Rethinking unity: think big and live large

Published on May 17 2010 // Opinion
By R. P. Subba

The Context
There is wisdom embedded in the old saying ‘unity’ is strength’. ‘Unity’ is the oxygen that consolidates us and helps us grow. But for us building ‘unity’ has been a difficult journey – an acid test to our strengths and potential – and to our reputation. Our ‘unity’ campaigns have never been a source for celebration or a reason for delight. Unfortunately, we think of ‘unity’ only when we are disarrayed and disunited. And for the last twenty years, that is what we are. We strive endlessly to unite but we never get there. In the absence of ‘unity’ we are just a collection of individuals – a crowd with no destination. This realization contrasts very sharply with what we are used to hearing in the Bhutanese community in the past two decades. In as much as we know – the centrifugal forces of fragmentation and disunity seem to be more active within us than the centripetal forces – which pull the community together by social cohesion. Not surprisingly, if only in slogan – ‘unity’ still continues to mesmerize our folks and they enthusiastically follow its proponents.

We have apparently seen different platforms emerge at different times and places, calling for brand ‘unity’ – some with genuine intentions, some with ulterior motives – making the much needed sacrifices and paying the prices, including in some cases with their precious lives. Past trends illustrate that our organizational expansion has been quite rapid. On an average we grew unpleasantly at the rate of at least five organizations a year. So, we should have at least one hundred such organizations in twenty years – if not more. In spite of all these exercises – two decades later, we are still hurting and hearing complains of the mushroom syndrome overtaking us; and we are squarely in the same place – an assemblage of disunited people. The mushroom syndrome continues – and predictably we will soon have a galaxy of Bhutanese organizations all over the world.

Not surprisingly, we have new organizations being launched. The latest one to join the bandwagon of Bhutan organizations in exile is the OBCA (Organization of Bhutanese Communities in America). It is history revisiting us again.

How many of you know all the Bhutanese organizations in exile? Who are the leaders? Where are they? Did they speak to you? Forgot the count? For the sake of simplicity, let’s say they are numerous. I do not want to get into naming names here, and if you want to save yourself from more embarrassment, please do not even attempt to know them all.

So, there is nothing to brag of our unity. In practice, ‘unity’ calls are never flawless. To its proponents – it’s never people first. It’s the other way round – organizations come first – people come later. But when the ‘doers’ do their things, the whole universe conspires to make things happen for them. And so we have mushroomed quite astronomically and again watched ourselves in that mirror and became victims of that self intimidation.

If ‘unity’ is an answer to our professed goal for problem mitigation and change – it should require a frank disclosure and a critical assessment of some of the trends in our exile history. We need to examine the causes of organizational multiplication – or you may say social disunity.

The Dilemma
‘Unity’ contrastingly can be very intriguing. For us ‘unity’ is no more a new subject of enchantment. We are intrigued, puzzled and even beaten by ‘unity’ drives in the past. Ironically, ‘unity’ is the justification for all the ‘disunity’ we have today. With all its attraction and appreciation – ‘unity’ is a great tool – but it also comes with this great illusion. We talk of ‘unity’ but create divisions among us. We intend to unite but in contrast we find ourselves polarized in opposite directions. We see the urgency of it but understand that the finer ingredients of ‘unity’ are fast eroding from our community. Past experience holds that the so-called ‘unity efforts’ are at the root of most of our social ailment and fragmentation. We need to assess – there must be something fatally wrong in us or in the efforts we make. Some good things did happen once in a while but the over all climate of our ‘unity’ has never been satisfactory.

Some one called the problem of the Bhutanese refugees – ‘the problem of rising expectations’. Yes, the expectations are higher – exceedingly higher than our commitment to ‘unity’. A widening gap between the ‘met’ and ‘unmet’ expectations will further mess up the situation. We still have the habit of overly exaggerating issues that divides us – rather than those that unite us. We know ‘unity’ is urgent but we think it is too difficult. We are at times too shy to talk of ‘unity’ while at other times we become too belligerent. At times we are too resilient while at other times we are too resistant. Sometimes we are too skeptical and sometimes we are too hopeful. Sometimes we are too cynical, sometimes we are overly excited. Sometimes we are too optimistic and at other times we are very pessimistic. Sometimes we rebuke ourselves and sometimes we are just a bundle of pride. That realization has not gone far deep into our conscience and the dilemma continues to live with us.

I honestly think this dilemma will continue because our mind set is not ready. Do we view ‘unity’ as a panacea to all our ailments or is it just a hoax to multiply the existence of our organizations? Does it validate our dynamism or is it just another excuse for experimentation? Is trial and error method appropriate or do we need real proven strategies to succeed? What does ‘unity’ actually mean to the Bhutanese in exile? What direction must it take? Is ‘unity’ just our intent or is it our commitment? Are we looking for ‘unity’ just for the sake of it or are we genuinely interested in making it happen?

These are some worthy questions worthy of serious discussion, as we contemplate on issues of ‘unity’ in our community.

The Challenges
Fostering ‘unity’ in our case is contextually challenging. One problem in our ‘unity’ is that – it crops up from the fact that in our community – both the general masses and the younger generation depend too much for leadership on the educated few. This coupled by the obsession among the educated lot to hang on to the different, little titles of leadership; perhaps is the greatest illusion of our ‘unity’. That apart, some generational issues and expectations – that arise from time to time too puts the current leadership at unease. Other things like educational backgrounds, exposure to political and social awareness can be broadly treated within the sphere of generational issues. Of generational issues – the traditional generational relationship between the elder members of the community and the younger ones – of respect and loyalty; of dependence and interdependence is reversing – from too much of respect and obedience on elders to antagonism. You can notice this from the comments and expressions our youths are posting in various online blogs and news sites. This is a huge social change and a critical challenge to the proponents of unity.

The fact that the TCR resettled refugees feel themselves different from the other Bhutanese who migrated before them adds a new angle to our ‘unity’ challenge. We are adept at categorizing and creating divisions among ourselves. For example we have the following categories: a) Bhutanese who migrated before TCR b) Bhutanese who migrated under TCR c) Bhutanese who came directly from Bhutan and settled here and d) Bhutanese who are currently living in America through employment in international agencies such as the UN. What is worse, there are suspicion and misgivings between and among these groups individually and collectively – more so between categories (a) and (b) above. The birth of OBCA in part, may be attributed to this mistrust that exists or continues to build up between them. Indeed it will not be too astounding to say that it is rooted in this very idea of differentiation and alienation.

Among other things – time constraint and leadership is a huge challenge. A one hundred percent ‘unity’ is neither desirable nor feasible. But we need basic ‘unity’ even to think of ‘unity’ en masse. We also need time and money – resources which we cannot afford to invest, at this time.

Yet another critical aspect that is in huge shortage is the thought process. Thoughts are commodities that create energy – and give a lasting life to any social movement. Any social movement devoid of a proper thought process has lost its soul even before it is born.

The stupendous manner with which the OBCA was instituted has come as a big surprise to many Bhutanese in the United States. More so, it has given the ABA (Association of Bhutanese in America) a hard jerk. As we can see, the ABA is deeply shocked and petrified. Was I also stunned by the news? Yes – because I always try to keep myself current on Bhutanese issues especially on organizational matters and I didn’t smell any smoke before I read its declaration through Bhutan News Service. No – because in the context of Bhutanese community, nothing is strongly predictable.

But the formation of OBCA looks real. OBCA has called its first National Convention in June 18 & 19 in Atlanta, Georgia – just some weeks prior ABA’s 3rd Convention, which is also taking place in the same city, slated for July 3-4, 2010. I fully appreciate the organizer’s wish to unify our community through these platforms, if that qualifies their existence.

The ABA has been in existence for some time now. It claims – it is operating like an umbrella organization of the Bhutanese in the USA. But as its authorities speak, it is clear that ABA’s presence is very thin. OBCA has alleged that ABA did not try to reach out to the vast number of new arrivals even for the simple sake of data housing – let alone take care of the transition challenges they are going through. In most part, the allegations could be true. The ABA has admitted to most of its drawbacks, though not all.

Many within the community seem to draw a line of distinction between the old refugees and the new refugees. In that distinction lies their rationale for the creation of this new platform. If that is the case, yearly batches of new arrivals can draw their own cut – off line and form their own organizations. Leave that as it may, but the OBCA has given some of the reasons that led to the formation of this new platform – some of which are – culture continuation, ventilation of issues that concern transition, organization and unification of the Bhutanese communities in America and to preserve the ‘Bhutaneseness’ among them.

The same objectives fall inside ABA territory too. Indeed, except the language of preference on behalf of TCR resettled folks – emphasized in the OBCA objective; there is no difference on matters of principle. I believe a new organization should be formed only when the differences are measured in principles – and they are sufficiently big enough to defeat any exercise to reconcile the opposing views – on the basis of principle or ideology.

Simply put, I did not understand why the Bhutanese community in USA would need two organizations to do the same work. If the motive and purpose is simply to tell our problems to the State Department – why is it necessary to by-pass the ABA? After all the ABA has some work experience with the State Department and access too. Why struggle to build the same resume that ABA has spent building for a couple of years. Your arguments and counter arguments may be great, but they are not greater than the   benefits our community can reap by staying united. Duplication of work is a huge drain to resources in any field and certainly an unnecessary wastage. We must be smart enough to picture these drawbacks and avoid disunity – or stupid enough to ignore them and be choked with internal rivalry. Both ways we are making choice – at the end what we get is what we deserve.

That said; let every body know that I am neither with ABA nor OBCA. Neither am I for a balancing third force. It may be sensible to want to see the community stand in unison than to see it break up. To join one of these organizations at this time is to stretch that division one step further – a justification of this bifurcation – an endorsement of disunification. Sometimes, more than the proponents – the supporters themselves are guilty of such disunification – for without their support, the proponents alone cannot do anything. I do not want to be guilty of providing such a disservice to my community. I know, this may not be popular, but at times when you choose to do the right thing, you must willingly sacrifice cheap popularity.
Everything boils down to attitude at the end. It does not matter where you are from or when you entered America – it is attitude that is important. Good things will happen to us if we eschew our egos and patch up our differences – and stand together. We have to hope for one less Bhutanese organization – not one more.

Slightly, out of point but it may be appropriate to mention here – that America only understands team leadership – but you may as well understand – that it is also a country run by a team of experts and specialists. The way to go is to be a professional servant leader, who can build leadership and function through a team. Unlike in Nepal, skills and expertise must be available in abundance to run a non-profit organization in the US. Likewise, responsibility and accountability are not only due on to the people you represent but are also due equally to the system you need to follow.

The Mindset
Yet, I think the biggest challenge we have is the absence of right mindset. It is easier for other things to fall in place if the mindset is right and the approach is correct. Our mindset is not to retail ‘unity’ but to expand it – not to derail ‘unity’ but to construct it. This entails a huge transformation of perceptions and attitude. Nothing but we ourselves are the most complex factor in this whole process – of changing our own universe. Therefore, changing our current mindset is one of the biggest challenges to our ‘unity’.

What is the right mindset – how do we create that mindset in populations such as our own? What is its purpose? I think, a greater positive insight, clarity of thought and a contextual understanding of our situations – past and current – is required in order to have our mindset right. The purpose is to rewrite or redefine our new goals. A positive mindset alone precludes the obtrusive elements from spoiling our vision. It enables us to discriminate that the ‘unity’ we are seeking now is distinctively different from the ‘unity’ we were used to hearing. Back in the camps ‘unity’ calls used to be laden with political connotations – here it is more about dealing with the challenges of transition and transformation.

In contrast, the negative aspects of ‘unity’ efforts have gone very deep into our psyche that we now listen or receive such messages only with a sense of skepticism. Some of our younger generation folks do not enjoy any talk of ‘unity’ – not even as a social prank. They quite vocally allege that the leaders are imperfect – lack drive, innovation, ideas and effort. Their impression about the current leadership is generally negative or at best pessimistic. They like to think of our community only outside the exclusive domain of the current leadership. Our mind set develops our attitude – and our attitude determines our altitude. Paradoxically, the biggest lament about our disunity also comes from the youths themselves. The youths are a big constituency of our population – their concerns may be right – but such extreme polarity of views if taken too far could be injurious to the whole concept of ‘unity’. We should expect that they will be responsible and their lament about disunity could find positive meaning – and hope that some brilliant, quality ideas can come out of them.

Rethinking Unity
Re-thinking ‘unity’ is a pre-requisite to overcoming our past drawbacks. I think the first step is to understand ‘unity’ and the purpose for it. Well, the purpose is clear – it is to build our community, not to break it. Simply put, it is employing common sense to work and taking a purpose oriented approach.

In our case rethinking ‘unity’ is not a choice – it is a challenge. The essence of our ‘unity’ must be based on principles that are sound or at least, it must have the express intention to grow the community as a whole – and not in parts. A newly resettled community has no luxury in fragmentation, if it wants to preserve itself. That is why it deserves more support and care, not less. If ‘unity’ means anything – it has to do with protecting and promoting the life of these people. Hence, any call for ‘unity’ must be genuine and it must genuinely meet the challenges of resettlement – including preserving, strengthening and continuing our tradition, culture and social values. These are the fine ingredients around which we can weave a ‘unity’ of purpose. I believe our social leaders will be more useful here than the political leaders – who must leave their baggage somewhere else.

A right mindset will enable us to admit quite honestly that we were not able to show case the best example of ‘unity’ to our younger generation – and therefore we became a target of rebuke, ridicule and mockery. It will make us realize that the shame and humility that has showered on us will make us matured enough to teach the upcoming youngsters that they need to understand the urgency for ‘unity’ perhaps a little more seriously than us. A right mindset will teach our youngsters to appreciate what little the seniors have achieved and take on successfully from there. It will require us to beat our negatives, to throw that garbage in us by assigning ourselves some solemn responsibilities and duties. These are a ‘must do’ if we will choose to unite. A right mind set will require us to shake off our excuses and our antiquated thoughts so that we may stay more positive and focused on our objectives. Unless, we are ready to put that price, we will not easily overcome the challenges of ‘unity’.

Our organizations need not be flamboyant. Instead we need genuine working organizations – organizations that go to work for us. It may be best to organize ourselves into local, state and national communities – focusing more on the creation of local communities. The local communities will be the blood vein of the national organization. Such a model should rest on the belief that local organizations are vested with the responsibilities to deal with local issues locally; while the state level or national organizations deal with higher issues. A proper workable mechanism of coordination is necessary but such details are at best secondary; compared to the vital necessity of creating the mindset of ‘unity’ in the first place.

Wrap Up
About ‘unity’ the late RK Budathoki had a very clear analogy. He would say, ‘these little five fingers are insignificant individually but when you pull them together – and they are a powerful fist’. Very true. More than any body, Budathoki had seen our community endure the pains of disunity. Fortunately or unfortunately his timing coincided with us witnessing unity at its peak and also watching it receive the greatest blow – not to hold him personally responsible for all that. Whatever be the case Budathoki is history now and all blames cannot be rested on him. We need to move on.

It is not important who we are today, it is important what we want to become tomorrow. The catch is that we must be united even when we are in disagreement. We have to be honest in purpose – as we must and brave in action – as we should. It may be too idealistic to hope that a complete ‘unity’ is possible. But if we have any chance at all – we have to understand that it is purely in ‘unity’. That ‘unity’ must be real, meaningful, dynamic and inspiring. We have to hope that majority of our people will still continue to believe in that ‘unity’ – that we can still be united – that it is possible for us to do so – that we are adapting creatively and uniting well even during critical circumstances.

For the sake of greater ‘unity’ I will suggest that the leadership of both ABA and OBCA sit and discuss pertinent issues together – thwart the differences and arrive at a consensus – for the benefit of the community as a whole. Do not worry about the mechanisms, think of the consequences that disunity could bring to our community, in the long run. Regardless of differences or grievances – conciliatory approaches from both groups will be a good investment for the real ‘unity’ of our community- if that is what you mean when you speak of ‘unity’ – and if you understand that ‘unity’ itself is the number one law of success – and not otherwise. If I may, I will even dare to say that such a meeting could be had within the parleys of ABA’s 3rd Convention in Georgia. If only the OBCA organizers and the ABA’s Board members are to take this message as a serious positive suggestion, I believe it is still possible to keep our community intact and proudly moving in the right direction.

(The piece is exclusively written for BNS. The author can be reached at: rpsubba@gmail.com)