I was an early adolescent when the reservation movement exploded on the educational campuses of India in the early nineties in India. I could make only so much sense of it then. I was too young, unexposed to the world of social change and its contours. It took almost another decade before I could synthesize my views on the subject – having swayed on all sides of the argument for or against the reservations multiple times over. It took me some effort to understand the genesis and history of the issue, the complexities of the solution offered the imperfections of the defenders of the cause and the blind obstinacy of the opposition. Finally, it took me almost a spiritual humility to acknowledge that my view after all this manthan may still not be perfectly objective or perfectly comprehensive or perfectly fair – there will be some constituent or the other who shall remain unattended or unsatisfied, either in theory or in practice. I have come to realize the above about all reform movements – environment, gender, identity, religion, caste, #MeToo so on and so forth.
My big lesson, however, from that early experience witnessing the process of social change was that movements which intend to create any kind of social change, or changes of perspectives or reforms or attitudes towards entrenched customs or practices, must also have a conscience. Let me elaborate.
Reformist movements accumulate over decades or even centuries. They lay low accumulating small splinters over time and one day when there is a sufficient critical mass, it explodes like a supernova. These are two different stages which have two different dynamics that govern them.
During the accumulation phase, the reformists are often sporadic and disintegrated. The efforts to call out the injustices are equally isolated, often experiencing roadblocks and suppression from the established order. Every effort in favor of social change is an act of courage – actually extreme courage. The injustices being fought have powerful defenders because that is the entrenched power of status quo – unwilling to relent. As the voice of reform grows, there is some discipline in the clamor. The organization of the reform is often led by people who are the voice of fairness – they exhort their own followers with the voice of reason, justice, and balance. It is this sanity that creates a groundswell of support for the reform.
Then the movement erupts – and as is the want of any eruption, this stage begets some element of chaos. Eruptions are difficult to control.
Victory can be intoxicating and more importantly blinding. It can dull the instincts of sanity, fairness, and reason.
It does not take too long before defenders acquire the language and methods of perpetrators – particularly if unchecked.
It is during this stage all movements must have a conscience. They must be watchful that a bursting supernova might have collateral damages – many unintentional and inadvertent but certainly regretful. These damages must be guarded against. Many fringe elements may even try to exploit the movement – they must be weeded out and publically called out. Inability or unwillingness to weed such elements dents the credibility of fairness that the reform movement stands on. Only a strong conscience separates a reform movement that will aid evolution and progress from those that will only cause disruption and some change.
There is nothing worse than one kind of injustice being replaced by injustice of another kind – often its mirror opposite. There are no averages in real life to fall back upon or give solace. Any extreme is unjust and will sow the seeds of its own reform. Conscience guards against that.
Movements become real movements only when those who are not benefiting from the fruits of the movement enroll themselves to the cause – they fight for the movement because, not only does the movement per se represents voice of reason, sanity and fairness, but equally the manner in which it is being run is fair, just and sane.
Every time I experience any reform movement either as a spectator, participant or an architect – I remind myself of a dire need to have a conscience.