Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My way or the highway: Thoughts on the value of process

The O Heraldo carried a rather shocking report on the twenty-eighth of last month. Titled ‘Farmers, NGOs raise huts in Margao’, the report was about the unchecked vigilantism by a group of citizens, who in the face of the alleged lethargy of the State authorities about a collection of tents, decided to take it on themselves to demolish these make-shift dwellings. Subsequent to this demolition, these citizens then informed the authorities to make sure that the materials of these tents was carried away, and the tents not allowed to be set up again.

This report was tucked away in an internal page of the paper, and was a little fragment of the day’s news, which is tragic. The issue holds grave consequences for the state of civil society and governance in our State and should not be brushed away so lightly. To begin with, what we have here is a case of citizens taking the law into their own hands. There is no doubt that all too often the state machinery does not move fast enough for us, and indeed in many cases there appear good reasons for us to take the law into our own hands and set matters straight. To do so however, is to ensure that we are effectively going down the road of such groups as the Sri Ram Sene, who take it on themselves to institute a case, adjudicate it, and then execute the decision taken as per their sense of what the law should be. There has been a lot of debate in Goa as to whether we should allow the Ram Sene to enter Goa, and there should be this discussion. But alongside the pleas to the Chief Minister to ban the Ram Sense, there should also simultaneously be pleas to the Chief Minister to not take this thus-far-minor incident in Margão lightly. On the contrary, the Chief Minister should take stern action to ensure that the group that motivated this action is hauled up before the law and punished appropriately for its roguery. 

This actions by these so-called NGOs is perhaps more appalling because of their timing, and the nature of the groups that they were attacking. The news report indicated that the people living in these small tents were waste recyclers, and it was their fouling of the local area both with plastic waste that they could not recycle, as well as their excreta, that caused the attack to be carried out. We should be clear then, that this attack was one by middle-class persons against persons who would very well qualify as poor. That this action should have been carried out in the course of the monsoons, is perhaps the most inhumane part of the exercise. While there is no doubt that the tent-dwellers may have inconvenienced these middle-class groups, we must not forget that these persons would have no doubt also had older members of their families, as well as children who also lived in these tents. Thus, what this vigilante demolition effectively did, was to ensure not only that these vulnerable segments of already marginalized groups were forced to be without a roof over their head in the course of the pouring monsoon, but also ensure that these segments would have missed meals, for reasons of losing not just hearth, but possibly kitchen stocks as well. The heartlessness of this action should leave us speechless for shame!

Interestingly, these aspects of the incident were not included in the report on the incident. The report only included the opinions of these self-righteous vigilantes. To that extent one wonders whether the sympathies of the reporter lay with these vigilantes. Good and sensitive reporting would have articulated a much larger picture, rather than merely present a small little snippet that seems to justify the action.

This column however, does not wish to dwell solely on this issue. Rather, it would like to relate the outcome when this report, and the outrage at this action, was shared with others on an internet forum. The first response to the sharing was a question “So do you favour the mushrooming of these structures?” This was a response designed to flummox. Surely this person realized that the issue being raised was not the validity of “these structures” but the problems with the process being used to resolve the matter?

The conversation continued, shifting wildly from the original suggestion that we ought to find this action unacceptable for the manner in which it effectively made a segment of our citizenry homeless, to what was effectively a plaint of middle-class persons against the awful manner in which they are being treated.  In the course of this discussion, it became increasingly clear, that it was not that this, and other, individuals did not want to distinguish between the harm that had been caused to the tent-dwellers and the harm that is being caused to the largely middle-class Goan folk on that internet forum. On the contrary, what became painfully obvious was that this person was UNABLE to distinguish between the two.

It is so much easier to condemn a person for failing to have a conscience, but what we often fail to realize is that having a conscience is often about being able to distinguish one situation from another. It calls for a complexity of vision, so that one can distinguish a cause and an effect, between an end and a process. Such a complexity of vision, it has to be recognized, doesn’t just spring in people automatically; it is cultivated, through observation, discussion. If one goes onto the internet, a space where so many Goans attempt to articulate and discuss their issues, one notices largely, the absence of any protocols of discussion, and the inability to entertain nuance. The situation is largely a case of with me or against me, and following that, the hurling of abuse.

This situation definitely does not augur well for us. Goan society is clearly in a state of flux, facing a great many challenges, and if the vast majority of our people are unable to see the nuance in debates that are being proposed, then we are done for. We are done for, because failing the development of this capacity to see nuance and be able to engage in discussion, we will largely continue to favour actions such as resulted in the demolition of the tents in Margão. As was suggested above, there is not much difference between the actions of groups like the Sri Ram Sene and the actions of these ‘NGOs’. They are both vigilantes committed to their idea of the truth and unable to tolerate the ‘Other’, both of them with scant respect for process. Process, at the end of the day, whether the legal concept of due process, that prevents us from taking the law into our hands; or the simple concept that privileges discussion, is critical to addressing the challenges we face.

The solution for Goa then, lies not merely in finding the solutions to the many problems we face, but in finding a manner in which we negotiate the process in which we arrive at the possibility of solutions.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times  on 7 July 2012)

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