Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Having unpacked various forms of state violence through the podcast, in this final episode, we contend with the questions- what is the way forward and how do we build towards our ideal world? In an insightful discussion with Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, we explore what solutions for social justice challenges can look like, who needs to be involved, and how best we can involve them to build towards conflict resolution in our quest for social justice.


Sanchi- Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast Uncuff India by One Future Collective. My name is Sanchi and my pronouns are she, her.


Uttanshi- My name is Uttanshi and my pronouns are she and her. We are your hosts today, and it’s so good to have you all listening in. All our episodes so far have documented various forms and manifestations of State violence, and by different agents of the state as well. We’ve looked at overt violence, violence which is carried out by the State or in the name of the State and who gets impacted by violence and how they get impacted as well. We are now asking ourselves the question, what really is the way forward?


Sanchi- Yes, thank you, Uttanshi. Today we will be exploring what these solutions can look like, who needs to be involved in building these, what shape this involvement can take, and how best it can be realized as we go on. The episode will also unpack the meaning and forms of conflict resolution in the Indian context.


Uttanshi-To discuss this and share their insights on how conflict can be transformed constructively, we have with us Amitabh Behar. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India and is a global civil society leader. He is also an authority on tackling economic and gender inequality and building citizen participation. Mr. Behar was the vice chair of the Board of Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the globe. He also serves on the boards of several other organizations including the Center for Budget and Governance Accountability and Indian public policy think tank. Prior to Oxfam India, Mr. Behar was the Executive Director of National Foundation for India and served as the convener of the National Social Watch Coalition and the Co- Chair of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a network of over 11,000 civil society organizations. It’s lovely to have you join us today and to give your time to us to have this very important conversation. Amitabh, it’s really lovely to have you here and to learn from you.


Amitabh- Thank you Uttanshi, and thank you, Sanchi for inviting me. 


Sanchi- It’s absolutely lovely to have you join us today, Amitabh. And I am sure that our listeners will agree when I say that we’re all looking forward to hearing your thoughts. And so without further ado, let us jump in. And Amitabh, to start us off, why don’t you tell us a bit about what, what does it even mean when we talk about the way forward? How can we as a community, a nation, as a globalized society, how can we move past State violence? And what does this look like in action? 


Amitabh- So, thank you for inviting me. And I think what you’ve picked is a fascinating subject in terms of looking at it academically. But when you look at it as a human being, it is very, very depressing. It’s heart wrenching and thank you for picking it up. I’m glad you’re looking at multiple dimensions of it and and I’m also quite excited that you’re starting with the way forward and what the way forward would mean, you know. I was just thinking that if you go to political philosophy, whether it’s Plato or Hegel, they all talk of what is the ideal world. And I think you know that’s really the way forward and it’s going to be different for different people. But it is essentially building that ideal world is the way forward and we not we cannot see the entire conversation on conflict State violence independent of where we want to reach. That’s the way forward. There is a normative worldview of vision that we have and how do we arrive there is the central question. So,

that’s how I would frame it and obviously it would mean, you know, different paths, different trajectories, but we can talk about it. So for instance, you know, just because I don’t know how much of your audience is Indian, but to say if you’ve achieved Ram Rajya, you’ve reached probably, hopefully no State violence and no conflict. And if you have achieved, if you’re a Marxist, the stateless socialist society that you’re looking at, then again there’s no conflict. I don’t know in capitalism if you really have anything which is a parallel, but, but I hope my point is clear.


Uttanshi- Yeah, I think while I was listening to you speak, you know I’m also very intrigued by the question itself. Is there going to be a way forward? Is there that distinction between violence and non-violence, violence and peace which even exists? There is a certain level of difficulty that gets attached to that, right? It’s an ideal world, but can they coexist? Do you think they can?


Amitabh- So, they do. As I would say, the human civilization is an endeavor in moving towards that ideal world. And it’s not just in these 200 years, 400 years. I would say that there is some level of movement towards a normative worldview towards that idealism and and you know they’re obviously going to be ups and downs. We dip for centuries in some ways you’ve made some significant progress, but you again dip down. So that’s happened. But I’m a dreamer. I’m an optimist. And I believe that, you know, that’s really the project of humanity. If we don’t believe in the possibility of a way forward of an ideal world, then I think we’re going to be sliding much more into conflict. 


Sanchi- Yeah. And also while you were talking, I was thinking about then whose ideal world are we really working towards? Whose? Whose idea is it that gets more space when we talk about moving forward? So what is, what is the direction that we are actually moving forward in? And then what kind of difficulties come through this because like you said, there can be so many conceptions of what an ideal world is. There could be a Ram Rajya, there could be a stateless society. So right now what do you think are we moving towards at least in the Indian context and what are the difficulties then of managing all of these different perspectives?


Amitabh- So in so, so you’re right doesn’t what I would say there are two kinds of conflicts, one I would say which is an enduring conflict that happens and it is at the core of all conflicts, which is essentially about power, who controls power is the fundamental question. So, you know the questions about resources on an etcetera all are part of who control power and that’s very, very fundamental and that’s something that’s going to continue for a fairly long time and it’s happening in multiple spaces. So, whether it’s patriarchy ensuring that there is control of power with a certain set of people or whether it’s the Brahminical caste society in our country or just the idea of margins as in what the way Delhi treats Kashmir or Nagaland and Mizoram. So, the conflicts are of multiple kinds. So, you know we need to start unpacking them and and we start you know once we start unpacking we’ll see many more further layers of conflict. So, the multidimensionality of conflict is also very, very critical. But having said this, you know, coming to India, I think we are in the midst of a very fundamental conflict in terms of the idea of India. There’s one idea of India which has been so strongly articulated and to keep it simple in our Constitution, in the Preamble of our Constitution and that’s the idea that we have aspired for for the last 75 years. I must say that if you’re Adivasi living in Bastar, you probably did not see significant progress towards that idea of India. But I must say that that normative framework, which is clearly articulated in the Constitution, in our Preamble, was not challenged. In practice it was challenged, but not in terms of the normative world view of the country and now we are looking at a conception which completely challenges that fundamental idea of India. So it is, you know, when our Prime Minister says it’s a new India, it is really a new India that he wants to create. But that’s new India is not the way he articulates it in terms of India where everybody will have better resources or or or employment hidden behind that and a lot of times it’s not even hidden, it’s pretty clearly articulated is an alternative vision of idea of India which is homogeneous, which is Hindu and which is, in many ways I would say authoritarian. So, there’s a tremendous conflict happening and in that I think because you’re also looking at State violence, State has become an instrument and the primary instrument of furthering that violence. Yeah, So, that’s what is happening and it is these are really difficult times for the country.


Uttanshi- You know, while you were speaking I caught on this term that you said about the multidimensionality of conflict, which also then immediately, because we’re talking about the way forward and what that could mean for our communities who find themselves in the midst of this conflict. Do we also then have to start thinking about multidimensionality of solutions, just keeping in line with the intention saying now we’re going to really start thinking about, ok, this violence has happened, how do we take a step forward and move beyond it? But I’m assuming that one-size-fits-all approach didn’t work for picking a conflict. And I don’t think we’ll definitely work for solving or addressing that conflict either.


Amitabh- Yeah. No, I would agree As in the solutions have to be both creative and multi-dimensional. In fact, what I would say is that  I have often talked of rainbow coalitions and those coalitions are also in terms of solutions. So, the coalition could be a coalition of ideas as well and  that’s what I think we need that you will not be able to divorce a problem or a conflict from its context and therefore we will need to try and address the entirety of the system. So you know that I think it is critical, but you know, can I just introduce another idea? 




Amitabh- In our conversation, I sometimes feel that conflict is also slightly limiting the way we do a lot of our conversations on conflict because it’s essentially about lack of justice and we need to introduce the notion of justice as central. So human dignity, justice of, you know, all kinds- economic, social and political and primary human rights. I think that those are something that we are trying to achieve and as people, you know, even individuals try and achieve that in their own locations. Sometimes it’s just within the family, it could be in the community and then that leads to conflict because there is always a privileged class which is trying to not let you access these. So you know, just to also say that it’s important to recognize and and I’m sure you do, but you know solutions are not going to be where there won’t be a group of losers. I think it’s very, very important. A lot of times people say oh let’s say you know it’s not a zero sum game and you can easily have solutions where everybody is happy. That’s not going to happen. Yes, they could be happy in a spiritual way that you’ve created a just society but I have lost power once you have reached that level of consciousness, yes. But in real life, it is about a conflict of power and there would be winners and losers. 


Sanchi- Thank you so much for your thoughts on that, Amitabh. While you were talking, I was also thinking about how so many different experiences come together, the very identities of people that we build solutions for, so many different identities intermingled there. And since we’re talking so much about multidimensionality, and another thing that we’ve spoken of at this podcast is how a state of peace, especially in the experiences of people who are on the periphery, a state of peace, is not just about the absence of violence, but rather a persistence of a safe environment. So when we talk about moving forward, when we’re talking about centering justice, how do you think we can imagine a future where violence is eradicated sustainably and peace is defined not through the dearth of violence but the continuum of safety? 


Amitabh- Sure. So Sanchi, you have said it. I would say that it is not just a continuum of safety or peace, it is a just society. Once you have created justice and one can say that it is, it is a utopian idea. But you know when we started, we started talking about- that’s the human endeavor that we need to move towards that just society and there would still be disagreements, but there’s at least a conception of where we are headed. So, that’s something that one needs to aspire for. Again, it’s not an easy path and what needs to be done is open to a conversation.


Uttanshi-No, I think I just wanted to come in to also add another question to Sanchi’s question, if I may, and to carry on that train of thought is just there is also a lot of focus on transforming the systems within which the violence persists, right? I am understanding even when you talk about building not just a safe society but a just society, the idea is that the very situation which breeds conflict itself gets addressed and resolved and often that requires a lot of systemic effort at all levels, you know, government, institutional, but also individual and community levels. But I’m also wondering, Amitabh, if in your experience and in your way of thinking about this, do we stand to lose sometimes by focusing that much on bringing about systemic change? Should we sometime just focus on quick solutions? It may not lead to justice, but it will lead to safety in that moment. And do you think that there are situations where that can happen and we should be comfortable with it?


Amitabh- Absolutely. With Uttanshi, you know, I that if you don’t agree with what you’re saying then you are still a romantic, but you are a foolish romantic. Sorry for saying that, but that’s how  I would see oneself. If you do that yes if somebody is going to be you know just look at the experience of domestic violence and and I have seen that we have worked on it so somebody who is getting badly beaten you cannot say that let’s fight patriarchy and let’s do systems change and and  for that night you need a shelter for that person and and then you need a different support system which is essentially about charity that you know first few days somebody is willing to keep her at their place you are able to initially give the seed money for her livelihood etc And and that happens all the time. So, you know I would say that people who  are practitioners would never make this distinction. You know so, so while you fight these very small battles which are absolutely critical, you also need to have your eye on the system exchange. So, as institutions you can say I work on only systemic change. But then I would say that’s why the idea of coalition becomes critical that you work with somebody who actually understands the realities of domestic violence and is available for that survivor. And it’s so critical it’s you know I’ve seen so many of us that we’ve worked on it for a long time. So it is you know  you completely forget about patriarchy when you’re actually come face to face with that reality. So I totally, totally agree and and you know we, we, we certainly in these conversations would tend to privilege the systems change. And I would say let’s see this as a continuum, let’s not, it’s not an intellectual conversation, it’s about real people. But on the other hand, let’s not also be little- the systems change because you’re looking at long term enduring solutions. 


Sanchi-Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Amitabh. And as like as lots of practitioners are listening into this podcast, I was just wondering if there’s something that you’d like to share with everybody about what keeps you going as a practitioner, if there’s anything that you think you have specifically drawn strength from and would like to share with us. 


Amitabh- So, there are many things, Sanchi, that give me strength. I I think for me my strength comes from a very clear conviction or an understanding of what my North Star is. So that normative framework. I am clear that irrespective of whoever, whatever I read, I go through the idea of justice, the idea of human dignity is central to that. So that itself gives me strength. It’s difficult but it gives me strength and clarity and that’s why I’m using the word North Star. I know where to go. But on the other hand, the people that I’m talking of, you know, for instance, we just talked of survivors of domestic violence. It’s fascinating, I used to run a program, a fellowship program for grassroot leaders for several years and we would, you know, shortlist around 50 individuals, of which we intentionally ensured that they’re at least 35 to 40 women of the 50. So, 75% of women painful reflection of our reality that almost 90% of them went through serious domestic violence. But on the other hand they were absolutely inspirational as in for me to work with them, to understand, to hear their stories. So, the human resilience and desire for justice itself is so central to what keeps me going, as in sometimes, I feel I’m very privileged. I come at it from an intellectual position, from a moral position. But the ones who are, who are fighting this battle on a daily basis are the ones who give you enormous inspiration. So you know, the ones that who feel lost and scared in serious battles today in this country there are serious battles happening, battles in terms of ideas, but and and and people are, you know, kind of backing off. But the ones who experience injustice, I’m sure are going to continue their struggle for a more just and a humane society.


Uttanshi- Thank you for that. It’s been really wonderful to really understand because even while you were speaking earlier, I was very much meaning to ask you, you know, what is your light at the end of the tunnel, so to say. And it’s been really fantastic for me to understand a little bit more as well about that as we are moving towards the end of the episode, Amitabh, I think because we are ending this season discussing something that affects each of us in very different ways. In this episode, because we’re talking about building and co-building that way forward, do you have any advice for us as individuals, as members of a community, as members of a State and eventually, you know, members of institutions as well?


Amitabh- Thank you. Thank you for this. So let me just say two things. One as I said when we started that I’m fascinated by the way you frame the topic. These are not times when people actually talk of State violence. So thank you for doing it, but what we also need to fundamentally understand that and this is slightly conceptual, but indulge me and do let me know if I’m not clear because to my mind that’s central in terms of the State violence that in the last 100 or so years we have. And I’m using it loosely in terms of the time period we have created an idea of a State where the relationship of the State and citizen is the State here to serve the citizens. That’s the fundamental idea of a Liberal Democratic architecture. So the State has to provide for the poor, the State has to ensure your security, and that’s why you have the fundamental rights in our Constitution, which is so central to any Liberal Democratic architecture. And that conception is getting challenged in India, where now the idea is that the citizens need to be in the service of the State and that completely changes the equation. And that’s how then you start building your laws, your policies, the public narrative is already built around that. You know those jokes of somebody says that you know that, I’m sure you would remember at least 3-4 years ago they were very popular that somebody says that I’m going through a tough time and the other person says, oh you cribbing about this. What about this soldier in Siachen It’s a joke but but essentially what it is saying is that you should be in the service of the State and and that is hugely problematic and we’ve seen in history, whenever we have seen the State becoming an authoritarian, totalitarian entity, then I think it’s not good news for people and citizens. So, you know this whole debate has to be understood from there. How do we constantly challenge that? The second piece that I would say is that for people like us, for people like you, because I know a little of your work and people like me, there’s no really end or steady State. You know, I started with that ideal State, which even if you reach the ideal state, which would be fantastic, but even if you reach there, the possibilities of that peace, that justice being fragile, are always going to be alive. So, those possibilities are going to be alive. And therefore our job is to be constantly vigilant. You know that famous line of, you know, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance and that’s something that we need to do. So, that’s also important that we might reach there. But you know that it doesn’t take much for things to slide down. So human dignity, we have worked on it. Just just look at what we have done in the last 100 years. You know a lot of us would have thought oh we’ve finally won the battle against say post-apartheid and finally South Africa was free. We thought the race story is over but we saw what happened with George Floyd. I think that that was his name, which is last year. And it continues. Racial injustice continues and you know, you can go on. So how are we, you know, gonna constantly work on ensuring a just sustainable society is my only request to all of us. 


Sanchi- Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Amitabh. And thank you for sharing actually the conceptual background with us as well. I think that first piece was very, it was very informative and I think it’s a great lens to look at the kind of work that we do as well. And yeah, thank you so much. I think we are for sure taking back a lot from this episode today. But before we close, Amitabh, do you have any closing thoughts for our listeners today? 


Amitabh-Thank you. Thank you, Sanchi. And Uttanshi, I’m happy you’re doing it. I just hope that people do these discussions because as I said, there’s very little space for discussions of this kind. So, I hope people do that while they continue doing the good work they do. It’s also important to try and engage with these larger questions and certainly let’s, you know, try and understand, unpeel the idea of the State. Nothing should be sacrosanct. That’s what I would say. Everything should be questioned. It should be open to critical inquiry within a framework of justice, of of peace, of sustainability.


Uttanshi-Thank you so much, Amitabh. It’s really been phenomenal to listen to you. I feel like I will take back this eternal want to question and to not settle. And in your words you know nothing is sacrosanct. And to constantly remind myself of that.

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice