A case for conscience and humanity

Wars highlight nationality and ethnicity at the cost of humanity. We must look at Ela Bhatt’s household model to move towards a society that cares.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

Ela Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association or SEWA, was one of the most innovative activists, blending theory and practice at every step. In her last book Women, Work and Peace, she proposed that the household and women’s roles in their households are exemplars for international relations. International relations, she claimed, has much to learn from the dynamics of domestic imagination.

When I first read the book, I felt that Ela behen, one of my favourite activists, was being naïve. Yet the more I thought of it, the more inviting the idea seemed. Bhatt’s book is a plea for feminism as an epistemic form. Forging creative links between women, work and peace was precisely the kind of civil society intervention that she argued for during the various wars in Africa and Afghanistan while working for the Council of Elders, a group of senior statesmen working for world peace.

I was remembering Ela’s argument when Israel and Hamas went to war. Her book was a tacit commentary on three things. She was candid about the sense of helplessness citizens and housewives felt in the face of war and violence. She was vocal about what war does to domesticity and everydayness, a precious state of being today. Less than two weeks ago, Israel imperiously ordered everyone in Gaza City and in the north of the Gaza Strip—1.1 million people—to move south immediately.

Today, Ela would argue that it is women who suffer from the wars of displacement and the long futile wait for peace that we call normalcy. She wanted women as a constituency to rework the nature of war as politics. One can extend her argument to civil society in general. The citizen seems unable to enjoy the entitlements of citizenship. Bhatt would claim that wars are prolonged affairs. Time claims its own casualties. And it is women who face the real consequences.

When I heard of Hamas and Israel’s grim retaliations, I realised that in such a world, people do not matter. Such struggles are not humanitarian exercises offering relief to people. The key concepts are power and strategy, not caring and healing. The United Nations has mechanically echoed warnings of “humanitarian consequences”. Bhatt argued further that the media today turns war into a spectacle and offers violence for consumption, hyphenating it with war as a difference. Violence gobbles up memory in the very act of consumption.

Reading Ela Bhatt, I remembered the classic work of the Zionist philosopher Martin Buber. His greatest work, I and Thou, a book on Self and the Other, underscored the need for a sense of the sacred in the other. A sense of reverence and care as a part of the very fabric of being human. Sadly, war today reminds one of the parochialities of nationality and ethnicity but not of humanity. The challenge today is: how does one return the human to struggles such as these?

As a housewife, one would say that we need a different kind of narrative, a different map of caring. We need to go beyond the machismo of war, the technical details of strategy, and the body counts of people lost in conflict. We need to look at war as the breakdown of domestic life. This demands a new kind of storytelling. We need to recognise that the media coverage of war is a failure of storytelling. There is little coverage of dissenting imaginations, when Israel, in particular, has outstanding pacifists who have fought desperately to create a world of peace. Secondly, the backstage reports on countries like Saudi Arabia need more honesty. Efforts to democratise the region are hardly captured. Palestine is an isolated repository of the democratic imagination and an area comprising rampant feudalism like the Middle East. Saudi Arabia as an authoritarian entity is a cancer that we need to face. Israel as a very racist and authoritarian state is frightening to watch.

A decade ago, I spent a few days in Ramallah, Palestine. One cannot believe that the survivors of the Holocaust and the creators of the kibbutz would make Ramallah and the Gaza Strip perpetual slums of war. Buber’s book ironically treated the Zionist settler as superior to the Arab Nomad. One needs pluralistic narratives and a reconciliation of truths and people to begin in Israel. The citizen must graduate from a spectator to a caring witness in order to achieve this transformation. One must map the gradations of violence and peace among various groups and openly confront the everyday brutality of genocide.

To create such a situation, we need new concepts that go beyond the Linus blankets of security. We need to work out a weave of vulnerabilities. The idea of vulnerability breaks the impersonality and indifference of narrative and establishes what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the desperate intimacy of face-to-face. We need new forms of dialogue because war and the media propagate clichés of reporting, reinforcing stereotypes and normalising hate. We need a new moral imagination to map worlds beyond borders and nation-states and avoid the obscenity of official words like ‘occupied territory’. The very word facilitates genocide. Language, particularly official labels, normalises the increasing violence.

Finally, we must confront our regime as citizens, asking for civil society involvement in foreign policy to challenge its outdatedness. There is an urgency here. India’s cosy attitude to Israel is allegedly based on the defence equipment it provides. Mitalie Tripathi, a social scientist, said it was more critical. She claimed that India is mimicking Israel as a society, creating its own Ramallahs. India must challenge the surveillance economies of the future. Panopticonising the future is a danger we need to avoid. It will eat into the very entrails of a plural and open society. One realises that the idea of security has impoverished the very sense of civilisation.

It is a case for conscience and the new varieties of insight that accompany it. The least we can do is not react stereotypically by reinforcing the drumbeats of war. Care and concern are civilisational imperatives, a plural intelligence that India desperately needs to follow.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with the Compost Heap, a group researching alternative imaginations

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