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Cultures, Religions, Citizenship and the World Parliament process

by Siddhartha -

“We haven’t reached the end of history, but rather the end of a period in history and we now need to put our heads together to write the next page, that of the building of an international community that is capable of combining unity and diversity at all levels, from the local to the global, that is capable of mastering and orienting the powerful forces of science and the market, that is capable of equipping itself with the rules, institutions, representations and methods that will ensure long-term development and harmony”
Principles of governance in the 21st century ( document of “The Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World.”)

Beyond the local and the global

It is a cliché to say that the global and the local are two sides of the same coin. It implies they are equal and participating in a level playing field. In actual fact, the global weighs excessively on the local, insensitively disrupting local cultures and institutions and replacing them with new values and institutions that have not found legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of ordinary people. The global is in danger of obliterating the local and replacing it with market-oriented hybrids that are unstable and confusing. This in turn has negative consequences for the dominant global forces and institutions, whether these be hegemonic political forces or transnational corporations. The big challenge is to nudge the global into a listening mode and allow a dialogue with local institutions and cultures to happen.

Global citizenship, we are told, means that the individual is able to rise above the confines of caste, ethnicity, religion, language, region and nation to act in the interest of the global community. In practice, this is not meant to mean that these specific local and cultural categories are insignificant. But the end result is that they are not taken into account in the grand Development narratives. In fact, current global events remind us that cultural perceptions and values represent the very stuff of life and any attempt at creating a global community without them will be fraught with danger. The examples of the Taliban and Christian, Hindu and Jewish fundamentalism bear witness to this risk. All this shows that modern global institutions, with their homogenising values, must dialogue/negotiate with the more local cultural/religious orientations in the interest of the common good. How do we do this when the playing fields are not level? How do we do this while respecting the integrity of the specific cultures? These are important aspects of the challenges before the World Parliament process.

While the local and the national are often at the mercy of the global, the reverse is equally true. The local and the national can be equally blinkered. For example, can India and Pakistan be trusted with a nuclear bomb, if both countries are going through variations of religious and cultural nationalism, which may partially blind them to the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship? The issue is of course more complex, and India and Pakistan will not disarm unless there are bold moves for global disarmament. Some countries cannot be allowed to keep nuclear arsenals while the newer members of this dubious club are asked to disarm.

Likewise, if the problems of the Himalayan eco-system have to be considered then we need to also look beyond the individual interests of the countries concerned: Nepal, China, India and Bangladesh. All these countries have to come together and jointly resolve the problems concerned with water scarcity, floods and de-forestation. At the moment the national interests (and political lethargy) of the countries concerned make the process an antagonistic rather than a dialogical one. In an antagonistic process each side advances its claims and hopes for maximising gains. A dialogical process has the possibility of putting all the facts on the table to show that the issues pertaining to the eco-system have to be dealt with in its entirety, without sidelining any of the serious environmental issues that are involved. In both these situations the solutions will emerge from a deepening of the civil society process through participatory discussions. These discussions may be impulsed simultaneously from the local, regional and international levels. Such multiple impulses for dialogue create participatory intersections for clarification and action.

Citizenship at the local level means that we need to look at the self-sufficiency of the local community. Gandhi’s notion of village republics implies that self-sufficiency begins at the local level. What cannot be produced locally can then be produced nationally or inter-nationally. But first there must be the local effort. In today’s world the process has been reversed and the local is left powerless because it is unable to produce most of its needs. In many cases even the national is left powerless and the production of basic needs is done outside the country concerned. What can citizenship mean if a person’s basic needs are completely beyond his power to produce and control!

Truth versus Meaning

From our experience in South Asia the practice of citizenship remains weak since issues related to culture and religion have been excluded from its purview. The experience of citizenship is not very real, whereas religious identity is becoming more and more a reality. Identity is usually expressed in cultural terms rather than in the understanding of secular-citizenship. With identity becoming more and more religious, often without secular referants, conditions are created for serious conflict. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that there are not enough ‘critical insiders’ within the religions who can swing the tide towards pluralistic and democratic perspectives ( I am, of course, thinking specially of South Asia).

The other problem is that the minority of well meaning secular intellectuals have abandoned the arena of religion. Many secular intellectuals share a similar view with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime-minister of India. For Nehru, religion was a hindrance to ‘the tendency of change and progress inherent in human society.’ He believed that religion would weaken and loosen its hold when economic conditions improved. Actually, the opposite has happened in South Asia. Fifty years after independence South Asia is caught in serious religious conflict, whether it is between India and Pakistan, between Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus etc. Emile Durkheim’s prediction, made in 1915, that ‘Religion seems destined to transform itself than disappear’ appears to be true.

Many secular thinkers like Nehru believed, and still continue to believe, that science is objective and neutral and works for the good of humankind. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty debunked this notion when he said: “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” Ken Wilbur makes a useful distinction between science, which is the pursuit of objective truth, and religion, which is concerned with providing meaning. From our perspective we must rightly be suspicious of the claims of scientific rationality, while being equally sceptical of the dangers of romanticising the worlds of cultures, spiritualities and religions. There is no other way but to create conditions where ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ can be in continuous communication.

The secular minority had hoped it could shape the rest of society according to secular ideals. But it now realises it has largely failed. Unfortunately, the din of the fundamentalists and the communalists gets shriller these days, as their assertive and aggressive rhetoric steadily wins more adherents. The negative aspects of religion have found political expression but the sense of openness and compassion, that religion at its best always manifests, has not found fertile ground. Mahatma Gandhi, who stood for freedom, decentralisation and kindness, always combined the secular and the religious in imaginative and innovative ways. For him all democratic and transformative activity was governed by what he considered to be his religious convictions.

A few decades ago, there was a distinction made in India between exclusive and inclusive secularism. The inclusive secularists are those who are sympathetic to the role and value of religions and cultures, even if some of them do not see themselves as belonging to any particular religious community. The exclusive secularists, on the other hand, aggressively relegate traditional cultures and religions to the dust-bins of history, or see them as an inconveniences that will eventually disappear. In India the religious extremists are called ‘fundamentalist’ by the secular crowd. In turn the religious fundamentalists refer to the exclusive-secularists as ‘secular fundamentalists’. What we need to do is to re-kindle the spirit of inclusive secularism. At the same time we must encourage efforts within the different religions and cultures for theological and cultural renewal that will enhance the process of democratisation, pluralism, social justice and environmental protection.

The secular and the cultural/ religious discourses must be together for ongoing dialogue so that both may inform and enrich each other. The secular understanding of society has contributed much by insisting on the separation of religion and the state. It has also expanded the realm of human freedom. The religions have contributed much to foster compassion, social justice and a sense of community. Negatively, some kinds of secularism have led to a waste-land of the soul, where human beings are unclear about the very meaning of existence. Similarly, the blindness of some types of religious conviction have led to the unleashing of terrible violence. This should not lead us to either a rejection of secular ideals or of religious values. The idea of citizenship must now actively harness all that is good and positive in the secular traditions as well as the religious traditions.

In this connection our programme hopes to squarely face the cultural dilemmas of citizenship rather than to avoid them. We want to start the process at the panchayat ( local self-government unit) level, the most basic unit of self-governance. Simultaneously, we hope to take the discussion to national and international levels.

In concrete terms this means discussions on governance, democracy and citizenship are initiated at the local level, to begin with. It also means that all the local cultural and religious symbols are “dialogued with’ to see how to enshrine the idea of citizenship, democracy and a potential World Parliament. Obviously, this will have to be done in ways that respect the diversity of cultures. The process opens out the potential for dialogical interpretations that strengthen and empower local communities.

Towards a participatory hermeneutics of hope

Hermeneutics, as the ontology of understanding, is concerned with interpretation. The challenge is to understand our cultures and democratic practices as truly and deeply and respectfully as possible. Critical openness is important to this process and goes hand in hand with respect and empathy for cultures. Above all this is an approach which takes the wisdom of ordinary people seriously, whether they are “educated’ or “un-educated”, “literate” or “illiterate”. In our work we have tried to evolve a hermeneutics of hope that is participatory, and not confined to a few researchers and scholars. Many of the people who participate in this process are peasants.

Let me try and explain with a recent experience of our local ‘Fireflies’ process.
Fireflies is an inter-cultural ashram ( community) located in a village in South India. This is where I live along with small group of social, cultural workers and environmental workers. In eleven villages around Fireflies (representing about 10,000 people) we initiated a process to strengthen local self-governance. It was not easy since the local ‘panchayat’ system was hi-jacked by some of the more powerful upper-caste farmers, who always managed to elect their own office-bearers. They are small land owners themselves, not wealthy at all, but seeking to take advantage of local possibilities of enrichment that comes with holding office. Some of them are enamoured by the power they get as local panchayat officials. A very small number is motivated by genuine concerns of uplifting their villages. All these local leaders are aligned with one political party or the other. Usually, they never hold village panchayat meetings to decide what development programmes should be undertaken or how the budget was to be used. Decisions re made in the houses of the elected officers without the participation of the village community. When a road is built or a drain repaired they stand to gain financially. We tried to start a ‘conscientising’ process but most people felt either cynical or powerless, although many wished that things would change.

One example of the negligence of the panchayat must be narrated. Eighteen months ago a land-developer ( or a land shark !) from the city bought a few acres of land next to Fireflies. He also illegally fenced one of the village lakes and covered it with earth, using a bull-dozer. There are four small lakes in the village and he had covered one of them. This was a social and ecological crime, since the village is seriously short of water for agriculture and livestock. The people were too scared, or too indifferent, to protest. The panchayat was also paralysed, or bribed. The ‘shark’ had also managed to bribe some of the local government officials. We tried to initiate a discussion on the responsibilities of citizenship and local self-governance. Many of the people realised how serious an issue it was, but they were still not motivated to act.

About a year ago we helped start a discussion on the importance of songs within the women’s self-help groups in the villages. These groups were concerned with violence against women, alcoholism among the men, the learning of new skills and exploring small income-generating activities. As a result of the discussions the women expressed a desire to also sing songs in their meetings. They started to sing old songs and learn new ones. The songs included old Vedic songs and new eco-social songs. The old spiritual songs were combined with new songs dealing with ecological and social issues. There were ongoing discussions on the meanings that the songs threw up.

The process of interpreting did not stop with the songs alone. It also expanded into discussions behind the symbolism of the gods and goddesses of the people. This process is still in its early stages, but the results are already very encouraging. In the process of interpretation we found that all of us do interpretations in our daily lives, especially when confronted with difficult social and cultural situations. Sometimes we are not conscious of the mind-set that lies behind our interpretations. Part of the process of interpretation is to bring the ‘shadow’ mind-set into the light. For example, is the cultural value framework neutral or is it unconsciously biased against women. Taking risks and upsetting the local cultural value-system is an integral part of the hermeneutics of hope. We try to do this without polarising the local communities into conflicts of caste, class or gender. Rather it means taking the risk of opening the dialogue. The Gandhian notion of not humiliating the opposing side is an important criterion that can avoid bitterness and vendetta, and lead to a deepening of the communication process, wining over many people in course of time.

In a few months this song movement became a powerful force. The women not only sang the songs but discussed the values behind them. As a result of this song movement they developed the courage to solve difficult social issues. One problem that they chose to resolve was the case of the land-shark fencing off the village lake and filling it up with earth. About twenty people, led by the women, went and met the local member of parliament (MP) who belongs to the BJP party (The Hindu nationalist party). They explained the problem to him and asked him to visit the village, which he did a few days later. When he came, the women took him to the earth-filled lake and pointed out how the village officials had also colluded with the land shark. The MP immediately ordered to see the village maps and when he saw that the lake had indeed been fenced in and filled-up, he asked the people to go to their homes and bring crow bars to demolish the fence poles. The people did exactly this. The MP then asked the peoples organisation to be responsible for the village lakes. He promised financial help to restore the lakes.

The song movement combines the ‘truth’ of the objective conditions of social and ecological degradation with the lyrical-spiritual ‘meanings’ that give them a sense of vision. The transformation of society through democratic practice and good governance need not be hampered by cynicism and hopelessness if the wellsprings of cultural and spiritual creativity begin to flow.

This is a challenge that confronts all societies today: how to move out of the limitations of a purely logical social discourse that is unable to overcome the indifference and cynicism of our age ? If the transformation process does not connect with our deepest emotions, feelings and sense of wonder, then it has no meaning for us. We might as well sell ourselves to the enchantments of consumer society because it offers us some kind of meaning, however deluding and self-defeating this meaning may be. A transformative social, cultural and spiritual praxis must integrate the sacred and the secular, the rational and the intuitive, prose and poetry, walking and dancing, talking and singing. Our imagination must help us leap from a consciousness that is too rational to one that brings back the enchantment of a realistic and practical Utopia. What better practical Utopia than to work for the realisation of the World Parliament- the culmination of a participatory process that includes the local, national, regional and international!

To move on to another example of cultural praxis- let me mention our experience of celebrating the festival of the elephant headed God, Ganesh, perhaps the best loved Indian God. He is half elephant (the top half) and half human (the lower half). We had a week long celebration. There were many discussions in the villages on the significance of Ganesh festival. The questions raised run as follows:

If Ganesh is the God of knowledge, what is the kind of knowledge we wish to have? Are democratic ideals, pluralism and openness a part of knowledge?

If Ganesh is the remover of obstacles what are the obstacles in the villages and in our society as a whole? What is our own responsibility as citizens to overcome these social obstacles? What is the role of the Panchayat? Should we start thinking of a World Parliament, even if the idea is new to us?

If Ganesha is half-nature and half-human, he represents the bond between the natural world and the human world. What are we doing to preserve our environment?
We also had an unpainted six-foot Ganesh at Fireflies. All the Ganeshs’ are today painted with toxic paints, full of lead. On the 9th day Ganesh is immersed in a lake or river, along with the toxic paint!

The three villages around Fireflies promised to have unpainted Ganeshs’ next year.
We put our own Ganesh into a bullock cart. My son, Ananda, sat on the cart. The rest of us village-allies (Sudha, Deepa, John, Munichudappa, Kanchana and a hundred others) walked behind. We walked through three villages. It took several hours as we had to stop at every home for them to receive the blessings of the God. Finally, at about 10.30 at night we immersed him in the village lake in front of Fireflies which had enough water, thanks to good rains.

From our experience, this kind of pluralistic, participatory ‘hermeneutics of hope’ is important to develop citizenship and integrate the World Parliament process within local cultures and religions. We are careful to see that the integrity of cultures is respectfully dialogued with, while accepting that are points of tension with the relatively new vision of democratic practice.

We are also clear that the World Parliament, when it becomes a reality, is not the end of history. Neither secularism nor religious faith can see this goal as exclusive, or as an end in itself. The vastness of the sky, the notion of emptiness, the sound of water rippling through a valley, the experience of love- these are the true goals of human existence.

The goals of this process are:

1. Start a sensitive process of cultural re-appropriation to integrate the cultural and religious convictions of people to strengthen citizenship, pluralism, local democracy and the vision of a World Parliament.
2. Re-interpret festivals and religious symbols with the people. Encourage citizenship and civil society oriented theological renewal in all religions.
3. Take steps to simultaneously initiate a national and international process with like minded groups and movements.

URL : www.alliance21.org/2003/article156.html
PUBLICATION DATE: 17 December 2003