Are NGO leaders our new Gurus?

A familiar sight in NRI Desi progressive circles is the yearly visit by an NGO dignitary, the Magsaysay award winners and their like. The visiting activist tours the US and Canada, lecturing to sold out crowds in university towns like Boston and Berkeley.

Each event has a typical logic — it starts with a litany of complaints about the Indian political system (don’t get me wrong, our system is incredibly corrupt and venal, but I am more interested in how this commonplace insight has been ritualized), and then how the activist and his fellow warriors have battled the forces of evil, followed by ritualized questions from the audience. Typical question: “How can we help while staying here?”

As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between these ceremonies and more traditional religious events, where a Guru comes and lectures about life and people ask him (its mostly a him) questions about how they can make their life better. In Desi progressive circles, the whole “working for the people” mystique is derived from its association with sacredness, as if karma yoga has been secularized and made into a progressive mantra. At least since Gandhi, the Indian social work ethos has been suffused with religiosity, which isn’t wrong, but what bugs me is the extent to which activism has been ritualized.

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