“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.
Activism is making efforts and taking action to achieve any political, social, environmental, and economic goal for the betterment of all life on earth. It can include promoting or opposing a change in policy or action that affect the aforementioned : domains. The purpose of activism can be achieved through many methods like appeal, public interest litigations, protests, strikes, boycotts, rallies etc. The aim is to make people and institutions aware of the problem and encourage them to fight it. Everyone can make some efforts to promote activism, but few dedicate their lives to such causes. They are called activists. In this article, I explore what it actually means to be an activist. Why do some people choose to take up such roles? Their sources of inspiration and the challenges they face. I have also interviewed Kavita Srivastava, an activist who has been working with many social groups for decades to provide justice to people facing oppression because of gender, caste, religion etc., and actively working to safeguard the rights of the people. I will be providing some examples from her story.
What drives a person to give their life to activism? Individuals don’t usually plan to take up this role. Many people, opportunities and experiences open them towards such a future. It can start directly from home. A very supportive family letting their child ask questions and always encouraging them to help others can build empathy in them for all. At the same time, if a child faces hardships from their own family might grow up to resent such kind of oppression and make it a goal of their life to help others like them. But as you can guess, many people might have such a background, but not everyone chooses such a path. The institutions or mentors also help a lot in shaping up a person’s ideologies. A place that promotes questioning, knowledge and sympathy can help one to be nearer to understanding what is right and why it is needed to be preserved. Living among friends and exploring the world can build a person to seek fairness and justice. This can make a person knowledgeable, compassionate and aware. But it takes a lot more to dedicate your life to others. Experiencing diverse cultures makes one realise how the same everyone is, and there no need to fight them or see them as other. Experiencing joy and a sense of victory after helping others can create a solid urge to do it again with much more tenacity. Doing such works breaks the barrier between being a sympathiser and being an active helper. Some people start finding solace by knowing that their effort is creating happiness.
Kavita Srivastav had freedom granted by her parents. They were open to her and encouraged her and her sisters to study and then work to support themselves. The principal at school also gave students the freedom to do what they wanted. When Kavita started working for people, her parents provided space at home for meets and provided the guests with food so that they feel welcomed. When Kavita left her job to dedicate herself fully to her social work, her friends and sister came forward to help her financially and let her focus on what was important. Kavita didn’t want to depend on them and earned for herself through social work, but this kind of support definitely enables a person to do their best.
These are just the factors that might take up a person to such a path, but the decision of walking on it requires more than that. Support of family and friends helps a lot; experiences can shape your outlook towards society, but the drive and willingness to act in kind comes from within. It requires the combination of empathy for others and the courage to stand against wrong. Many activists, including Kavita, claim that they help society because they are a part of the society. They are ultimately helping themselves. Some studies tell good deeds reciprocates good deeds. The same goes for bad ones. You might have experienced that a smile mellows and anxiety or tension even from a stranger. When people start having a kind of possessiveness towards the community, they act to make it as altruistic as possible. And when one starts considering whole humankind as their own, they become a harbinger of truth and justice. They become activists.
Not everyone with the same background, experiences and feelings onset on the journey of an activist. It is because there is a test of the sort that blocks their way. This life requires courage and sacrifice, resilience and hopefulness and the will of iron. A lot of problems come in the way. Activist faces backlash from some people, government, authority and other powers causing the oppression. At the same time, there are other problems like financial uncertainty, threat to life, sacrifice of ordinary family life and goals. It is a life-long commitment.
Kavita has also felt threatened at various points in life. From the people in the village where she went to protest against the practice of sati, the threat of persecution by the government and facing sexual harassment and rape threats working as a woman. Her home was raided on the pretext of her sheltering a Maoist. And there is always a fear of constant surveillance. But she has persevered up till now. She also feels that nowadays, students have so much burden, work and competition that they don’t have the mental space to think in these areas. Also, the world shifting towards an individualistic mindset. Though that said, she also told how she was happy to see students from many colleges, including IITs and IIMs, opted to raise their voice against specific policies that they felt were unconstitutional. This gives her hope and makes her feel good about the future because it is now on the youths to preserve it.
Activists majorly work against a powerful entity or group of entities to bring a change for the better. But such entities also fight back. Their methods include delegitimising the activist, threatening their lives or their families, and antagonising them in the eyes of the people over whom they have hegemonic powers. Sometimes such a populace is so large that it is difficult to get any support for the cause while the same people pose a threat to their safety. All this while working with limited financial and legitimate power. But they also have the power of truth with them, people with awareness do support them, and the law provides them with tools to exercise some legitimate power.
If we were to look back at history, we would see that our lives and everything good in it have been because of the efforts of activists all around the world in the past. We don’t need to look further than the respected freedom fighters we cherish and their legacy that we are so proud of today. We idolise them, but many people resent activists of the current period. It takes a lot of courage, will and sacrifice to do what they do. But it is essential to preserve society and our future. The youth will have to bring in their energy and enthusiasm to build our ideals and our nation. And as I have mentioned, even if full-on participation is not something one can afford, even promoting and helping out the activists helps a lot. It not only empowers them but also encourages them and fill them with the hope that they are fighting for a just cause. And maybe through such small bits of help, one might see the light and employ themselves in being an active part of all this. One thing I want to emphasise is that no matter the ideology, goal or intention, an activist always employ democratic and lawful means. And they love all. They don’t ask for vigilante justice. People asking for violence or anti-constitutional behaviour should not be tolerated.
Finally, I would appeal to everyone to get more aware. The world is getting more and more polar. Dividing into them and us and is ready to be at arms at all moments. We need to deescalate this and come together to make the world an equally happy place for all to be in.
*MBA student at IIM Ahmedabad