Pseudoscience & Religion

Towards Becoming A Nation Of Citizen-Activists

This is the sixth part of Dr. Prabhakar Kamath’s latest series on Managing Life Without God and Religion In The Twenty First Century. Links to all published parts in this series can be found here.

In the previous article we discussed how the remedy for corruption is for one to give up his/her paralytic behavior and demand prompt service from officials without paying a bribe; and how this required people to make small on-going sacrifices in time, money and effort. In this article, we will discuss how empowered activists could organize young men and women into a force of Citizen-Activists for collective action against corruption in a small, well-circumscribed geographical area.

It Is The Duty Of Every Citizen To Become An Activist

Constitution of India: Article 51A (h) Part IVA: Fundamental Duties of Citizens:

It shall be the duty of every Citizen of India to develop scientific temper, humanism, spirit of inquiry and reform.

This laconic Article of India’s Constitution simply means that everyone is expected to become a Citizen-Activist. Developing scientific temper requires one to give up age old superstitions and irrational beliefs; developing humanism means working actively for the welfare of all people regardless of their class, caste, color, creed, belief, gender, or sexual orientation; developing spirit of inquiry means questioning what is obviously contrary to the observed phenomenon and seeking the truth; and reform means converting the superstitious into the rational, unequal system into equal, and the unjust system into the just one.

The Reality

The reality, however, is that the entire government machinery, made up of politicians and bureaucrats, is geared to prevent people from becoming a Citizen-Activists. What support and encouragement for scientific temper could citizens expect from ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and power brokers who, steeped in superstitions, step over each other to dive at the feet of saffron-clad charlatans dead or alive? We saw this sordid spectacle recently at Puttaparthi. Now look at all the inhumanity perpetrated against citizens by the very governmental machinery, such as bureaucracy and the police, set up to serve and protect them! Torture of the accused in jails for the purpose of extorting bribes is widespread across the length and breadth of India. Look at all the roadblocks thrown in the path of citizens asking the government questions in the spirit of inquiry about all the fraud going on in their day-to-day affairs. Talk to any Right To Information (R. T. I.) activist how hard it is to get any information related to its misdeeds from government offices. Look at all the smear campaign the government is indulging in against citizens who are trying to bring about reform in their own waywardly government. The point is that to the majority of people running the Government of India today the Constitution is merely a nuisance they must put up with and pay lip service to. It is not worth the paper it is written on.

Why R. A. S. H. Should Lead The Movement Against Corruption

Collectively Rationalists, Atheists and Secular Humanists (R. A. S. H.) meet the criteria for Citizen-Activist as defined by the Constitution. We cannot expect religious people to be true activists, as they have disqualified themselves by virtue of their blind allegiance to religion. While people, such as Sai Baba, paraded ministers and bureaucrats as symbol of their power, they are gutless to tell them, “Why don’t you guys give up your wicked ways and serve humanity like you are supposed to?” Even ancient Upanishadic revolutionaries were bold enough to tell this to corrupt Kshatriyas (politicians) during post-Vedic period (BG: 3:19-21). They are busy cashing in on the legitimacy these big shots give them. They also do some “public service” to delude people. People, such as Baba Ramdev, are sure to use anticorruption movement to propagate their religious agenda. Swami Agnivesh seems to have passion against injustice, but he does not seem to have a focused, grassroots approach to the problem of corruption. He is, as they say, all over the map. It is time members of R. A. S. H. group took on the mighty task of tackling corruption at the grassroots level. However, they must develop appropriate strategies to mobilize public support. The first task is to identify the real culprits.

Religious Groups Are Not The Main Source Of Discontent In India

Legitimacy of Brahmanic Babas, Swamis and Gurus comes from two sources: 1. Belief of common people that they represent India’s “glorious” Brahmanic heritage, and 2. Patronage of politicians and bureaucrats who represent India’s “glorious” feudal heritage. As you can see, the same nexus that existed between Brahmins and Kshatriyas in ancient India exists now between these two groups. It is as if time has stood still in India.

The religious group is not the main source of discontent in India. What is the proof for this assertion? Well, you don’t see hundreds of thousands of people marching the streets denouncing Babas, Swamis and Gurus. Except for a diehard microscopic minority made up of R. A. S. H, the vast majority voluntarily patronizes them. The reality of India is that these teaming millions see them as a cheap source of relief from their deep-rooted discontent related to their everyday life. The poor take refuge in them to counter their feelings of helplessness and powerlessness; the middle class does so to counter their frustration, and the rich do so to get relief from their deep-seated shame and guilt over betrayal of their own nation. In India where there is such a stigma to psychological counseling, religious people more or less play the role of lay psychologists or counselors for these stressed-out people. They pose the least threat to activists attacking them.

The Despots In Disguise Are The Real Source Of People’s Discontent

Politicians and bureaucrats are modern day avatara of Emperors, Maharajas, Rajas, Sultans, Chieftains and Warlords of bygone days. 64 years after India’s independence, and 61 years after it became a Republic, these despots in disguise are very much amidst us. They all have well-carved-out territories. If you want to pass through their territories, you need to pay them a tribute just like in the olden times. In other words, any service they provide you is a “favor” and they expect a proper “tribute” for it. These despots have their own henchmen and hierarchy. The tribute they collect goes all the way to the top rung of the hierarchy. The richest and the most powerful businessmen approach even two-bit bureaucrats on bended knees, wine and dine them, cater to their every whim, and never miss an opportunity to butter-up and kiss their buns. For, these bureaucrats can also perform magic like Sai Baba. They could make their files appear or disappear with the wave of a hand. The late father of the currently richest man in India told me in 1975, “To be rich in India you need to know how the system works, and how to take full advantage of it. Your scruples should never come in the way. In India you can buy anyone!” He had everyone in the Central Government in his deep pockets. His super-rich children have learned this lesson very well.

Carting Off Wealth Out Of India

Moreover, just as Sultans of Afghanistan and Shah of Iran carted off enormous wealth to their respective countries, some modern day “Rajas” have hauled off their ill-gotten wealth to Switzerland and other offshore destinations. The difference between the old and new robbers is that the former were more forthright. They came, they conquered, they destroyed, they killed, they robbed and they left with their booty. The modern day Sultans, on the contrary, play elaborate charade and farce to portray themselves to the public as law-abiding rulers. One ex “Maharaja” of modern times was reputed to have siphoned off to Switzerland a large amount of money he received as kickback from a military deal with a foreign country. His Maharani is still the power behind the throne occupied by a puppet. Predictably, the Government of India did not pursue this scandal. In fact, the government has the names of all robbers who have stashed away the stolen money in offshore banks, but it is gutless to release their names for obvious reasons.

The Danger To Organizing-Activists

There is another similarity between the old and new despots. Just as it was in olden times, it is this group that offers the greatest threat to the safety of Organizing Activists opposing and exposing them, as there is neither rule of law nor accountability for their misdeeds at the local level. Organizing-Activists should never underestimate the danger to their lives in this line of work. The Police, R. T. O. and other bureaucrats have formed a nexus. If a R. T. O’s illicit income is threatened, all he has to do is to have the local police pick them up on a trumped-up charge, and give them a good bit of thrashing in jail. There is no independent body to investigate their misdeeds. The stakes are so high that eliminating whistle-blowers, whether inside the government or out, using even hit men is not all that objectionable to these unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats. Link.

Therefore, a highly respectable organization made up of empowered Citizen-Activists with grassroots public support is essential for successful collective action against corrupt bureaucrats of local government offices. Even such an organization does not guarantee complete safety for them.

Harnessing Youth Power

In spite of all this bad news, there is good news on the horizon. A huge middleclass has come up in the past twenty years, and a whole new generation of youngsters with New Value System has begun to question the status quo, at least in regards to the political sphere of the society. Social Media has greatly facilitated their ability to network with like-minded youngsters and to mobilize public opinion against government-sponsored corruption. We witnessed their discontent in the political sphere in the recent anti-corruption protest marches across India. This is good news because some of these youngsters might be willing to fight against the more dangerous of the two groups noted above. These youths have both serious mental conflict (desire to punish wrongdoers versus fear of doing anything) and interpersonal conflicts with the powers that be, or with their own family who don’t want them to get into trouble with authorities. This is a golden opportunity for R. A. S. H. activists to unite them and channel their impotent rage into nonviolent collective action.

A Caveat

R. A. S. H. activists setting out to organize these restless youth should recognize that while many of them might be willing to question the status quo related to the political sphere, they might not be ready to question the status quo related to the religious sphere. In fact, most of these youngsters might be highly religious by virtue of the fact that their parents and significant others in the community thoroughly brainwashed them during their formative years. They were certainly programmed not to question anything related to their religious beliefs. These youngsters have neither mental conflict (rational side versus superstitious side) nor interpersonal conflict with their religious mentors. This being the case, R. A. S. H. activists must be careful not to impose their personal belief system on these people, as such imposition would certainly be seen as dictatorial. What, then, would be the best way to approach the restless youth of India?

First Motivate Them To Tackle The Main Source Of Their Discontent

For reasons given above, in mobilizing India’s youngsters into a cohesive force of Citizen-Activists, it is more prudent for R. A. S. H. activists to first address young people’s discontent related to the political sphere than the religious sphere. For example, if a prospective activist expresses immense discontent with the corruption in the political system, it would be imprudent to attack his personal belief that Sai Baba is god. If a fat woman seeks treatment for her stuffy nose, the doctor has no business to put her down for being fat. If the doctor does so, she would certainly not come back to him for help. If the doctor wins her trust, in the course of time he might be able to convince her that her overweight is the cause her many serious health problems. We need to keep in mind that people do not become R. A. S. H. overnight. Childhood indoctrination of a belief system is not easy to transcend. They go through the step-wise conversion process over a long period of time. The main goal should be to motivate them to question the status quo and overcome their paralytic behavior in dealing with the issue that upsets (stresses) them most. Hopefully they would learn to question their own belief systems in other spheres in the course of time.

A Hypothetical Case Study: Sachin Tendulkar

Let us take Sachin Tendulkar as a prototype of a discontented youth of India. As you know, he mourned the death of Sai Baba by checking into a hotel forsachin-tendulkarseveral days. Probably this was an alternative to checking into a mental hospital. Apparently he had a serious meltdown. We are not going to convert Sachin Tendulkar into a Citizen-Activist by ridiculing his belief that Sai Baba is god, or by bashing Sai Baba as fraud. In fact, by doing so we would certainly miss out on converting him into a rational-minded Citizen-Activist. However, we might be able to convert him into a Citizen-Activist by reasoning with him that he is duty-bound to tackle the problem of corruption in India. In other words, it is his Dharma to protect integrity of India. All religious people understand the requirement to “perform one’s duty.” We might be able to convince him how because of corruption, driving on the road, eating food, drinking water, breathing air, taking medicine, filing complaint in a police station, or even flying has become a relatively dangerous thing to do. Link.

By means of this strategy we could gradually win Sachin over to be part of R. A. S. H. thinking. Sooner or later he might begin to question his own relationship with Sai Baba. He might discover that if Sai Baba truly wished him well, he would have told him (Sachin) not to get attached to, and dependent on, him. For, according to Hindu belief system attachment leads to ignorance of eternal nature of Atman, and grief upon death of the loved ones. So, grief is the sign of ignorance. He might realize that instead of teaching him not to become attached, Sai Baba merely enabled him to become emotionally attached to, and dependent on, him, and used him for his own benefit. He might discover that Sai Baba phenomenon was largely as a result of aiding and abetting by superstitious ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and famous people like himself, and in this quid pro quo system they lent legitimacy to each other. He might be eighty years old before he became completely convinced that Sai Baba was a first class magician who knew how to delude discontented common people as well as people in power who caused their discontent. It is better late than never.

A Small Well-defined Geographical Area Of Action

If we pose the problem of corruption to common people, their commonest reaction is one of complete helplessness as evidenced by often-heard remark, “It is like fighting an ocean! Where do you begin? Everyone is corrupt!” It is as if they feel obliged to fight corruption across India all at once. The simple solution for this seemingly mindboggling problem is for Citizen-Activists to limit their fight to a finite number of government offices located in a small geographical area, such as a Taluka (county) or a small-sized city. They should neither take up complaints from citizens living outside that area, nor tackle offices beyond it. This would motivate people of other localities to start their own organizations using your organization as the model. The message to people is: You fight the ocean along your shore; we will fight along our shore. And soon we will surround the ocean.

The Need For Credible Leadership At The Local Level

The psychological make up of average Indians is such that they always need a credible leader in flesh and blood to organize them into a force and motivate them to act against their common adversary. We witnessed recently how at the national level Anna Hazare galvanized young people to take to the streets in protest over corruption. People rose up spontaneously not only because his crusade brought up to the surface their shared impotent rage but also because he was there in flesh and blood for all to see. He was not just a face on Facebook exhorting people to protest. This lesson applies at the local level as well. Whether we like to admit this fact or not, people need someone locally with whom they could actually have personal interaction before they would trust him or her to mobilize them and their resources.

The Organizing Activist Is The Weakest Link In The Chain

Suspicion in the mind of people about the hidden motive of the prospective leader is a rule rather than exception. We cannot entirely blame them for this as too often their suspicions have been proven to be true. So they expect exemplary behavior from the Organizing Activists if they are to confide in them their woes and follow their advice, and participate in an activity they consider as controversial and potentially dangerous. When it comes to a self-appointed reformer they want to be absolutely sure that the person is credible, trustworthy, fearless, and principled.

Whereas a credible Organizing Activist is the single most essential part of organizing a force of Citizen-Activists, he is also the weakest link in sustaining the movement. For, it is a rare leader who does not succumb to the lure of power, fame or wealth, which are the inevitable byproducts of successful activism. Many of them had felt helplessness, worthlessness and affect of poverty as children. In the course of their work as Organizing Activists, these painful issues, buried in their hidden mind (soda bottle) for years, suddenly resurface. Now they instinctively try to cancel-out their remerging feeling of helplessness with power, sense of worthlessness with fame, and pain of poverty with illicit wealth. Often the Organizing Activists are neither aware of them nor able to resist the temptation to abuse their newfound power, fame and opportunity to make money. I have seen even the most dynamic and fearless activists fall prey to it. In the process they concentrate power into their own hands, no different than Babas and politicians. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore, a very high level of integrity, self-awareness, passion for justice, and purity of action are needed before the Organizing Activists set out to convert common people into Citizen-Activists to fight the greatest internal threat to India’s integrity since 600 B. C.

The Goal Is To Educate And Empower Citizens

The goal of the organizer should be to educate and empower citizens to fight against injustice rather than to fight for them. The method used by all politicians and many social activists is to fight for the citizens and concentrate power in their own hands. For example, if a bank manager refuses to give a rickshaw driver a loan without the customary 10% bribe, an untrained activist might intervene with the manager and have the loan sanctioned. This only makes the rickshaw driver become dependent on the activist for all future dealings with the bank. Next thing you know, the bank Manager invites the activist to his home for a round of boozing and Tandoori chicken dinner. There goes the movement.

An Organizing Activist in our scheme of things would handle this scenario as follows: He would ask the aggrieved rickshaw driver to provide proof that he is eligible for a loan. Having verified his claim, he assures the rickshaw driver his full backing in his effort to get the loan, but insists he does the legwork himself. The goal is to counter his paralytic behavior. Then he guides the rickshaw driver to meet with the bank manager and tell him, “I believe am qualified for the loan I have applied for. I will not pay you 10% of the loan amount as bribe. If you refuse to grant me the loan, you should give me in writing why. I will then take up this matter with the Managing Director.”

If this tactic does not work, then the Organizing Activist guides the rickshaw driver to proceed with the next step. He tells him to file a complaint with the Managing Director of the bank and hand deliver a copy of the letter to the corrupt bank manager. In the letter the rickshaw driver writes, “The bank manager demanded a bribe of 10% of the loan amount, which I refuse to pay. If the loan is refused, I will pursue the matter with the Reserve Bank of India and finance minister.” Next thing you know, the rickshaw driver’s loan is approved. Next the rickshaw driver would tell everyone his success story. This episode empowers at least a few other rickshaw drivers. Chain reaction follows. In this episode, the Organizing Activist remains in the background. He has succeeded in destroying the two mental blocks responsible for the paralytic behavior: passivity and fear. This whole process depends on one single factor: The ability of the Organizing Activist to win over the trust of rickshaw driver by means of his exemplary behavior, and motivate him to become a Citizen-Activist.

Basic Requirements Expected Of The Organizing Activist

1. Credibility: The most important quality expected of an Organizer is that he must have moral authority to guide aggrieved people. This means he has already gained considerable experience by waging and winning battles against local corrupt bureaucrats.

2. Knowledge of mental blocks of people: The Organizer must have clear understanding of people’s mental blocks. In the absence of this, his words and actions are likely to make matters worse. For example, if he is not aware of the phenomenon of resurfacing-impotent-rage, which we discussed in the previous chapter, he could easily instigate a riot by uttering something seemingly innocent in public meetings. Likewise, if he is not aware of the paralytic behavior of people, he could unwittingly enable that behavior by “taking over” their cases and fighting for them with officials instead of teaching them to fight for themselves.

3. Historical perspective: The Organizer should have good knowledge of India’s history. This is because in the absence of this knowledge one is likely to repeat the past mistakes of other organizers. And these mistakes could be costly.

4. Nonviolent techniques: The Organizer must have basic understanding of nonviolent methods of protest against injustice. In the absence of this knowledge, the movement could easily become violent. Study of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. M. L. King, Jr. are mandatory. I recommend the Gandhi’s Truth by Erik Erikson and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, as primers. People who dislike or hate these great men and their methods are most likely to fail in their attempts to convert ordinary people into responsible Citizen-Activists. As we studied earlier, in India people react in extremes; they are either totally paralyzed or mindlessly violent. Link.

The Organizer’s task is to convert passive people into nonviolently active. He must teach them how to be methodical, balanced, nonviolent and persistent in their effort to deal with their grievances.

5. Personal codes of conduct: The Organizer must have a clear-cut set of ethical principles to guide his actions in the course of his task. For example, he must never tell others to do what he does not do himself; he must not attack personally those he disagrees with; he must have no secret strategies; he must have significant control over weaknesses such as jealousy, greed, haughtiness, hatred, fear, and the like; he must not be afraid of public opinion when he believes he is doing the right thing; he must not have political ambition; he must never profit from his activism; he must admit his mistake when he knows he has committed one; he must not talk loose; and many other such principles. All his actions must reflect these principles.

6. Term limit: The Organizing Activist should not lead the organization for more than two years. Most Organizers have problem walking away from their position. They hang on and on and on, and become little dictators. The day the Organizer takes over his position he should begin to train a second rung of activists.

7. Dynamic strategies and tactics: The Organizer must have a clear strategies and tactics to suit each situation he tackles. Whereas his basic ethical principles should remain intact at all times, he should be willing to modify both his strategies and tactics to suit the situation.

8. The Constitution: The Organizer must act within the framework of the Constitution of India. In the event he has no choice but to break the law to right a wrong, he should be willing to suffer the legal consequences for his action. He would not run away, hide, post bail or appoint a lawyer to defend his “illegal” actions.

9. Listening empathically: Once the organization is started, the Organizing Activist would certainly attract people with serious grievances. He should train himself to listen to their complaints patiently and empathically. This is how these aggrieved people shrink their balloon. He should enquire into their suffering and collect facts before giving any advice.

10. The mental makeup: In the final analysis, the Organizing Activist must have integrity, self-awareness, passion for justice, compassion for others’ suffering, and purity of thought, emotion and action.

All these and more requirements expected of the Organizing Activist might lead a prospective candidate to remark, “You expect the Organizing Activist to be a Superman!” Well, the controversial and dangerous nature of the problem he is expected to tackle is such that it requires the Organizing Activist to be a Superman of sorts. Ancient Upanishadic revolutionaries recognized the need for a Superman (Purushotthama) to clean the Aegean stables of Brahmanic corruption. Many years of study, contemplation, introspection and mental preparation are needed before taking up the seemingly superhuman task of tackling even a small part of Government of India. Without such preparation, the movement could degenerate into mayhem as illustrated in these two recent incidents.

(To be continued)

What do you think about the series so far? For discussion about this series as a whole please go to this newly-created thread on the forums. Please address any issues related to the above article in the comments below.

About the author

Prabhakar Kamath

Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About To Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.

Links to all articles in Dr. Kamath's earlier series on Heretics, Rebels, Reformers and Revolutionaries can be found here. Dr. Kamath' series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita can be found here.

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