A bunch of cowards ?

After consulting with a few senior colleagues on Sunday, we had decided that our offices would remain closed on Monday because of a general strike called by all the political parties in opposition. At least a few of them are known to particularly harbour lumpens passing of as “party workers” and who would enforce the part line through vandalism and mob violence.

The ostensible reason for the strike is an increase in the price of petroleum products by the government and its cascading effect on the price of food items and other items of daily use. The irony is inescapable – a clutch of right wing parties avowedly wedded to capitalism, preaching that the current government should practice socialism and keep subsidising the prices of petroleum, no matter what the cost might be in the global markets. But any way the matter of ideology is an old one and whether market economy should prevail is a matter of debate.

So does that mean that when we decided to shut the office, we took an ideological stance against the market pricing of petroleum and adopted a leftist ideology? I wish that our motives were so altruistic, when the fact of the matter is that they were not. We did not have any debate in the office on whether the government’s policies were right or wrong. We just opted out of the discussion and ostrich like, chose to bury our heads in the sand, waiting for the storm to blow over.

A quote that is attributed to Edmund Burke, the British Statesman is that “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing …” In shutting down the office, perhaps we just joined the ranks of the accomplices of evil; for our decision was not driven by any conviction or opinion, but simply by the rather base instinct of self preservation. We could have kept the office open and simply said that those who could manage some kind of transportation should come. But we did not even do that.

But let me not self flagellate ourselves here. This is perhaps a larger question to ask of all civil society organizations, a lot of whom are involved in doing empowering work. The critical question to ask ourselves – charities, non profits NGOs, civil society organizations or faith based organizations and birds of similar feathers as this – just how much are we actually empowered ourselves, that we presume to be empowering others ? Do we have teeth in our talk of rights, advocacy and the like? If all it takes is a few rumours fuelled by the media and the possibility of a mob who may not even find us worthy of their attention, to scurry back into our comfortable homes and dens?

Charities and NGOs are scared of taking political positions as a rule – Greenpeace is one notable exception that I know of. In fact politics and politicians are a breed that most NGOs love to hate. And yet all this business of empowerment and transformation and change that we talk about and work for, none of this happens in a vacuum. For our efforts to succeed and benefit any one, there has to be an enabling political and social environment which nurtures the ideas that we plant and maybe even help germinate the ideas and thoughts that we plant. And yet most of us charity workers turn politically illiterate the minute we don our organizational hats!

Historically, NGOs, unless they are actually fronts for certain political parties, have tended to be apolitical. They don’t have any political opinions, don’t occupy any political space and therefore don’t have any political voice. So while rocks and boulders surround us and gather momentum and force and threaten to stop whatever good we are doing, all we have to play with are pebbles and stones. No, I am not advocating that we join the hoodlums and the lumpens in their mob. But what I am advocating is that we be among them who shape the mind and thinking of those hoodlums – so that they use their time and considerable energy for society’s greater good and we can keep our offices open.

And just by the way, inspired by a colleague who is going to office, I decided to go as well! Even though we were officially shut…!

Shantanu Dutta

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