Peter Challen, British poet-priest and peace activist, offers by verse, a promising way of looking afresh at familiar and inflamed conflicts.

"Inclusive justice requires learning to slay giants
without slaying or flaying people;
to alter mindsets without affronting the dignity
of those who differ on the fundamental flaws
in our economic system"

Let us apply this lens to look at recent reports of the Confederation of Indian Industries’ dis-comforting encounters with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Could this perspective offer answers for those in the Indian corporate sector who are disturbed by the drift of events. What we are witnessing is essentially not a tussle between Mr. Modi and the CII. The real conflict is between reality and perception at many different levels. For example, the brutal reality of the Gujarat carnage and the perception of some people that nothing much is amiss in that state because, they believe, that reports of the violence have been exaggerated.

Similarly the reality that India’s crisis of governance is deepening exponentially is contrasted with the ‘feeling’ that the nation will somehow survive with or without rule of law. The reality of rampant intolerance -- whether directed at a particular community or shops selling Valentine’s Day cards -- is contrasted by many people’s perception that these are ‘sporadic’ incidents that somehow do not affect them.

These perceptions, or varied forms of denial, explain why the one person who raised the issue of governance in Gujarat at a CII meeting, in Mumbai in January, was aggressively shouted down by other participants. At a more recent CII meeting in Delhi leading industrialists, Rahul Bajaj and Jamshyd Godrej, hesitantly asked Mr. Modi basic questions about the law and order situation in Gujarat and were angrily dismissed by the Chief Minister. Subsequently, Mr. Modi reportedly boycotted a major CII event in Ahmedabad.

This confirms the general impression that every leading industrialist who has spoken out against the carnage in Gujarat has been shouted down or ‘ticked off’ by the powers that be in New Delhi. Therefore, even among the top layers of the business elite, people now fear that their own life and property could be at risk if they openly condemn the culture of violence and intimidation. There is a visible sense of despair that this silence of the business community is helping to kill civil society and business. But, what is not so obvious is that many of these people deeply resent being put in this position and are quietly itching to do something about it.

How then do you fight for inclusive justice without, as the poet suggests, "slaying or flaying people"?

  • Firstly, by accepting that there are no easy short-term answers and being ready for the long haul.
  • Secondly, by refusing to demonize the ‘other’.
  • Thirdly, by remembering that the power of a bully invariably depends on never being challenged and confronted.
  • And fourthly, by not hesitating to pool energies for even the most humble actions aimed at ensuring just rule of law.

    It is important to stress that the problem is not limited to communal violence. No one has forgotten how, some years back, a mob of Shiv Saniks destroyed a first-rate hospital on the premises of J.K. Industries in Thane.
    In practical terms this means that enough business people need to find collective ways of speaking out and turning the sub-surface opposition into a more active resistance. The lead has already been taken by one of the icons of the business community -- Narayana Murthy of Infosys, when he delivered the Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture in August 2002. Mr. Murthy’s lecture, titled "No Secularism, No Progress: Time to ask ourselves, how secular are we?", made a passionate and cogent appeal for rejecting the politics of hatred and bigotry.

    Mr. Murthy drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s view that Secularism is equal respect, not equal disrespect, for all religions. "My own definition" added Mr. Murthy, "is that it is a system where transactions are conducted between individuals as well as between individuals and institutions without being prejudiced by either party’s religious beliefs, and where equal opportunity is available for every individual irrespective of his or her religious or caste affiliations."

    Living by this definition is a basic requirement for a multi-religious society. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the State. But a secular culture also requires a vital, pro-active, role from civil society -- including the corporate sector. This is obvious to many in the business elite who are horrified with how openly religion-based prejudice is now expressed.

    In this context few people now argue that these matters are ‘political’ and thus out of their ambit since their business is just to run profitable businesses. This is because common sense dictates that the conduct of business needs basic rule of law, i.e. protection of life, property and honoring of contracts.

    All of this becomes impossible when the political and bureaucratic machinery tacitly or actively allows people to get away with anything when they act as a mob. Mr. Modi’s Gujarat is not the first place that this has happened. But the scale and brazen nature of democratic violations in Gujarat has taken the crisis of governance to an unprecedented low. It is important to stress that the problem is not limited to communal violence. No one has forgotten how, some years back, a mob of Shiv Saniks destroyed a first-rate hospital on the premises of J.K. Industries in Thane. The failure of the business elite to collectively condemn and act against such vandalism has partly helped forces like the Shiv Sena to flourish.

    There is now a quiet but intense debate on these past failures within some segments of the corporate sector and business community. A few people are struggling to find ways of pooling energies to intervene creatively and constructively. For obvious reasons, in the current context, all such efforts prefer to remain low-profile. Yet, it is possible that at some point soon they will find collective public expression. Those who are inclined to dismiss these possibilities as pipe dreams should consider the following.

    Over the last few years public-private partnerships in Karnataka have led to some amazing institutional measures that compel the government machinery to be more transparent and accountable to ordinary citizens. These initiatives have been possible because of the combined involvement of corporate professionals, social activists and politicians. It can be done.

    The truth is that we never know enough to justify being truly pessimistic. So let us not succumb to anxiety over the dangers of brutal intolerance. Let us instead grasp the nearest possibility for building associations that alter mindsets without affronting the dignity of those who disagree.