Bonfire

Firesides

Vichaar Manthan aims to explore the narratives that societies tell each other and to themselves. These stories embody, legitimise and contextualise the knowledge and experiences of a society.  They order a collective memory. The most powerful stories shape our behaviour and in turn influence institutions to react to the world in equal stead.  

At the Sustainable Narratives 2020 conference, we explored the most prevailing and long-lasting stories about how we govern a truly globalised technological world. What are the stories we tell ourselves about how nation-states regulate large, powerful international corporations; or ought to build greater real-time transparency, and therefore greater accountability; or to re-think the relationship between nationalism and fraternity amongst a citizenry? We put each prevailing narrative in the dock and cross-examined it in the light of sustainability. 

Markets: panacea or wilful ignorance?

Milton Friedman once quipped, “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself”. Friedman believed in a small government, limited regulation, and faith in market pricing, allowing the relationship between supply and demand to control everything. Do we want markets to decide how much we pay for our healthcare? Do we trust the markets to solve climate change? Those that advocate free markets believe it is the bedrock of all that we value in a liberal democracy, while the naysayers, who are also equally convinced, argue for intervention, and a bigger role for regulation and legislation. Who is right? Come and explore one of the most pertinent questions of our time.

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What is money, and is it a problem?

Money is an idea and a belief. Like any belief, it can fade over time. The idea of money is perpetually changing, sometimes for the betterment of the few and sometimes for the many. Money, however, is always controlled by the few. According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s top 10% of earners own 43% of all assets, whereas the bottom 50% of earners own 9%. How much inequality is acceptable in a democracy? Is the idea of money in need of reform? What are our alternatives, or have we become bereft of ideas? Come and explore the nature of money, and what if anything, we can do about it.

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Can we reimagine education and its purpose?

If the aim of education was to give each of us the capability to flourish to our fullest potentials, what would education look like? In this light, the time has come to re-evaluate our modus operandi for educating people. Is it time to move away from an industrialised model of schooling focused on employability to one in which the purpose of education is the flourishing of the individual and the whole society? What would such an education system look like, and more importantly how might we get there? What are the systemic changes that we need to make in order to be able to rebuild this most precious of institutions? Join us.

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Nature and Constitutional Rights: A Way Forward?

“We are destroying our planet” is an often-heard refrain today. How we relate to nature is at the heart of the matter. In an increasingly urbanised world where we are alienated from the processes of nature, how do we re-learn how to live in synchronicity with it?  Many have started to give nature constitutional rights: courts and law-makers around the world have granted legal personality to national parks and rivers in New Zealand, Bangladesh and Colombia, and to spiritual conceptions of nature in Bolivia. Is this the way forward, or should we instead be looking beyond the paradigm of constitutional rights to consider our civic duties towards nature?  This Fireside will address the current trend of granting constitutional rights to nature in the light of deep sustainability.

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Exploring Hindu Responses to the Clash of Civilisations

Samuel Huntington argued that the international relations of the future would be shaped by civilisational clashes, and not political ideologies. Islam clashes with Western secularism. Christianity  continues to assert itself in the Far East, in South-East  Asia and in Africa, aggressively  eradicating native cultures. China’s brand of communism offers yet another way, and there is also India, with the Hindu society re-asserting itself globally after centuries of subjugation by Islam and then the West. Global power is shifting from West to East, and from ‘people of the book’ towards the dharmic traditions of India. How will this play out in the coming decades - in further clashes or symbiotic harmony?

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Seeing the Literature from the Scripture

Imagine if the Gita was read and experienced as a profound piece of literature, much in the same way as we might read the works of Kalidas, or Shakespeare, or Tolstoy. Imagine if we took the historicity out of the Bible and Qur’an and re-interpreted them as literature from an ancient past that gives us much to contemplate and discover. Are the world's religions too vested in reading texts as scripture, which act as their source of power and legitimacy, when in fact these ought to be taken as literature and freed from religious dogma and interpretation? Come and explore this nuanced and controversial topic. 

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What is democracy?

To be civilised in the 21st century is to be democratised. Democracies are being challenged the world over by forces ranging from nationalist ‘strongmen’ to ‘robber baron’ big tech firms. We often use the word ‘democracy’ as an emblem of civilization, but what does it entail in today’s globalised world with borderless technology? What is the nature of democracy, and how might technology increase our direct participation? Are we becoming more democratic or less, and was Plato right when he said “dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy”? Come and explore the fundamental nature of democracy.

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Navigating Hindu Nationalism

Nationalism is on the rise the world over. Too often in our public discourse, however, nationalism is caricatured, and its nuances ignored. Struggles over Brexit and Scottish independence demonstrate one type of nationalism, whilst the rise of strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping demonstrate a completely different form. Somewhere along this spectrum is India’s form of nationalism, often labelled ‘Hindu nationalism’. For its naysayers, Hindu nationalism is simply another form of bigotry and an attempt to create a majoritarian state; for its believers, it is a genuine attempt to create a society that feels rooted to its land whilst accommodating plurality in its body politic. Join us as we explore the nuances of nationalism in this Fireside conversation.

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Carbon tax - Crafting the silver bullet

Markets are not perfect. Arguably, our current climate crisis is an example of the greatest market failure ever seen. Global and national institutions seem unable to find the silver bullet that will make the market work for us and our long-term interests. Carbon tax is often seen as a solution par excellence, but the challenge appears to lie in its implementation, and creating an international standard seems almost impossible. What does an effective carbon tax look like? What real-world effects would such a universal tax programme have on our volatile and complex global economy? 

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What is the future of Islam in a secular society?

A major question mark persists over whether religion is destined to be in a perpetually tense relationship with secularism. With secularism reducing religion to an individual’s private belief and worship, commentators have often remarked that Islam, in particular, has struggled to adapt to this new reduced role in society. Thus, this fireside looks to explore the following questions: can Muslims in the West sustainably practise Islam within a secular framework? Is Islam as practised and understood by Muslims in the West incompatible with secularism? Does an Islamic secularism exist and is it needed? Can Muslims continue to practise their faith, while accepting the constraints of secularism on religion, and simultaneously live with the acceptance of the “divine gaze”? And if Muslims cannot practise Islam within the present notions of Western secularism, nor develop an Islamic secularism, is there a third way? Could a dharmic secularism accommodate the Islamic ‘divine gaze’, while resolving tensions that exist between secularism and Islam, as lived in the West, to build a new harmonious tapestry of divinity? 

Come and untangle this complex but ever present topic of our times.

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Is science the vehicle for progress?

Scientific enquiry is fundamentally an enquiry into the nature of reality and therefore truth. From the age of Enlightenment onwards, scientific enquiry has been the primary method for establishing the truth and advancing knowledge. Recently, however, the postmodern worldview has begun to view science and scientists as the gatekeepers of the knowledge-power dynamic, stating that scientific enquiry is no longer a vehicle for progress but something to be overthrown in favour of ‘intuition’ or other methods of knowledge production. What is the scientific method, and how is it actually meant to be deployed in our search for the absolute truth? How can our understanding of dharma act as a guide for us in our pursuit to build a better world through scientific discovery? Join us.

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Kushal Mehra

 China  - an unsustainable state?

We are no longer living in a unipolar world where one hegemon - the United States - rules. Instead we are increasingly living in a world where the Chinese Communist Party leads an authoritarian state suppressing the will of millions, and furthering its own agenda across the globe through a form of mercantilism.  How accepting should we be of an authoritarian state which today is responsible for subjugating its own people, as well as Tibetans and Uighurs? Has the greed of the West for cheap Chinese products clouded its own moral compass? Can the authoritarianism of the Chinese state be reconciled with liberal democracy? And how should the West and India face up to this rising power? Come and explore whether the authoritarian Chinese state of today is sustainable.

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Kushal Mehra

Understanding Hindutva

“Hindutva simply means ‘Hindu-ness’; it is about being Hindu, nothing more!” Western narratives about Hindutva deny this and are far more cynical. On the whole, Western commentators and their Indian counterparts see Hindutva as an assertive nationalist force that will create divisive majoritarianism in India. With the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, its position at the heart of government and its overwhelming electoral mandate, interest grows in deciphering Hindutva with greater nuance. Can the West work with Hindutva? What does it really mean for India and Hindus the world over? Join us to find out more.

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Kushal Mehra

The myth of benevolent imperialism

In November 2001 the US army hoisted an American flag over Kandahar, prompting journalistic fervour around the openly visible ‘American empire’. From being described as an “infant empire” by George Washington in its early days to shouldering “the white man’s burden” in the 1900s, the American growth story seems to be inexorably linked to American imperialism. How should we view modern American hegemony in contrast with Chinese mercantilism in South Asia, Africa, and South America? Is the world better-off with a multipolar power structure, rather than a single hegemon?  How do we ensure that rich nations and corporations behave responsibly towards those that are open to exploitation and trapped in poverty cycles? Or is it time to accept economic Darwinism as the path to sustainability?

Featuring:

Kushal Mehra