Disha Ravi, Global Tribalism, And The Dharmic Challenge

R Jagannathan

Feb 26, 2021, 04:22 PM | Updated 04:22 PM IST

Disha Ravi.
Disha Ravi.
  • It is not about their ideology or the rightness of their causes; it is about creating the right tribal identity where the Dishas can belong without being corralled by their own insecurities to side with forces inimical to India.
  • In the context of the needless arrest of Disha Ravi, a 21-something young Bengaluru woman, who seems passionate about climate change, and her subsequent release by a Delhi court, we need to ask ourselves some basic questions: What makes a climate activist part of a global nexus that is unrelated to her area of deep commitment, so much so that you could be a pawn in larger political games where “tookits” of protest and disaffection are shared with people abroad who you know little about?

    Equally, what possesses us as a people to outrage over the actions of a young adult that we are willing to believe she may actually have intended some kind of harm to the country’s image, support violence and/or bring down an elected government?

    What makes some groups believe that she is a villain and others that she is a poster-girl for free speech and dissent?

    Is someone like Disha Ravi the result of poor parenting, poor choice of global friends, or a larger failure of dharmic society to make teens and young adults start believing in their country and its 5,000-year heritage?

    Well, we have been here before. Remember Gurmehar Kaur, daughter of Capt Mandeep Singh, who was killed in the Kargil war? Kaur got into a similar situation where she did videos holding placards saying that Pakistan did not kill her dad, war did.

    Again, we saw a polarisation between those who thought she was anti-national for dishonouring a soldier — her own father, who laid down his life for his country — and others who hailed her as peace-monger, anti-war activist and someone who campaigns against hate. Daughters of other war martyrs thought the exact opposite.

    To be sure, nobody can claim to know why India produces the likes of Disha Ravi and Gurmehar Kaur and an equal number of teens and young adults who think differently. How one turns out, or what one’s ideology or politics will be, does not depend on parenting alone, though it does have an impact.

    In the age of social media and the smartphone, where one can reside in a different ecosystem in cyberspace compared to the actual social environment one is accustomed to, the old ideas of parenting have been shot to pieces.

    One uses the term “ideas” for parenting, for there has never been, and never will be, one right way to raise any child. From “tiger moms” and strict dads to ultra-liberal lamb parenting, every idea has been tried in every culture, with mixed results. Success with one idea in one culture with one child (including teens and young adults) does not guarantee the same kind of success with another even in the same culture, even in the same family.

    Sometimes two siblings respond to the same parenting style differently because each one is indeed different by nature, and the perceived environment of two siblings need not be the same. Let’s not forget that the first child’s home environment consists of only two parents and, maybe, some grandparents and assorted uncles and aunts. When the second child arrives, she has all this assortment plus one sibling. The environment has subtly changed with the arrival of a brother or sister who may also be a competitor for attention and affections.

    If you want current examples of public persons who are totally different from one another, you can switch on prime time television and see two brothers, Shehzad and Tehseen Poonawala, go hammer and tongs at each other. But outside the war on your screen, you can see how two brothers — academic Sanjay Subramanyam and Subramanyam Jaishankar, both sons of the late K Subrahmanyam, widely seen as the father of strategic thinking in Indian affairs — are completely different in their politics.

    One is a Left-Liberal who would happily fit into the JNU mould and Romila Thapar’s coterie, and the other is one of the distinguished members of Narendra Modi’s cabinet, and a BJP member of Parliament. It is difficult to believe that the Poonawalas and Subramanyams received different kinds of parenting in order to make them what they are.

    The point is this: parenting may often be useful to instil values like good behaviour, manners, values and habits, but these values are ideology-neutral. The same value — say, of loyalty and support — can be as beneficial to a violent Maoist group as to a social worker serving the poor in the rural hinterland.

    The same burning desire for truth in this world can make you other-worldly and impractical, a meditating saint in the Himalayas, a super-pacifist Gandhi or a suicide-bomber in pursuit of the promised number of virgins, on the assumption that the truth has already been revealed.

    When it comes to young adults and impressionable teens, especially those who are born to rebel, the biggest need is often the need to belong. The late Peter Drucker, arguably the world’s foremost management guru and thinker, says in his book Post-Capitalist Society, we become more tribal as the world becomes more global.

    This is because when common identity markers like caste, religion and ethnicity fade away for the global elite, the resultant deracination makes us crave for a sharper group identity. Since we cannot simply be limited by our castes or other affiliations, we feel uprooted and want to belong to something larger than us: this makes us want to be part of esoteric groups on Facebook or other social media, for that is where we find our sense of identity in a confusing world.

    Disha Ravi belonged to Greta Thunberg’s Friday’s for Future International (FFF), having been a founder of the local chapter in Bengaluru. That is her tribe, her key chosen identity, even though she is said to be a dog-lover and a business management student. She belongs to a group that may not be real and may be chasing an impossible ideal, but it is a tribe she identifies with.

    Human beings may have evolved from hunter-gatherers to fully-paid membership of the global community, but they are still tribals.

    Two books that can help understand this are Us & Them, by David Busby, and Amy Chua’s Political Tribes. Chua, author of the book on Tiger Moms, points out why “liberals” and “conservatives” are also American tribes, no different from the Hutus and Tutsis who slaughtered each other in Rwanda some years ago.

    Busby points out that dividing ourselves into “us and them” is fundamental to being human; it is what gives us a sense of belonging and identification with a group, even if the group has actually nothing to do with who we are or were.

    In the Indian Premier League, we identify with one of the teams not because the players are from our region or state — most IPL teams are populated by players who do not belong to the region or state or the city they play for — but because we choose the tribe we want to root for, to belong to.

    If we have an innate need to belong to an actual or imagined tribe, parenting actually may have little to do with which tribe we finally choose to be identified with. This means that if any group — whether it is the Maoists or the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, the Tablighi Jamaat or the Bajrang Dal — manages to attract a young adult in search of an identity at the right time with the right message, it could well gain a convert. Parenting skills fight a losing battle with tribalism when it comes to teens and young adults.

    It did not help that post-independence India, under the tutelage of the “secular” Jawaharlal Nehru, did not emphasise heritage and dharmic ideals. As a result, we developed two generations of Indians whose primary goal was career advancement and economic well-being.

    But this is changing, slowly. Some members of the current generation, whether millennials or younger, realise that they have lost something in the process, and are trying hard to rediscover some of that lost heritage. But yet others, who continue to be lured by the promises of being part of a global elite that supposedly is beyond narrow tribalism and petty identities, remain vulnerable to global tribalism.

    They are vulnerable for the simple reason that forces inimical to India and our dharmic heritage have managed to obtain their allegiance by appealing to their larger sense of global citizenship, which includes being concerned about climate change, the environment, animals, anti-nuclear activism — and yes, even poor farmers.

    Fighting for someone you have never met or something you don’t understand at all is easier than fighting for a complex reality, where farmers are both victims and villains, and the solutions to their problems do not have a silver bullet.

    Add the extreme pressures applied by a young adult’s social circle and her influencers, one has to pity the Disha Ravis and Gurmehar Kaurs of the world. Parenting can help only upto a point. Their politics and tribal associations depend on other factors, and this is what dharmics have to work on.

    It is not about their ideology or the rightness of their causes; it is about creating the right tribal identity where the Dishas can belong without being corralled by their own insecurities to side with forces inimical to India.

    The Left seems better at spotting these vulnerable young adults than the dharmics. Time to rethink strategy on catching them young.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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