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A few days ago I saw a superb German film – The White Masai. It is a story of a Swiss woman who comes for a holiday to Kenya and falls in love with a Masai warrior. She sells off everything she owns in Switzerland and marries him. The rest of the film is an engaging view of, what Huntington has called, a clash of civilizations as both struggle to understand each other and make their marriage work. Both end up compromising on what they think is ‘right’ and the ‘values’ that they hold. Even that compromise ultimately proves to be ineffective in bridging the huge gap in perspectives and world views.

In course of my work as a development practitioner, I see this clash of perspectives all the time. It is very evident especially in instances where development professionals from one ‘civilisation’ work with communities from another.  I have faced these clashes on a number of occasions. Clashes that have raised doubt. The movie gave me the inspiration to try and articulate the doubts. To clarify, there are no doubts about the intrinsic value of the work but more about the ‘strategies’ and ‘approaches’ that come with it.

Days of adolescence and youth were so wonderful. There were no doubts then. I was always very clear and convinced of my position on a lot of things – need for eviction of slum dwellers, foolishness of the caste-based reservation policy, hard work being the ONLY key to success etc. However with age, experience and exposure I am no longer so certain. I am not able to always say “this is RIGHT and this is WRONG” – at least not in any way that would hold universally or even generally true. The fact is that, the more I know, the less I am sure of anything. Let me explain..

I believe that making women cover themselves in burqas is wrong. It is restrictive and takes away their individuality. Perhaps, that belief comes from the culture I come from; a culture where women don’t wear burqas. Does that mean we must ban the burqa? What about cultures where it has been a norm for centuries? What about those women who may actually WANT to wear it (on some occasions at least)?  Does anyone have the right to advocate or decide what is ‘not correct’ or ‘better’ for someone else? By imposing a ban on the burqa, like France did recently, are we not denying them their cultural freedom? Their freedom of expression?

It is generally believed that democracy, which is based on the principle of equality,  is a great system of governance. Is it really? Does not imposing equality amongst unequals often give birth to mediocrity? Can democracy really work in societies that have been traditionally feudal? Or in situations where members of one tribe, rightly or wrongly, believe that they are superior to others? Do we have any moral right to ‘impose’ democracy on these societies? What makes us believe that our beliefs are ‘better’ that theirs? Is not the evidence of democracy not working in most parts of Africa, Afghanistan and in Middle East overwhelmingly adequate to make us pause and re-think?  Perhaps some societies are just not ready, yet, for democracy! Perhaps some will never be. So be it.

Public Distribution Systems and food aid for the poor are means of social protection – a safety net. There is no denying however, that they put pressure on the exchequer. Since they are poorly managed, most times, like  ponzi schemes – they end up taking away from future generations to maintain the present and past. Is it justified in the long run? How long can one continue in this vein? Should one continue? If we don’t what happens to those who genuinely need support?

Questions! Questions! More Questions.

My situation is a bit like Arjuna in the Mahabharat – confusion galore on what is right and what is wrong. Unlike Arjun I don’t seem to have  Krishna who can advise me. Ah what would I not give to say “My dear Krishna, I am free of doubt. I have regained my memory. I am now prepared to act”.

Till then, I guess, I will have to find a Krishna within myself or live with doubts and yet continue to act!