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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

As we watched millions of people on television screens, swarming the streets of cities across the globe in protest against the looming war against Iraq, we could take heart from the fact that at least some of us had not committed the boner Edmund Burke had warned against: “The biggest mistake was made by he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

Let us concede at the outset that these were people like us, who spent most of their time worrying about their immediate interests and problems rather than about the lofty goals of human rights, justice and democracy. Yet these protesters had shown the courage, ability and inclination to respond to the perceived predicaments of fellow human beings, whom they would perhaps never meet.

Such a remarkable demonstration of empathy for others stands out even more sharply, when compared to the lacklustre performance of established public institutions in this regard. Indeed, national legislatures (barring a few solitary voices like that of Senator Robert Byrd in the United States of America), political parties and even United Nations agencies (except some members of the security council) — forums at which such momentous issues are expected to be fiercely debated — have maintained a near-complete silence on the issue. It is thus extremely creditable of this so-called amorphous “public” to have spoken up against the official strategy of the United States of America to wage a “preventive” war for peace!

One may speculate on how people from so many different countries, with such widely divergent socio-economic and political backgrounds, as well as competing private interests and personal prejudices, found common cause in the anti-war protest. An answer to this question may be attempted at two levels. First, for some of the demonstrators, the anti-war position reflected a normative preference — they opposed the Anglo-American warmongering on ethical grounds. This, of course, raises the question — how did they arrive at a common conception of justice'

The answer to this question perhaps lies in the fact that while the demonstrators may not have agreed upon a comprehensive definition of “what is fair”, they were in loose agreement about “what is blatantly unfair” in this case. The sheer weight of facts — no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Iraqi compliance with the inspectors’ commands and so on — is too overwhelming to make a morally defensible case for a war against Iraq. And this commensensical, albeit limited, view of justice had an appeal for many common men and women, no matter how incomprehensible it remained to the people in positions of authority.

The second group of demonstrators were arguably rallying against war for more practical reasons. Even without underestimating the destructive consequences of terrorist activities, some of them were convinced that, in this case violence, would not pay. There were even some relatives of September 11 victims among the demonstrators who argued movingly against war as a tool to combat violence. Such an “economic” argument against war appealed to people from different walks of life on a purely pragmatic plane.

In his book, titled Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert O. Hirschman talks about two options usually followed to cope with social, political and economic malaise, namely, “exit” (an economic response mechanism) and “voice” (a political response mechanism). To give a trivial example, if we do not like a particular brand of soap or toothpaste, we promptly switch to another. Simply put, following the logic of the market, we often “vote with our feet” in favour of a better alternative.

But a better alternative does not exist every time, nor is there always a private solution to public deficiencies. For example, do we have the choice of an alternative globe in case the present one is irretrievably destroyed by war' The answer is clear in the public mind, though it has escaped the perspicacity of policy-makers. Thus, a large number of ordinary people have taken recourse to the only sensible option available, namely, join a collective protest against all forms of terrorism and counter-terrorism in these troubled times.

Coming to the national arena — did we demonstrate a similar sensibility during the devastating anti-minority carnage in Gujarat, that so badly damaged social amity in our country' Regrettably, no. Barring a few exemplary but isolated instances of protests by concerned citizens, in general, we failed to organize on a scale comparable to the one recently seen at the global level.

Instead many of us abdicated our public responsibility to either casually mourn the death of our pluralistic culture in a private corner or secretly nurture our communal prejudices under the veneer of political correctness. But can we afford to do so' Must we not collectively combat the reactionary forces that thrive owing to our apathy and inertia'

Indeed, we too have our own prejudices. But it is our responsibility to restrain such biases from crossing dangerous levels, so that our personal predilections do not sap the forces that hold our heterogeneous society together. Simply put, we do not have a choice other than to preserve a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, and hence must raise our voice against what is palpably unfair.

Similarly, as we do not have a choice but to live with our neighbours, it is our obligation to collectively protest against the war hysteria whipped up time and again by the ruling elite of our country as well as those in our neighbouring states. Their arithmetics of “tit for tat” has set them on a collision course and away from the path of dialogue and debate.

It is our responsibility therefore to raise cautionary voices against these undoubtedly military objectives. Our indecision in this regard may do much harm since the narrow goals of military security may lead to arms proliferation at the cost of day-to-day concerns of human security. Just as global public opinion is expressing doubts about the efficacy of war in achieving disarmament, people in south Asia too must raise awareness about the aggressive postures of their respective governments. It is only by expressing humanitarian concerns and caution that the quest for peace — global and local — can be strengthened.

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