In the last two weeks, I observed two tamashas, one global and public and the other local and private. The global tamasha was the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, a meeting rich in drama and poor in results. For a meeting supposed to decide the future of humanity (and the non-human biosphere) the Copenhagen meeting ended not with a bang but with a whimper.
As in any other tamasha, the important consequences were all signalled by negative outcomes, from the complete absence of Europe in the final negotiations to the refusal of the gang of five - U.S, China, India Brazil and South Africa - to agree to large emission cuts despite strong demands from almost everyone else. The rejection of Europe from the high table is perhaps the most historically significant event, since it is the first time in three hundred years that Europeans as a whole have been left without veto power in a global forum. However, I want to focus this article on the petulance of the gang of five.
India and China in particular have achieved joint notoriety by taking the stance that since they are not responsible for most of the carbon in the atmosphere so far, they cannot be expected to significantly alter their current developmental trajectory. While I can't say much about the other four countries, I find India's moralistic stance understandable, even if it is deeply problematic. The same reasoning was on display when we tested nuclear weapons, which can be summarised in one line as: "you did it, so who are you to tell us what is good and what is bad?"
This tone of moral outrage about one's lot in life permeates life in India; I have myself employed a high moral tone in discussions with westerners whenever I have felt that our failings as a nation and as a society are being criticised. We seem to wear our grievances on our shoulder, ready to fire salvos of outraged modesty at the smallest provocation. On more than one occasion, we protest too much, which brings me to the second tamasha.
A few days ago, I was driving to local gym, the entrance to which is flanked by two tall trees, forcing any vehicle entering the premises has to make a sharp, narrow turn from the main road. Just as I was turning into the facility, I noticed that a motorcycle was trying to gain a few precious seconds by squeezing into the extremely narrow space between my car and the tree. This may have been alright if he'd been turning left too, but in the event it turned out that he wanted to go straight while I was turning left. Clearly, my left turn signal was not enough to persuade him that he needed to go around me or just slow down. Predictably, he ran into the left hand side of my car.
Moral indignation followed. Instead of owning up to his fault, he started shouting at me instead for daring to turn left while he was headed straight! I am sorry to report that on being subjected to his outburst, I lost my cool. We exchanged a few hot words, each full of moral indignation at the other.
My little run-in with a motorcycle can easily be ignored as a little excitement at the end of a work day, but it seems that these incidents of outrage pepper our urban landscape. Not so much road rage as road outrage. That sense of deep violation unites the offender with his victim. Indeed, it seems as if every violator of the law or custom is eager to blame someone else, especially the one who is questioning the illegal behaviour. From the errant biker to the communal mass murderer, we are quick to moralise our mistakes, often explaining them away as someone else's fault.
It's one thing for a don to say that he is strong, that I had better listen to him or 'else;' it is another thing altogether for him to say that he is the real victim. From the emergency in 1975 to the massive relocations in the Sardar Sarovar project, the 1984 and post-Godhra riots and the latest land-grabs for SEZs and mining in reserved forests, the worst excesses have been defended in moral terms; that the protestors are anti-progress, the Sikhs and the Muslims are the ones to blame, and so on.
And where rioters and industrialists have gone, the state has followed. As a nation we defend our "bijli, bombs and biotech" path to progress in the same tones of unshakeable righteousness. It is hardly surprising that V S Naipaul wrote a book called India: A Wounded Civilization; Naipual's political views might be odious, but he has an acute eye for detail and a deep understanding of underlying human motives.
We have much to be wounded about. A land in which every kind of oppression - gender, religion, caste, class and race to name a few ? has a long history is a country in which wounds are deep and forgiveness difficult. Our work culture being what it is, it is more than possible the motorcyclist who hit me was rushing from one assignment to another while receiving no end of grief from his superiors. People without much power in their daily lives are often too willing to take out their anger on two classes of people who they can afford to antagonise without the threat of reprisal: complete strangers and those who are even weaker.
Therein is a moral dilemma: what's the appropriate response to a group of people who are both oppressors and oppressed? You can see why it becomes politically expedient to adopt a high moral tone, faced with such a situation. The language of outraged morality, once invoked, is impossible to refute. What can the United States or China really say to any other country that tries to build nuclear weapons? How can an Iranian government that shoots and rapes its own citizens claim the moral high ground? From such examples, it is a straight line to Copenhagen - what can the industrialised world say to developing countries that are treading the same path?
The problem with moral indignation is not that it is wrong or without foundation; there is more than a dollop of truth underlying the indignation. It is a fact that global warming is primarily the doing of the west. But it is also a fact that as India and China argue with Europe and the US about the responsibility for global warming, the Maldives face extinction. This is the fallout of the competition for the moral high ground: the weakest will be the first to lose.
It seems to me that morality is often used as a weapon by rising powers to increase their status in the global hierarchy and by great powers to maintain their current status in the very same hierarchy. The rising and the risen are united in their intent to exploit those who are further down in the social ladder.
Morality is part of the toolkit for the upwardly mobile; in the agitation for caste-based reservation, the winners were not the weakest (for example, Dalit women) but rather middle castes (like the Yadavs) whose political profile was already on the rise. There is nothing inherently wrong with this power struggle; after all Yadavs too have been mostly on the receiving end of history. But moral indignation without a care for those who are even weaker is truly problematic.