20/07/2016 1:57 PM IST | Updated 21/07/2016 8:40 AM IST

The Basics Of Waging A Winning Insurgency


In my novel 03:02, I paint a fictional scenario of ordinary Indians waging an insurgency in Mumbai against an invading force of terrorists. The inspiration of this comes from two very different sources. First, the world we live in, where hardly a day goes by without a terrorist atrocity somewhere, and where whole communities in the Middle East are being enslaved or wiped out. Most of the time, we react on social media or watch the news and then get on with our lives. What if we did not have the luxury of logging off or changing the channel? What if we, ordinary Indians, had to deal with such an invasion?

The second inspiration comes from an interesting personality who was actually part of waging such an insurgency against a foreign occupier many years ago. That person was my maternal grandfather, the late Mr. S.C. De Chowdhury, who fought against British rule, was imprisoned for his efforts, and then after Independence, joined the first batch of free India's Indian Police Service officers and had a long stint in uniform before retiring. He was a fascinating man, one who had the unique perspective of having been both an "insurgent" and then the "establishment". So when I wrote 03:02, I tapped into a lot of the stories he had told me about the last time ordinary Indians had come together to fight for freedom in their own homeland.

The insurgent needs to rely on superior knowledge of the lay of the land, not firepower.

While 03:02 focuses on a physical occupation by an enemy, I believe that certain core principles apply to any insurgency that challenges the status quo -- in any field. Whether it is changing the culture at a workplace, challenging a social evil, trying to overcome deep-rooted prejudices, the common theme is that there is some tyranny -- whether physical or that of ingrained habits and beliefs -- that needs to be overthrown. And in doing this, any modern-day "insurgent" would do well to take a cue from some of the lessons my grandfather learned.

Get On The Ground

First, the insurgent needs to rely on superior knowledge of the lay of the land, not firepower. My grandfather would tell tales of how he'd throw bottles and rocks against troops armed with rifles and then disappear in the side-streets of Kolkata where he'd lose his pursuers because he knew those nooks and crannies, and where he'd find a hiding place, better than them. In 03:02, my fictional insurgents take on an enemy force that is much better armed by using their superior knowledge of their neighbourhood. In both cases, the insurgents did not have the same firepower as the occupiers but used superior local knowledge to even the odds.

That same principle holds when we're trying to wage an insurgency to bring about change in our workplace or society. We can't do that if we restrict ourselves to superficial comments around the coffee machine or on social media. We have to get our hands dirty by truly understanding the issue so that we know the details at ground level and can influence change, using our understanding to convince those we want to impact.

Sometimes real change happens when people add value where they can do so the most, often in ways that are not visible.

Every Skill Matters

Second, every insurgent need not fight the enemy in direct action -- there are many ways of adding value. In 03:02, the people involved are ordinary middle-class Indians, and while some do the fighting, others help by cooking, by arranging supplies, helping the wounded -- using their skills and training to help where they can. My grandfather was a brilliant student of economics and in addition to direct action, he would talk to people about the economic cost of British rule. His friends who were good writers would write speeches and pamphlets, painters would put graffiti on walls, and others would raise funds. In waging our own little "insurgencies" at work or in our society, people tend to focus on the big celebrity comments or controversies, but sometimes real change happens when people add value where they can do so the most, often in ways that are not visible. If you are really passionate about an issue, just "liking" a comment on social media will likely not help bring about any change. Ask yourself how you could get involved, given your background and experiences, and do it.

Rallying Together

Finally, my grandfather's one regret was that the insurgency he was part of was not embraced by everyone. Many in the middle class had no issues about their children working for the British Raj. If anything, a government job was highly coveted. That's understandable because taking a stand against the status quo comes with its risks, and many people will gravitate towards the safe solution. So my grandfather and his friends struggled on, but at times it was a lonely battle, as many of their friends and family actively discouraged them.

Real change will never happen if we focus on our differences instead of uniting against the tyranny we seek to oppose.

In 03:02, my protagonist is able to rally together his community, but has to first build that common ground, as many people would rather wait for the army to arrive instead of taking a risk themselves, even in the face of imminent danger. In the context of our everyday "insurgencies", the learning is that real change will never happen if we continue to talk at each other, instead of to each other; if we exclude others instead of trying to bring them onboard; and if we focus on our differences instead of uniting against the tyranny we seek to oppose.

In our daily lives we will likely not have to face enemy armour or fight occupying troops. However, each of us has an opportunity to make a positive difference in our immediate environment by standing up to some prevailing practice that needs changing, whether in our office, our families, our neighbourhoods, or indeed in our broader society. In doing that, thinking like an insurgent, and taking inspiration from these two insurgencies, one real, and one fictional, may well serve us well.

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