Pseudoscience & Religion

Organizing A Local Citizen-Activists Group

This is the seventh 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 studied the need for a local grassroots Citizen-Activists Group (C.A.G.) to educate and empower people to deal with government-sponsored corruption at the local level, and essential qualifications required of the Organizing Activist (O.A.). In this article we will study the knowledge of culture-specific behaviors of people needed for the O.A. to organize a real local C.A.G.

Benefits Of Modern Technology

From technical point of view, raising awareness of the problem of corruption in India, and communicating the need for a real organization to educate and empower citizens is infinitely easier in the 21st century than just twenty years ago. This is because of the convenience of Internet search engines, email, Facebook, cell phone, blogs, e-magazines, etc. In addition, television stations and newspapers have become more independent and bolder during the past two decades. Information gathering and rapid distribution have also become infinitely easier due to sophisticated gadgets such as cell phone cameras and video cameras. Technology has also facilitated communication of grievances of citizens with C.A.G. Last but not the least is the fact that it takes little money to have an e-magazine. With all these technological advances at his/her disposal it is a relatively simple matter for the O.A. to set up a virtual Citizen-Activist Group with its e-magazine, Facebook, blog and the like. All one has to do is to replicate the excellent system already set up by Nirmukta.com.

Virtual Versus Real Citizen-Activist Group

In spite of all these benefits of modern technology, however, it is infinitely more difficult to launch a real Citizen-Activists Group. It is one thing to communicate on the Facebook with ten “friends” whom you have never met, and entirely another thing to have an on-going personal working relationship with ten people in flesh and blood. The prospective O.A. should never underestimate the effort it takes to convince just ten local people to join hands with him to form an ad hoc group even when its clearly stated primary goal is simply to educate local citizens about their rights and responsibilities and empower them to demand services from the government without paying a bribe. People instinctively know that the real C.A.G. would be a controversial and potentially dangerous endeavor, and trusting an unknown O.A. to lead them is a risky business. Besides, since the O.A. always tells it as it is, and does not make false promises to people like Babas and politicians do, it takes time for people to accept the reality that there are no short-cut solutions for their real-life problems. In this article I will present only the basic steps the O.A. could take to build a local C.A.G. The O.A. will have to figure out his own pathway to build a local C.A.G. depending upon the local conditions, local culture-specific issues, and his understanding of local people’s mind.

The First Step: Recruiting Members For The Ad Hoc Committee

The first step in launching a real C.A.G. is to recruit a few committed members to form an ad hoc committee. By the term ‘committed’ I mean people who are willing to show up for meetings on time. The O.A. starts out by making a list of about fifty people in the local community, preferably young lawyers, doctors, software engineers, bankers and other professionals. The reason I recommend younger people is they tend to be bolder, are less likely to be part of the establishment, more likely to be frustrated, and are more likely to think outside the box.

The O.A. then emails, or sends by regular mail, a letter inviting them to become part of the ad hoc committee of C.A.G. The letter explains in some detail the goal and modus operandi of the C. A. G. It must emphasize the fact that they were selected from a large pool of prospective members due to their exceptional credentials, and that the C.A.G. could greatly benefit from their guidance. The O.A. must let them know that he/she would be glad to meet with them personally to answer any questions they might have before they made a decision to join or not. The O.A. must state his basic credentials, telephone number and email address with the request to contact him/her within two weeks if they are interested. While the letter should be friendly in tone, it should avoid obsequious phrases such as “Please honor us by joining our organization, Sir!” and the like. If they see no merit in it, they should not join.

Patience And Perseverance Are The Ultimate Virtues

Corruption has been in the very fiber of Indian society for over three thousand years and the O.A. is not going to cure it in his lifetime. In India nothing happens right away, and the O.A. who is in a rush is bound to be disappointed. Not responding to a letter, especially the one related to a controversial subject, is the rule rather than exception with Indians. Besides, prospective members need time to process the information they have received before making a decision one way or the other. Unless the O.A. knows a prospective member well, he/she should avoid contacting him/her by phone. In general people don’t like to be put on the spot by means of a surprise phone call from a stranger, especially in matters such as this. On the other hand, there might be people who prefer the O.A. to contact them personally by phone rather than by means of what they consider as an impersonal letter. In India, one never knows what to expect from people. The lesson is, never take anything or anyone for granted, but then know well that you can’t please them all.

The O.A. should not be surprised if he gets no response at all from even one out of fifty people he contacted by letter. The commonest excuse given is that they have no time for this kind of work. The truth is that they have time for all kinds of activities, which the O.A. might consider as inane. This kind of self-deception is the rule rather than exception even among the professionals who scream at the top of their voice about the all-pervading corruption in the country. Very often, people expect the O.A. to cajole them to join the core group. I recommend that the O.A. should NEVER do it.

If no one responds to the invitation, the O.A. makes another list of fifty people and sends letters to them. If this effort also fails, the O.A. could put a small advertisement in a local newspaper inviting interested people to join the ad hoc committee of C.A.G. If even five people join the ad hoc group, nay, if even one person agrees to be part of the group, the O. A. should accept that person, and form an ad hoc committee of two. The point is that the O.A. does not give up in exasperation when people do not respond to his initiative. In India uniting a group of people for a controversial common cause could be exasperating. If the O.A. did not know this beforehand, it means he/she did not study history of India thoroughly like he should have. For the sake of continuing our discussion, let us assume that the O. A. has managed to recruit eight people to join the ad hoc committee to launch a local C.A.G.

Step Two: Overcoming Three Common Impediments

Even if the O.A. succeeds in recruiting eight people to form an ad hoc group, it is a long uphill struggle to forge the group into an effective goal-oriented organization. There might be many impediments, which come in the way of this task. Therefore, the knowledge of at least three of these possible impediments, and how the O.A. could deal with them is essential.

1. Stereotyping: We read in an earlier article how a sensory input immediately causes the mind to check with the data in the hidden mind if it is good or bad for us. When we meet a person for the first time, we instinctively attempt to assess the danger he/she poses to our security. We raise our guards and quickly assess the level of danger by using the database in our hidden mind. To quickly assess the level of danger, we resort to stereotyping that person as belonging to a category we have become familiar with in the cultural milieu we were raised in. For example, if a Swami wearing saffron clothes, long hair, beard and a Nama over his forehead walks into a room full of average Indians, we can predict with fair degree of accuracy that most of them would rise from their chairs and stand around him at respectful distance with folded hands even though they had never met him before and know nothing about him. They have been conditioned to believe that anyone who looks like this must be a harmless holy man. For all you know, this Swami might be a first class crook who wears saffron clothes just to neutralize people’s instinctive fear of strangers.

An Atheist or Rationalist Indian in that group, whose thinking is obviously counter-cultural, would most likely not behave like that because, based on his past experience, he believes that this Swami must be a fraud like all other Swamis he had known. In this case, the Rationalist did not let the Swami’s appearance to neutralize his instinctual distrust. However, even here, for all you know this particular Swami might be a great scholar who never cheated anyone, and who likes to wear saffron clothes to show to the world that he has renounced everything, and so no one needs to be afraid of his motives. The point is that when people meet others for the first time, their reactions are invariably stereotypical. Such stereotypical reaction to strangers is present in all cultures. There is another name for this phenomenon: Prejudice.

Likewise, when ad hoc committee members meet the O.A. for the first time, at some level in their mind, the O.A. is a “threat” to their security. They instinctively pigeonhole him into a category they know of in their cultural milieu. His religion (Hindu, Muslim, Christian), caste (Brahmin, Dalit), belief system (Gandhian, Maoist), financial status (rich, poor), immigration status (NRI, Indian-American, South Indian, North Indian) and what have you, activate in the hidden mind of ad hoc committee members their preconceived ideas, prejudices and expectations related to each of these categories of people. Such activation of stereotyping leads to behaviors, which could be destructive to building an organization. If the O.A. is a Muslim, staunch Hindu members with strong dislike for Muslims might not trust him/her no matter how trustworthy he/she might be. They might resort to all kind of mischief against the O.A. If the O.A. is a South Indian, ignorant North Indian members might not cooperate with him due to their deep-rooted disdain of “Madrasis” regardless how brilliant he might be. Every O.A. must accept the reality of the fact that due to such habitual negative stereotyping the O. A.’s job could be made infinitely more difficult. I dare to say that it is far much easier for an Indian to start a controversial organization such as C.A.G. in the U. S. than in India.

Such automatic pigeonholing of the O.A. by ad hoc committee members is a largely an unconscious phenomenon and only members’ behavior is the clue to it. Such “acting out” in response to the stereotyped view of the O.A. could lead to serious problems for the O. A. in his dealings with them. For example, a member who believes that the O.A. has secret political ambition just like all activists he had known in India, might act on that belief and bring a notorious local politician-goonda to the ad hoc committee meetings, thus undermining the nonpolitical and nonviolent nature of the ad hoc committee. Another member, believing the O.A. to be a Gandhian like Anna Hazare, might condemn him as a hypocrite for wearing a silk shirt instead of a Khaddar Kurta, or for driving an imported car. It will take a lot of time for the O.A. to impress upon the members of the ad hoc group by his exemplary behavior that he/she is not at all what they thought he/she was, and that his/her caste, class, where he/she comes from, his/her personal belief system, financial status, color of skin, the way he/she dresses, the car he drives and the like are of little consequence. All that matters is that they selflessly work together to solve the problem for which they have joined hands with him. In the course of time the O.A.’s integrity, purity of thought, emotion and action will gradually melt away whatever negative stereotypical view they had of him. It goes without saying that the on his part O.A. must scrupulously avoid stereotyping the members of ad hoc committee and overcome his own prejudices. His attitude should be that people from all walks of life are welcome as long as they do not try to impose their views on others.

2. Phenomenon Of Blurring Of Boundary: Another phenomenon the O.A. needs to be constantly aware of in his dealing with members of the ad hoc committee is the tendency of some of them to blur the boundary between them and people they interact with. While all members need to pull together for common cause, there should be clear-cut boundary between the O.A. and members of ad hoc committee. Indians often tend to “merge” their identity with people they interact with.

To illustrate this culture-specific phenomenon let me give the simple example of a photographer taking a group photo of ten Americans in the U. S. and a group of ten Indians in India. When the photographer tells Americans to stand for a group photograph people quietly stand side by side, or form two or three rows depending upon their height. The photographer then directs certain members to move to the right, left, rear or front, depending upon their height, width and other physical features. The American group quietly obeys the photographer. Some members of the group might quip now and then just to make people relax and laugh. They respect the boundary between the photographer and themselves, and they know that the task of the photographer is to direct them to pose for the group photo; and their task is to pose for the picture. In the Indian group, on the contrary, when the photographer tells people to get ready for the photograph most Indians keep talking to each other as if they did not hear him; they keep directing others where to stand; someone runs to get a few chairs for senior citizens or “dignitaries” to sit on, and others keep changing their position with utter disregard to photographer’s directives. Their behavior indicates that they are not aware of the boundary between the photographer and themselves. They act as if they are in charge of the photographic session.

As we will discuss later on, unless the O.A. is highly aware of the blurring of boundary phenomenon, serious problems could crop up in his relationship with group members. For example, if the O.A. gives a member the simple task of making a few copies of a carefully crafted document he had written, he might discover that the member had made some unauthorized changes in the document. When asked why he or she did the changes, the answer would be, “I thought you made some mistakes and you would not mind if I made the needed corrections.” Or, a member might arrange for a dinner meeting for O.A. with someone without his knowledge. When the O.A. declines the invitation, the prospective host feels insulted. Such transgression of boundary is extremely common, and the O.A. must be constantly on his toes to prevent mishaps from happening. He should repeatedly define each member’s task and gently raise his/her awareness whenever he/she wanders off into other’s boundary. Without such clear-cut boundaries, the public would get the impression that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. This is what happened in the Obama administration recently after Osama bin Laden was killed. In the excitement of the situation just about everyone in Obama’s core group crossed boundaries and released his own version of how OBL was killed. Either Obama, or one person designated by him, should have released the only version of what happened. I have a theory why this did not happen, but it is beyond the scope of this article. However, the lesson is worth learning.

3. Resistance To Change: Unconscious resistance to change is normal, as even people who want change often see any change of status quo as stress. There is a curious phenomenon we psychiatrist see in people who seek help for their serious chronic stress-related symptoms. Even after accepting that their malady is caused by a certain mental or interpersonal conflict in their personal life, patients are reluctant to take action to remedy the offending situation. They would rather take some medicine to alleviate their symptoms than eliminate the cause of their emotional pain. They come up with all kinds of excuses why they cannot do what is necessary for them to do. The main reason for this is that they are scared of the consequences of doing what needs to be done. They fear that the remedy could be far worse than the malady. A known devil is better than an unknown angel. We see this behavior in the general population as well. People will openly admit that a lot of their misery is caused by rampant corruption in the society, and yet they would rather pay bribes and grumble than do something to alleviate the offending situation. When offered a viable solution, they dismiss it as not practicable in their situation. The real reason is that they feel they are ill prepared for the unknown consequences that might follow their action. They are not willing to make small sacrifice in time, money and effort; nor willing to suffer a little discomfort, to bring about the change so badly needed in the country. The bottom line is that the vast majority of people who claim they are patriots do not really mean it at all. They are concerned only about themselves. Actions always speak louder than words.

Once the ad hoc committee is formed, the O. A. might discover that some members are reluctant to do things expected of them. There is a big divide between their declared intent and their lack of action. Behaviors such as not showing up for meetings, or showing up late, not finishing assignments they had voluntarily taken up, etc. are common. Such “acting out” behavior is extremely common and indicative of unconscious resistance. The remedy for resistance to change is patience and perseverance. Since the O.A. expects people to resist, he is not easily thwarted by it. He should neither criticize the members for their behavior nor force them to continue being members of the ad hoc group. His behavior should indicate his integrity, unwavering commitment to the cause, unbridled enthusiasm, optimism and energy to achieve the goal. He should start and end the ad hoc committee meetings on time, and by doing so the O. A. is sending a clear message to the ad hoc committee: Only disciplined people truly committed to the cause are welcome, and they are not doing O.A. a personal favor by showing up. He should keep sending the minutes of the meetings to members who did not show up. Once convinced about the O.A.’s determination to continue the struggle with or without the support of others, members would gradually stop resisting.

Step Three: Developing A Brochure

The ad hoc committee meets on a weekly basis to develop a bilingual brochure, which is nothing but a one-page document folded over itself. It simply states the following: 1. Definition of the Organization (voluntary, nonpolitical, not-for-profit, offering free service, etc.). 2. The goal of the organization (educating and empowering, etc.). 3. Modus operandi (step-wise effort, etc.) 4. Targeted government offices (R.T.O, gas supplier, etc.) 5. What C.A.G. does not do (pay bills, act as broker, etc.). 6. Code of conduct for members (discipline, no abuse of power, etc.). 7. Annual membership dues, which is merely a token of support (say, Rs. 25).

The importance of this brochure lies in the fact that it nips in the bud any unrealistic expectation or erroneous view of C.A.G. For example, a distraught natural gas customer might think that the job of C.A.G. is to browbeat the corrupt gas supplier and force him to supply him the gas cylinder. The O.A. should point out to the gas consumer that this is his fight and the O.A. will teach him how to fight, and will support him when he decides to fight. The O.A. could then show the customer the brochure in which this fact had been clearly spelled out.

Step Four: Announcement

Having recruited an ad hoc committee and developed a simple bilingual brochure, the O. A. now gives a press release. The press release is a statement about the basic goals and modus operandi of the organization. It is sent to all local newspapers, T. V. and radio stations, and also posted on as many e.magazines and blogs as possible. A simple advertisement in one or two local newspapers might also help to let the public know about the birth of C.A.G. Both the press release and the advertisement must clearly state that the primary goal of the organization is to educate and empower people to deal with local government offices. It is important to let the public know that the service is free to them. One could become a bona fide member of C.A.G. by paying a fee of Rs. 25 as a token of their support.

Step Five: Public Meetings

The next step is to call a public meeting to address corruption in a local government office against which most people have serious grievances. The O.A. issues a press release that there will be a public meeting held on such and such a date, at such and such a time, and in such and such public hall. The head of the targeted government office should be invited to attend the public meeting. The O.A. and some members of the ad hoc committee should go to the target office, meet with the head officer, and invite him to attend the public meeting to address public’s concerns regarding whatever is going on in his office. The O.A. should assure the head officer that discipline and decorum will be observed. There is a good chance that the head officer would decline the invitation, or agree to be there without any intention of keeping his promise. He should be told beforehand that if he did not show up for the meeting, the O.A. would let his boss about it. If the official refuses to come to the public meeting, the O. A. should inform him politely that he would report the matter to his boss, and invite him to the meeting. That should settle the matter right there.

Public meetings have the potential to become disruptive and violent unless the O.A. is completely in charge. He needs to keep in mind the tendency of Indians to react in extremes. They patiently tolerate all kinds of nonsense for years until they could tolerate it no more. Then it is all madness. The best metaphor is that of a sleeping drunkard who starts swinging wildly as soon as he is lifted up from the gutter. The O.A. must remind the audience to behave like civilized people and not attack the official verbally or physically. The ground rules must be spelled out to the audience and the O.A. should come across as totally in charge of the meeting. The head official must know that there is widespread discontent with his office and that immediate reforms are needed. He must agree to meet with members of the ad hoc committee later on to report reforms made in his office. He should be reminded that he is servant of the people and not their master. Widespread publicity should be given to the outcome of this meeting. C.A.G. members must test if the reforms are genuine or cosmetic.

Step Six: Launching A Newspaper

A newspaper is essential for the success of any C.A.G. In large cities, it could be an e.magazine. In smaller cities, a printed version might be needed. The purpose of a newspaper is to create public opinion against corruption, expose inefficiency and fraud in the government offices, to report stories of success and failures; to address criticisms of C.A.G. and many more. The newspaper must earn the reputation for accuracy, truthfulness and impartiality. A lot of research should be done before printing anything. If mistakes were made, apologies must be offered and corrective action should be taken.

Applying Newton’s Three Laws Of Motion In Dealing With People

Once C.A.G. is firmly established, all kinds of people would come forward to join it. The challenge for the O. A. is not only to collect people with shared goal but also to enthuse them to share his vision, and to motivate them to act, and that, too, as part of group engaging in controversial and potentially dangerous activity. To avoid unnecessary stress for himself, the O. A. should have insight into certain behavioral patterns he might observe in people joining C. A. G., and those who choose not to. Applying Newton’s Three Laws of Motion might help a lot in his work with people.

Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Some general members of C.A.G. might be at rest (paralyzed) and others are in motion (dynamic). The O.A. is the force needed to motivate both these types of people. The O.A. should take this law into consideration when calibrating his approach in motivating general members of C. A. G.

The O. A. will need a lot of patience to work with those at rest. They should be given responsibilities in small increments. Those who are already in motion are highly motivated and the O. A. will have to encourage and guide them to achieve their full potential. They could be given bigger tasks such as organizing public meetings or editing the newsletter. In the course of time the O. A.’s initial impression about members as belonging to one type or the other might prove to be entirely wrong. Only time will tell. It is important to keep in mind this adage: There is no such thing as a useless person. Only, his time has not come.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object).

In his work with the people, the O. A. might encounter people who are bogged down with excess baggage: Fear of doing anything that might get them in trouble; fear of the unknown; not wanting to “stir things up” or “turn over the applecart”; extreme cynicism, not wanting to be blamed if something went wrong, and the like. They badly want to be part of the movement, but they resist every move due to these mental blocks. These people need “a lot more force” to motivate them. Their excess baggage becomes evident in their overt or covert opposition to just about any suggestion, which they invariably consider as too radical. And yet they have nothing substantial to offer in addressing the issue of corruption. The O.A. must have a lot of patience with these people. He should patiently explain to them the need to act now, but act responsibly. A lot of assurance and encouragement (“force”) will be needed to accelerate these people “heavily loaded” with mental blocks rooted in India’s “glorious” Brahmanic and feudal past.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The O. A. would be naïve to expect a smooth sailing in his work with the C. A. G. Immediately after C. A. G. is launched, criticism and threats might start pouring in from all sides. Some of these are from the bureaucrats and others are from C.A.G. members themselves, or general public. All these criticisms and threats will be faithfully conveyed to the O.A. by various sources. Rumors about the O.A. might start flying. In fact, the O. A. might receive phone calls or letters criticizing him or C.A.G. Most of these people have absolutely no idea about the real purpose of C.A.G. They see it as a great threat to their security and way of life.

The O. A. should carefully note these criticisms and threats and patiently reply to them in the newsletter, blog or e.magazine. He should never ignore them. In fact, he must give these criticisms and threats widest publicity, and respond to them with balanced, unemotional answers. C.A.G. must defend its position without being defensive. The art and science of this movement is to do controversial work without being controversial.

(To be continued)

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.

1 Comment

  • An insightful article for any one who wants to start an activist group. I could related to many things mentioned by Dr. Kamath. He is true about the stereotyping people based on their religion, caste, background etc.

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