Monday, December 15, 2014

Lessons in Courage

The announcement of this year's Nobel Peace prize brought two thoughts into my mind.

The first thought, came after a feeling of deep shame. I knew Malala and her story very well. But I actually had to Google the Indian citizen she shared her Nobel Peace Prize with. Malala, as we know her, was born because of social media; and today, social media is a bigger reality than everything else. There is very little human interaction these days, even in protests and social revolutions. Just add a hashtag and you're done. You are a part of the protest just by hashtagging words on your Twitter account. We have seen many such movements. Whether it is #bringbackourgirls, or back home, the intense #iamanna movement which quickly degenerated into a political party without roots. The over exposure to social media and hashtag activism has led us all to kind of 'swallow the proverbial red pill'. Our minds have a separate existence in our online worlds. But how much of that turns into action is a million dollar question. This brings me back to my original thought. Although both Malala and Satyarthi are symbols of fearlessness and courage, I think Kailash Satyarthi's low profile activism, which went on for over three decades, with the help of organized teams, deserves a bigger applause. In his interviews, he mentions how he and many of his staff got beaten up on several occasions trying to rescue children trapped in bonded labor. Over the years, Satyarthi and his team have not just taken a moral stand, but also built systems to keep it sustainable in a real life scenario. 

The second thought, was about courage. Satyarthi's Nobel acceptance speech included a fable. The story of a little sparrow who is flying back into a raging forest fire. A lion, trying to escape the fire asks her how on earth can she do anything about it. She replies that she is just doing 'her bit'. This is a wonderful story. But it never comes to life the way it does in stories. Kailash Satyarthi gave up his job as a lecturer to start the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, much to his mother's disappointment. I think, this step required a lot more courage than any subsequent thrashings he may have received at the hands of greedy factory owners engaging in child slavery. The choice to give up a life of certainty/comfort/material pleasures for a life which may or may not lead to security and prosperity requires tremendous courage. This is the point where all of us fail. All of us -- especially the youth raised with an Indian middle class upbringing -- are constantly guided (lectured, forced, threatened, manipulated) into believing that our end goal in life is to stay out of trouble. And by trouble we mean conflict of any kind. We will be encouraged to do our best, grab the best schools around the world, get the most lucrative jobs we can lay our hands on, marry and have kids at the "right time". But we would never get lessons in courage. When it comes to standing up against injustice at home, in a workplace, in our social lives, we are always advised to stay out of trouble.

This is also the culture behind the practice of  aborting female fetuses in middle class and upper middle class families. They have the money and the power of  hushing up everything. I am sure if every middle class daughter made up her mind about walking out of a marriage that demands sex selective abortions, this problem would be weakened. But divorce is trouble. It involves being "answerable" the society, which never comes back to check on you again once you are off the shelf! This is also the culture behind institutional corruption. We are always ready to take candle-lit marches to Jantar Mantar against corruption. But when it happens right under our nose in the work place, we never act as the whistle blower. Because standing up against powerful people is considered getting into trouble. We will never have the courage to be an Edward Snowden. At best, we would get inspired by the actions of people like Snowden and Satyarthi, dilute it about a thousand times and end up feeling good about ourselves for doing all that thinking. 

So there is very little hope for 'doing our bit'. For every million scared middle class human beings like us, there will be one Satyarthi. And I think that is somehow enough to make this world a better place. Unless we are taught growing up, that it is completely okay to fail, that we are not in a perpetual competition with everyone around us, that we need to build milestones inwards as well as outwards as we go through life, that taking a leap may lead to something far better than we imagine, that new roads are discovered by people who are willing to risk something, that there is immense happiness in satisfying your inner voice, until that time, we will just be a group of robots living replicate lives.