Many years ago I was introduced to Russell Peters, the stand-up comedian, by our son, Khashiff. In one episode he talked about why Chinese can’t do business with Indians. And it ends with the Chinese store keeper reprimanding Russell Peters because he was negotiating too hard, “Be a man, do the right thing!” So as we end this year, let’s explore what “Do the right thing” actually means.
A few weeks back I found myself in this green oasis of peace called the Isha Foundation. I spent four days at their ashram near Coimbatore as a Resource Person for the annual Insight Programme, where 200 entrepreneurs and business executives showed up to get insights into management, spirituality and networking. I was pretty much clueless about what to expect, but it turned out to be a fascinating session. We spent four days listening to and discussing issues with Sadhguru, Ram Charan, Ratan Tata, GV Prasad and others. It was great and I hope I get invited back next year (Jeby, I hope you are reading this!) Ratan Tata started off by saying that doing the right thing is what drove him and it can sometimes be tough to do so. The next day, GV Prasad also talked about doing the right thing and success will follow. The next morning we had a silent walk in the forest and I thought about this a lot during that walk.
What is the right thing? One of the 10 commandments is “Thou shalt not steal”. A call centre employee in Chicago gets laid off because her job has been off-shored to India. It makes economic sense for her company to do so. The call centre employee in Bangalore is happy, but the lady in Chicago is not; she feels that her job has been stolen from her. Suddenly the concept of what is stealing has taken a different meaning. I am sure many people in the US feel that Indians have stolen their jobs. The same way many Indians believe that the British stole our cotton and other resources by buying them cheap, shipping them to Manchester, and then selling cloth to us at high margins. Thou shalt not steal. Life is not just black and white. There are many shades of grey.
At that time I was in the midst of reading a very interesting book, “The Looming Tower – Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11” by Lawrence Wright. A colleague, Sanjay Shah, gifted it to me and he said that law enforcement agencies use this as a reference book to understand the mind of a terrorist. It was a fascinating read and traced some of the origins of 9/11 back to the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt. Muslims felt that God had turned against them and let them be defeated by the Jews; the only way back was to return to the pure religion. In 1979 Khomeini reframed the debate with the West when he took over Iran and specifically targeted the freedom in the West as being evil. In 1981, after Sadat’s assassination, many Egyptians were tortured in prison. Many of the victims wanted revenge for their torture. This appetite for revenge also ended up in 9/11.
Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current Al-Qaeda head, was also arrested and allegedly tortured in Egypt at that time. The Quran prohibits suicide. But Zawahiri turned that view on its head by saying that giving one’s life in the pursuit of the true faith is not suicide and the suicide bomber will get extraordinary reward in Paradise. The jihadis who came to train in Afghanistan in the 1990s were different from those who came to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s. The earlier jihadis were men of dubious backgrounds from Saudi and Egypt. The new jihadis were well-educated, single, not very religious, and displaced. They came mainly from Europe and Algeria and found refuge in the local mosques because they felt alienated in these foreign lands.
So, back to the walk in the Velliangiri forest earlier this month. Clearly most of us believe that the suicide bombers are doing something totally inhuman and their acts are criminal and totally unjustified. There is no way, I believe, they will end up in Paradise. On the other hand, the suicide bomber believes he or she is doing the right thing. He or she believes that the West is immoral and that the Americans are controlling the Middle East and do not approve of the American support of Israel. This is their way to fight back for the true faith. So who decides what the right thing is?
The British call the 1857 uprising the Sepoy Mutiny. The Indians call it the First War of Independence. Who is right? The US, during the Vietnam War of the 1960s, indiscriminately sprayed chemicals over large parts of agricultural and forest land. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimated that 1 million people, including many children, were disabled or had health problems due to contamination by Agent Orange. Many Americans believed that this was the right thing to do and dispute these numbers.
132 kids were killed by barbarians in Peshawar this month. Their killers possibly believed that they were doing the right thing. 500 years back the Catholic Spanish monarchy started the inquisition and a lot of inhuman violence was carried out even against Catholics. Was that doing the right thing? The Babri Masjid was knocked down in 1992 and more than 2,000 Indians were killed in violent Hindu-Muslim riots that followed. Were those who demolished the masjid and slaughtered Hindus and Muslims after that doing the right thing? Are those companies that rear cattle and chickens for our food doing it the right way? Walking back and forth through history show us that life indeed has many shades of grey.
Who is to decide what is the right thing to do? Is ‘doing what works’ the right thing? Is doing the right thing dependent on the context? Whose context, since there is always another point of view?
So as we end 2014, I leave a hard thought with you. Were the killers of the 132 kids in a school in Peshawar doing the right thing? I definitely do not think so, but who am I to decide what the right thing to do is?