedicated advocate for the "oppressed":

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.

But now at the age of 45, he realises that much of his idealistic zeal came from an inner need to fill a "deep psychological vacuum," to rebel against a traumatic childhood in an upper caste/class Hindu family, to acquire a sense of belonging and self-worth:

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...

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.

Is this so wrong? Does it make his views more suspect? Not quite. Everyone's worldview – be it of a Gandhi, a Hitler, a multinational executive or the chaiwalla – are shaped by our life experiences. All politics is indeed personal. But what differentiates a Gandhi from other ideologues is his willingness to bare his soul, inner demons included. We can see clearly the strengths and weaknesses of his politics, and wherein they spring from, be it his questionable sexual puritanism or indomitable commitment to ahimsa (non violence).

Of course, Sikand is no Gandhi – nor does he presume to reference him. But he shows that same and far too rare willingness to bare the private wellsprings of his public beliefs. And his experience reveals how self-knowledge can transform our politics.

Sikand's begins by recognising how his "revolutionary" mindset allowed him to focus entirely on 'evil' others without taking responsibility for himself: "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." And in recognising his own "negativity" – and his personal stake in maintaining it at all times – he was able to identify it in his fellow activists:

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.

And if Hindus, Americans et al could do no right, then Muslims, Dalits, the poor could do no wrong. The lack of introspection led to a blinkered vision of the world where "as if by definition the 'oppressed' were spotless angels who could do no wrong and their 'oppressors' wholly and incorrigibly demonic."

Sikand's voyage of self- discovery concludes in a retreat from social activism. He decides to focus instead on "changing just myself in order to become a better, happier, more gentle, compassionate and loving person... 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."

There's no doubt that Sikand's essay will be vilified by many of his fellow social activists as hopelessly naïve and deluded. And rightwingers and other jholawala-haters will most certainly relish their "I told you so" moment. There's plenty of grist in his essay to confirm rightwing charges of a professional activist class intent on self-aggrandizement in the name of justice. In other words, his essay will become yet another talking point in the endless right/left battle. And we will therefore lose sight of what may be an important learning moment.

Irrespective of our personal politics, it is more important to read Sikand as a call to self-introspection. Why do we begin to froth at the mouth the moment the subject turns to Sonia Gandhi or the BJP, multinational corporations or NGOs, mining or Kashmir, Muslims or America? What is the inner source of our knee-jerk, blind loathing for some external "other"? Why are we so invested in being "right" that we cannot accept the merits of a single criticism or counter-argument? What is the price of living in a tautological bubble which does not recognise any fact that doesn't fit a preconceived notion of the truth?

As Socrates once observed, “The ideologist is a man who falls for the fraud perpetrated on him by his own intellect: that an idea, i.e. the symbol of a momentarily perceived reality, can possess absolute reality.” We're all dupes to an extent, and forever will be. It is human to seek certainty in the face of an unstable, chaotic reality. But a little less self-delusion – and a little more self-interrogation – may help us become the change we wish to see in the world.

Read Why I Gave Up On 'Social Activism' at CounterCurrents.org

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