Civil society as an architect of new peace

Civil society must offer a collection of intellectual surprises to the thought systems of the State. It has to embody a more creative system of ethics.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

One of the most impressive women I have met in recent times was the late activist Ela Bhatt. She is known as the legendary founder of Seva, but the Ela Behn I knew was much more. In her later years, she spent hours rethinking civil society and violence, attempting to create new ideas of peace.

In fact, she was a theorist of international relations advocating a grihani theory of peace. She felt that the housewife should create the theory of international relations around the imagination of the household. Such a theory would combine Gandhi’s ideas of Swaraj and Swadeshi. Ela was afraid of the emptiness in international relations. She felt the intellectual cupboard lacked creative concepts which would provide different solutions.

Incidentally, psychologist Ashish Nandy was sceptical about academics who claimed that international relations had a creative theoretical framework. He said, “One must be retarded to think of security as a concept.” It might be adequate for the Dovals but not as an intellectual offering to the world.

On another occasion, I remember talking to the Kannada author U R Ananthamurthy. He had a tremendous sense of the gossip of politics. Murthy felt that radicalism and dissent provided predictable answers. Dissent, he believed, had to be inventive and full of conceptual ambushes. In this context, he advocated a civil society of UNESCO to save languages. A UNESCO for diversity run by civil society would challenge the conformity of the nation-state. He added that we had turned the UN into a dismal institution and that politics had to be playful.

A few days after that occasion, I was at the Theosophical Society in Chennai, reading about the Russian artist Nikolai Roerich. He spent years in India dreaming of colour and the Himalayas and suggested the idea of the Green Cross as a sibling to the Red Cross. The Green Cross would rescue cultures threatened by war and violence. Today, such an idea would have rescued lost crafts and dying languages and created a new celebration of culture. I was thinking how rare such ideas are today. The tutorial college nationalism of the G20 group could hardly come up with such an idea. One has to realise that peace has to be more inventive than war.

Today, one feels that civil society must offer a collection of intellectual surprises to the thought systems of the State. It has to embody a more creative system of ethics. It is tragic to see a contemporary civil society standing speechless during the Ukraine war. Imagine a collection of civil society institutions running a Right to Information (RTI) centre, providing news about the war but also about the attempts to create peace. Peace today can hardly be left to the Bidens, Putins and Modis. In this context, one senses the need to resuscitate the imagination which brewed the Pugwash movement. Pugwash was one of the most exemplary acts of conscience in recent times. Virtually dormant today, it needs to be revived to help create new ideas of peace.

I was recently thinking of a fascinating possibility. While in Guwahati, I met a Naga woman in a café. Pointing at the shawl she was wearing, she suddenly said: “Look at this beautiful shawl, this represents my community, my identity, my sense of colour. This shawl is collective harmony and yet I heard the state wants to patent it.” What this housewife proposed next was remarkable. She said that if the shawl ended up getting patented, she would like to “secede” from the economic framework that supports the existence of intellectual property. Patenting knowledge is obscene and secession from this framework of ideas becomes the new Satyagraha. Civil society has to create a new intellectual commons for knowledge as trusteeship.

It is in this context that I heard another suggestion. Literary critic Ganesh Devy coordinated the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a project of hundred volumes, run by civil society. While I was thinking of the prospect of such a worldwide collection of languages, I was even pondering over the idea of every school being made a trustee of a dying language. We need a new set of exemplars to demonstrate the feasibility of new ideas to the State.

Pedagogy becomes a new form of politics in this context. The school and the university must go beyond the textbook to create new possibilities of thought. Schools should offer more playful theories of cultures. Imagine universities offering new theories of peace and serving as ambassadors to hotspots of violence across the world. One needs a new kind of storytelling because peace as a catechism is drying up. Imagine if a collection of civil society groups had set up a truth commission in the Northeast. The recent crises in Manipur would have been reported differently. We need new harbingers of peace. The Kissingers and the Bidens are not going to create peace, for they are merely technocrats of security.

UNESCO has to be a fountain of new ideas, and the indigenous movements in Brazil and the Earth Charter need to be celebrated for redefining the rights of nature and challenging the way Western epistemologies have looked at forestry. The forest has to be celebrated with a shamanic eye, not secularly as a monoculture. Brazilian indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa needs to be respected as much as Abdul Ghaffar Khan in India.

India has to advocate a pluralism of peace rather than a monologic sense of security. Consider the recent encounters between China and India. It is restricted to the armies responding to idiot messages of caution. Civil society has to intervene and take a leaf out of Dalai Lama’s lessons on peace and propose a new dialogue of peace between the two neighbours. India as a civil society must seek a China beyond the bureaucracy, and maybe discover a new Confucius.

In this sense, translation, storytelling and dialogue with other cultures becomes critical. We have to reinvent China and Pakistan in new ways. It is only culture that can create new experiments around peace. This calls for a different sense of playfulness. Only civil society can bring new ideas of peace, new imaginations for dialogue and new experiments for ethics which people can respond to and follow. This has to be the new experiment of truth for India to pursue.

Shiv Visvanathan

Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations

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