Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India’s dying need for new-age social reformers….

The recent rape case in Delhi (and the hundreds others across the country which didn’t get as much publicity and attention), along with a hundred other types of atrocities against women shows us that there is a desperate need for social reforms in this country. Without social reforms, such crimes will continue to happen. Making more stringent laws, increasing the police force, bringing in more modern technology are temporary palliatives; not the real solution. We need reformers with credibility who can address the different ailments of Indian society and make it their life’s mission. People who do it out of a passion and love for the country, not for the lure of lucre or the glory of TV cameras.

Lets be honest here. Indian society is exceedingly orthodox and bigoted. It has been for many centuries. It is plagued by several and severe faultlines which simply refuse to go away with time. Those of us who are blindly proud (unwilling to accept these faultlines exist) of the Indian culture are in denial mode. We should keep the best of our culture intact, but we should be willing to shed its rougher parts.

It was only 200 years back that the practice of Sati, one of the most obnoxious of scourges in the country, was finally eradicated thanks to the tireless efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Mahatma Gandhi, in addition to winning India its freedom from the British, was one of the most determined and persistent social reformers this country has seen, for which he is emulated and revered worldwise. Gandhiji is most renowned for his fight against untouchability; everyone knows he started calling dalits harijans, people of god. Unfortunately, his work in this area wasn’t completed and India continues to be ravaged by faultlines of caste, in which the worst is reserved for the dalits. Gandhiji was also a tireless crusader for women’s rights and of course ethnic and religious unity. Much like Kabir in the 16th century who made it his life’s mission to harmonize relationships between Hindus and Muslims. I think we need another Kabir now.

India has been blessed to have had so many reformers. Jamnalal Bajaj who fought to get harijans the right to visit temples and draw water from public wells, Vinoda Bhave for his bhoodan movement, Baba Amte for his struggle against the public apathy for leprosy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar for taking up the cause of widow remarriage, Dhondo Keshav Karve for fighting for women’s education (and also widow remarriage) and Virchand Gandhi for women’s education have all contributed enormously to the modernization of Indian society. As have Baba Ambedkar for his struggle for dalit pride, Jyotiba Phule for removing caste restrictions and the dominance of Brahmins, Mother Teresa for caring for the downtrodden, Swami Dayanand Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj and campaigned against idol worship and caste divisions amongst others, and Ramakrishna Paramhansa who went so far as to regard every woman as holy mother.

In spite of the vast efforts of these reformers, the work is not finished yet. In fact, many of the earlier faultlines – most notably related to caste, religion and women’s issues – have returned to haunt India in a big way. Unfortunately, there are no reformers left to take on these issues.

The social reformer has to have high credibility because he (she) talks to society about difficult, unpleasant change. All social problems are within society, and by extension, within people. How many leaders today have the courage to speak to people about these problems on their faces? Most simply duck the issues; preferring to speak about the more pleasant things instead. I have said this earlier: a leader must have the ability, the determination, the courage to speak to his people about their mistakes, without fear of losing votes or being ostracized or worse, attacked. How many leaders speak against khaps? How many for dalits to marry into Brahmin families? How many for women to get equal opportunity for higher employment and professional glory? Why, we are unable to even pass the women’s reservation bill which could ensure a semblance of women’s representation in Parliament.

It’s not like there have not been reformers in India in the recent past. I count Anna Hazare as a social reformer who worked tirelessly in the villages for their uplift. His work on water harvesting, removal of alcoholism, etc are what made him the national figure that he is today. His fight against corruption can also be seen as a life long struggle which was going along just fine, till the time he paired up with Kejriwal & co, losing focus, becoming political and simply descending from his high alter.

Modern day reformers – if they can be called that – are more elitist, catering to the upper crust of society, and while using Indian culture and spirituality as the motif, prefer on global audiences rather than the domestic masses. Take Sri Sri Ravishankar, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and other such. We need people like them to penetrate the many strata that makes Indian society rather than attend to the needs of the rich and famous globally. India needs them more than the West does.

There is a difference between reformers and merely popular personalities. Baba Ramdev is an enormously popular yoga teacher, but he cannot be called a reformer. He is doing a lot for promoting yoga and even ayurveda, but very little for removing deep seated prejudices in his followers. Has he ever asked his men followers to treat women with equal respect? I doubt it.

The real truth is that it is on social reforms that will rid India of the various problems we face. India can lead the world in this. Rapes are far more common in the western democracies in India, but we can reduce the incidence even further, if only we can teach our people a little respect for women, and for personal freedom….

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