Sunday, February 11, 2007


That Indians largely get on with each other, even when packed up close and personal,"""
Kumbh harmony lessons for West
- Uniting ‘us’ and ‘them’

A foreigner at the Kumbh mela in Allahabad

London, Feb. 3: Sophisticated Indians living in, say, Ballygunge, Bandra or Bangalore may believe that the Kumbh mela, described by the British as “the largest single gathering of people on earth”, is something best attended by others but not so UK social psychologists who have studied crowd behaviour.

They say the West has much to learn from India in how to avoid the divisive “us” and “them” forces in society and, thereby, create greater harmony.

As it is, the Kumbh mela, where 35 lakh may gather at one moment as happened at the Ganges last week on the occasion of Maghi Poornima, is beloved of British photographers who love to focus on naked sadhus chilling out on chillum.

Channel 4 — the same network that has given the world Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother — has carried live broadcasts from the Kumbh mela.

But the latest development is a just-published three-year study into the month-long Hindu festival by psychologists from the universities of St Andrews (where Prince William met his girlfriend, Kate Middleton), Dundee and Lancaster.

That Indians largely get on with each other, even when packed up close and personal, has been observed and commented on favourably in a report — though in suitably academic language.

The team said its work overturned many old beliefs about crowd behaviour.
Professor Steve Reicher, a social psychologist at St Andrews University, observed: “Despite the fact that the mela seems designed to increase stress in every way — it is very noisy day and night, very unhealthy, and very packed — what we found was that actually people feel serene, peaceful and unstressed.”

No doubt if he travelled on a packed 2B bus in Calcutta, he would arrive at the same conclusion and have possibly even more fun.

UK academics find ever more ingenious ways of keeping themselves in gainful employment — not that Reicher and his team are not composed of perceptive Brits.

Reicher is said to be “broadly interested in the issues of group behaviour and the individual-social relationship. More specifically, his recent research can be grouped into three areas.

The first is an attempt to develop a model of crowd action that accounts for both social determination and social change. The second concerns the construction of social categories through language and action. The third concerns political rhetoric and mass mobilisation — especially around the issue of national identity.”

Although the mela brings together a seething mass of humanity, there is virtually no disorder, crushes or rioting, the researchers noted.

They found that even though people at the festival came from different castes and social backgrounds, there was a strong sense of common identity. They said this positive outlook stemmed from a lack of an “us” and “them” psychology, which was often the root of social conflict.

In contrast, a distinct division existed in western society between, for example, immigrants and non-immigrants. According to Reicher, it was the responsibility of everyone to avoid doing anything to entrench the “us” and “them” mentality between communities, disrupting social cohesion.

He added: “These various findings raise very important questions about the nature of collective participation and how it can affect both individual well-being and social cohesion.”
Reicher’s colleague at St Andrew’s, Clare Cassidy, said: “Many people argue crowds are bad for you. But in the mela we found that people become more generous, more supportive and more orderly rather than less.”

She explained: “This is the opposite of a ‘walk on by’ society, it is a community where people are attentive to the needs of strangers.”

On Celebrity Big Brother, the American actor, Dirk Benedict, offered his own wisdom: “Sometimes the loneliest place is in the middle of a crowd.”

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