April 22, 2007

life in general: what should we do?

What should we do? In November 2004, in response to a regular sharing with my friends, my good friend, Ankur Lal, posed a straight-forward question to me:

Thanks for sharing the attached.
What steer do you suggest in terms of next steps for mortals like me?

It spurred me to put down in writing my perspective on what we can do when we observe happenings around us.
Here is what I replied to Ankur at that time:

Dear Ankur

You had asked me in response to my email containing newsreports on the destruction of Fallujah in Iraq by American military forces about what steps one can take.

Surely it won't be wise on my part to say that you should do this specifically or do that. We have different individual traits and strengths. What I think is required to be done may not be doable by you. But you might be able to do—or probably are already doing—something else that I am not but which is still required to be done.

But if something can be found useful from the path I have walked then here goes a few of the steps I have taken in the last few years:

1] Acquiring knowledge.

I read a lot on the internet from alternative sources of news and analysis (links to a few of these can be found at the bottom of my webpage at www.natant.org). It gives me a perspective on things that wouldn't be possible by reading just our daily mainstream newspaper (or magazine) or watching the mainstream television channels.

Also, at times, you have stuff on the websites of mainstream newspapers and magazines that do not see the light of day in their print versions. For instance, when the massacres in Gujarat were being perpetrated in those few days of end February and March 2002, I didn't get an adequate sense of the depth of the happenings from the mainstream newspaper and TV news. Until I came across a fact-finding report (dated April 6, 2002) by a 6-member women panel titled "How has the Gujarat massacre affected minority women? The survivors speak." And this report was ironically available on the website of Hindustan Times newspaper (www.hindustantimes.com) and Outlook magazine (www.outlookindia.com) though their print versions had not printed the report nor, as far as I remember, carried excerpts from it or even mentioned it.

Another citizens' report titled 'Gujarat Genocide 2002' came out soon thereafter and this too was available only on the internet (it still is – at http://www.sabrang.com/cc/archive/2002/marapril/index.html).

No print newspaper/magazine or television channel reported on the contents of this report in its entirety. As a print journalist myself I know that editors, even if they want to, can not print governmental or non-governmental reports in full because of lack of print space. I personally feel that exceptions can be made when a report contains valuable information. Anyway, the point here is that if we truly desire to get to the bottom of any event or news then it is imperative that we go beyond newspapers, magazines and television. One of the few miracles created by mankind has been the internet, which has provided a wonderful platform for people to share their stuff with everyone else on our planet. I have benefited enormously from this resource.

Then again, in March 2003, when the build-up to the American attack on Iraq was happening, I was fervently surfing the web for updates on the developments when I stumbled onto slate.msn.com via the mainstream NBC's www.msnbc.com. There I discovered an article on blog sites that were covering the build-up to the attack on Iraq. It provided urls of a few of these blog sites. One among them was www.agonist.org operated by an American individual, Sean-Paul (who is now a good friend of mine). Sean-Paul's efforts had to be seen to be believed as he acted as a most valuable router of information from all over (conventional media reports as well as alternative sources). Equally valuable was the stuff culled from the discussions among the site visitors. I participated in these discussions and must say that it gave me insights that would been extremely difficult to get from a mainstream source.

2] Making our views known to mainstream media editors.

Ankur, remember the time when we were colleagues in Stock Holding Corporation of India and then went on to became good friends? Long time ago, right? Thirteen years is indeed a long time. It was exactly during that period (1991-93) that something happened which made me ask the same question that you posed now--what steps should I (then a mere 23-year old mortal) take?

The trigger then was large-scale killing spree of minority Muslims in Bombay and other cities during December 1992 and January 1993 after the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 by Hindu extremists. This was not the first violence of its kind [during the 1947 partition of greater India into India and Pakistan (before the imperial British left they partitioned greater undivided India into three sections—India, Western Pakistan, now just Pakistan, and Eastern Pakistan, now Bangladesh) there were very very severe acts of violence between Muslims and Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs in the northern parts of greater undivided India.... afterwards the scenario, as far as India is concerned, has been such that there have been occasional violence between Hindus and Muslims but the intensity started increasing from the 1970s onwards... and then in 1984 we had severe and large-scale acts of violence against Sikhs by Hindus in Delhi, sponsored as it was by the Congress political party].

But it shook me up real badly. I was seeing it at close quarter for the first in this life of mine. There was stark hatred among people based on religious lines. Men, women and children were being butchered mercilessly because of their religion.

I could not keep quiet. I did not help the victims directly. But I did what I thought I could do best. I started voicing my shock and disgust through the "Letters to Editor" column of newspapers.

If this was not unfortunate and painful enough, it was followed by, in March 1993, horrendous bomb blasts at six places in Bombay (this was the handiwork of Pakistan's ISI agency and Dubai-based underworld exploiting yearning-for-revenge-but-in-a-misguided-manner young Muslims from India).The bomb blasts killed many and injured a lot more. I watched in utter disbelief. But I kept on writing letters to the editor of various newspapers and magazines. At that time, there was no internet. It had to be done through physical letters posted by mail to the respective addresses of the papers and mags.

Did my letters make any difference? I do not know for sure, but three direct incidents occurred which probably throw some light:

- later on when I was a journalist in Business Standard newspaper a colleague, who was in Times of India earlier, told me that she was aware of my letters and that since they were of a kind not many would dare to write in their own name she had presumed that the name Rajesh Gajra appearing in those letters was a pseudonym for someone else!

- i received a threatening letter from a 'Jogeshwari Gang' in response to my strong letters. This particular 'Gang' was obviously displeased at the rare voice of dissent from a citizen it came across in the media.

- my published letters were pivotal in getting me into journalism. Fed up of the nature of corporate work in Stock Holding, one day in November 1993, I came across this ad (in the recruitment pages of the Times of India) by Business Standard seeking business reporters. For quite some time until then, I had a strong desire to be a journalist. I responded to this ad.. The interviewing editors had two things in mind before deciding on hiring me—financial work experience and writing skills. In my case, they gauged the latter through the published letters. I got the job. The rest is history but still in progress. As a journalist since the last 11 years I think I have been able to make an impact that would not have been possible had I continued being a member of the corporate world.

However, I continue to write letters to Editors on non-financial issues. Its not frequent. But I was definitely moved into action by the American attack on Iraq. This time I wrote to several newspapers in the US (a snapshot of the various email ids that I wrote to can be got from www.natant.org/misc/emailsnapshot.jpg).

3. Activism.

If there is an active demonstration or protest march, I will endeavour to participate in it. Again, in January 1993, when Bombay was in the grip of terror of the Shiv Sena, there was one group started by the editor of a Marathi daily newspaper, Nikhil Wagle, which took the courage to organise talks and citizens' meetings against the violence. These were held in different parts of the city on different dates. I went for three of them. In two of them, there were violent attempts to disrupt the meetings by the goons of Shiv Sena.

4. Conservation of natural resources

If we scratch a little bit below the surface of the new—and ugly—American imperialism we will come across a motivation to maintain a enormously materialistic way of life regardless of back-to-back disastrous consequences that our mother Earth is forced to bear. The US is not an exception in this. Every country is driven by such a motivation. The difference is that the US is a military superpower.

Nevertheless, any change has to first come from within ourselves whether we are living in the US or not. Can we first reduce our footprints on our Earth? Ankur, I have considerably reduced my consumption—and desire for—material objects. A realisation has dawned that we cannot carry on with our reckless consumption patterns without completely destroying our mother Earth.

There have been several steps that I have taken in this regard. I will try to share a few of them in later sharings.

5. Feeling the fear but doing it anyway.....

We might think we are ordinary mortals. But those who do brave and courageous things are also ordinary mortals. True, they walk a path filled with great uncertainties and sacrifices. But a lot of them are also afraid of the unknown. They feel the fear but do it anyway.

And, if fear is not an issue, then what is? Unmanageable desire for a lot of wealth and ultra comfort? Well, its upto each one of us individually how we manage our desires such that it does not contradict or hurt the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. And, these are ideals that we can care the least about and yet achieve the happiness that you seek from your desires. It's easy to dismiss them, but should we?

If neither fear nor inordinate desires are issues, then what is? Religious faith? Mine is better or less bad than others? Others are children of a lesser god? So, others' suffering is justified? Gosh! Do we have to immobilise ourselves with such dogmas? How about just considering ourselves as members of a small planet in a vast endless universe?

I am told that there are some things we can change, some things we can't change and that the wisdom lies in knowing the difference between the two. I cannot say that I have this wisdom. But I would rather continue to be active—as extensively and passionately as possible.

Bright blessings of our universe


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