New walls, fences surround us. Are we aware of them?
The World This Week brought it to our living rooms. It was the world we sought three decades ago.
Nostalgia wells up as I remember the Berlin Wall being breached 30 years ago, a significant event in world history that changed the way I looked at the global order. I was awestruck and inspired by the emotion of a borderless world where restrictions would be lifted and inhibitions would be gone in a blaze of openness.
I was in my impressionable early teens back then as I watched the Wall crumble on national television on a show called The World This Week, produced by an Indian private channel, one of the few that existed in those days.
Cable television hadn't arrived in India (it took another three years for the country to throw open its socialist economy to Western influences). People switched channels on state-run Doordarshan television in search of liberation from the boredom that was peddled in the name of entertainment and news. They were left disappointed, yet never feared to dream.
I think of those days as being fenced-in as the government monopolised what people got to see on screen, what they ate, how much they ate (rations and subsidies were still the norm). It was an era of systemic regulation mania and bureaucratic incompetence known as Licence Raj that ruled all walks of life, where mediocrity was accepted and considered normal, even revered because one didn't have to try hard to climb the ladder. Red tape was rampant and India, a country with great potential that looked small in the comity of nations with governance coming to a standstill and corruption hugging the country and its economic potential in a deathly embrace.
The only time people let their hair down was when they indulged in some navel-gazing, watching song and dance clips from movies on Wednesdays and Fridays, in Hindi and in a regional language respectively.
Media, like I said before, was controlled in India, but the sight of people running into West Berlin from the East looked like the freedom run for all ages. The joyous expressions of those (now erstwhile) East Berliners were priceless. Some scaled the Wall; others were sitting astride it; they jumped and crossed the barricades in the chill of the night on a lap to victory. I still play it over and over in my mind.
Freedom looked hep and cool, without the communist ideology to constrict it; my limited, juvenile worldview opened to new influences and an attitude that wondered: if they can break through the Wall, so can we in India, a third world nation (now an unacceptable expression).
The World This Week brought it to our living rooms. It was the world we sought three decades ago. It is the world we still seek in an era of breaking news, social media, live television and reckless technological innovation that seems to put people and their aspirations last.
I believed the global citizen had arrived with that world-changing event in Berlin in 1989; people would finally rule over their leaders, they would travel freely and safely across borders and live without restrictions and inhibitions. Yes, the meek would inherit the earth. There would be acceptance, tolerance, and universal peace. The physical-psychological Cold War had ended and leaders would be in hot pursuit of the economic ideal of capitalism. They would find nirvana in international democracy and diplomacy that had been dreamed and drummed up by the West.
Three decades later that ideal lies shattered even as countries claim they are part of the global order. A borderless society that was envisaged then sans the physical boundaries has transformed into a thoughtless deformity as social media and Big Tech make us ride the monster of connectivity.
We have built more physical walls since the fall of the Berlin Wall. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of World War II, there were only seven border walls or fences between countries. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall that number had gone up to 15. Now there are 77 such structures and fences. Fifty walls have come up since 2002. These include US President Donald Trump's grotesque concrete structure on the border with Mexico, the India-Bangladesh fence and the Israel-West Bank barrier.
They may be controversial but are deemed a necessity to keep 'unwanted people' and 'termites' out. This will ensure security, leaders tell us. That's because they have nothing else to do and want to be seen doing something.
Meanwhile modern tech tsars want us to stay in touch on a splintered Net. So we have Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and others creating devices and parallel ecosystems that are nothing short of virtual fences to protect turf, clout, and profits. Countries like China and Russia have built great firewalls to keep Western online systems out.
I haven't been able to keep up with this frenetic wall-building in vast real and virtual estates, but I take solace from reading Robert Frost's Mending Wall to make sense of these developments. We keep the wall between us as we go. I hear the echo of 'good fences make good neighbours.' Perhaps it's the mischief of spring in me. Or is it a return to winter blunderland where status quo prevails?
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