Hyperactive activism

Who is an activist? Just about anybody today. That probably is the ultimate symbol of a ‘sound’ democracy, wherein every citizen raises his voice on every issue, pauses for air, and then resumes the charade for a fresh issue, the earlier one having faded under his/her own din over the latest fad. Sign of the times, now.

Activists from ancient times, which was till about a couple of years ago, are a motley crowd of usual suspects. For them activism is a profession or passion or just a part-time personal pitch. They take up a public cause, do their homework diligently, initiate action in whatever forum, keep up the fight and even succeed. Such lone activists who risk their lives and livelihoods and stake their own resources for a common cause deserve acclaim, even if their motives and methods are sometimes misplaced.

There was a pre-historic time too, say till about two decades back. Then too there were selfless personalities who took up public causes, suffered and succeeded. But they did not go under the label ‘activist’ which is a recent addition to the protest lexicon. They were called good Samaritans who generally shunned publicity and sought public benefit instead. They did not carry visiting cards as some self-styled ones do today (Yes, I have seen them, the cards I mean) and preferred anonymity and action instead. Their methods too were simple and sincere. Some did hold political office, as a natural extension, not as a reward.

In sharp contrast to individual activism is organised activism which is a bit dicey. It happens under the banner of an NGO or some such formal forum. The funder and not the founder therefore is the focus and the final yardstick of credibility of actions. And funds are there for the taking if the right cause that cater to the right ‘interests’ are identified. Several Western Governments, Endowments, Multinationals, even domestic industry use organised activism to stall, thwart or promote pet and profitable projects. Third world countries are particularly vulnerable. Someone famously said this of a coveted global award: It is given to achievers of the West and activists of the East.

Sponsored activism is a thriving industry in India. Many public projects have faced hurdles owing to opposition from powerful anti-lobbies. This is not to summarily dismiss all such opposition. In fact, environment, safety and livelihood concerns are worth sacrificing the project itself in many cases. But it’s not as black and white. The huge grey area in between is a fertile playground for deal-making activists and shady foreign/local actors . But the real tragedy is that even genuine activists get sidelined owing to lack of consistent material support or big-ticket backers and credible human concerns are lost in a maze of statistical sophistry and scare mongering. Kudankulam, Narmada and Neutrino are examples of such rampant confusion.

Intellectualisation of bread and butter issues in cosy newsrooms and drab seminars, far from the scenes of turmoil, is a travesty, but sadly the reigning trend. TV media is the prime culprit with primetime pundits and armchair experts sorting out critical national issues in the span of a few minutes, commercial breaks, included. There are activist anchors who claim to know what the nation wants to and is waiting to know and in fact, also know the answers through their own scoops to be delivered as breaking news.

Even rustic rural campaigners have to fill one of those 8 or 10 boxes on the flat screen often as clueless, mute spectators just to mark their presence before a distracted audience. There is then a tribe that passes off its publicity stunts as activism to attract a vulnerable media.

Thanks to social media you can today tweet your way to activism. To convert that trivialisation to mockery, there are things like WhatsApp and what not where in you can even bare your baser itches under the garb of humour. Judicial activism is passe.

Activists, which includes all and sundry, rendering instant justice is the in thing. Political activism of course has its special sordid place. Yesterday’s ruling tormentors are today’s street stalkers. Activists who were against politicos are now activists turned politicos. The activists club is no longer exclusive; nor is activism a labour of love. A casual, thoughtless fling, nothing else.

Landmark legislations like Right to Information Act were fruits of sustained activism. Several significant social changes have also come about thanks to activists. But the reigning furore over the mysterious death of an IAS officer is showcasing the flip side of free-for-all activism. Such recklessness buries truth deeper and victimises the victims a lot more.

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Jawahar T R