I sometimes wonder how I would describe today’s India if I were a historian writing a hundred years from now. I would write, first, that the paramount marker of the first decade of 21st century India was the extraordinary indifference that people of privilege had for the intense and pervasive levels of human suffering all around them. In an interview he gave in the middle of 2013, philosopher and public intellectual Noam Chomsky observed that India’s “misery and oppression are so striking, much worse than in any country I have ever seen. And it is so dramatic”. Tellingly, he also noted: “What is really striking to me...is the indifference of privileged sectors to the misery of others. You walk through Delhi and cannot miss it, but people just don’t seem to see it...they put themselves in a bubble.”
There is indeed a startling absence of compassion among a majority of well-to-do Indians towards the millions who have no advantages of birth to shield them from hunger, oppression, violence, squalor and humiliation. A dispassionate external observer would be bewildered by middle-class India’s capacity to look away when confronted with enormous injustice and suffering; by our society’s cultural comfort with inequality. That the accident of where a child is born still determines her chances in life almost irrevocably—whether and how long she would be able to study, and with what quality, the vocations open to her, the limits of her wealth and social standing, even her most basic well-being and dignity—is widely considered unproblematic, even legitimate. Many people of wealth and privilege are convinced that they have what they do because they deserve it, and that those who are in want and need also deserve their lot—because of laziness, addiction to drink, lack of education, lack of ambition, low capabilities in general, and the profligate breeding of large families.
The second-most striking marker of this age that I would record, looking back on India a century later, would be the legitimisation of prejudice and discrimination against people of minority faiths and cultures and people whose life choices differ from those of the majority. Since the early 1990s, there has been an erosion, among significant sections of the middle class, of our traditions of pluralism and the lived acceptance—however imperfect—of diversity. People of minority communities are subjected to bigotry, intolerance and open hostility. Large sections of the elite and middle classes are also unapologetically prejudiced against people of ‘lower’ castes, residents of urban slums, people from ethnically distinct regions like the Northeast, working class migrants from poor states like Bihar, coloured people, sexual minorities and many others who differ in whichever way from the ‘mainstream’.
Formal sector workers receive pensions of around half their last pay drawn. Using this as the yardstick—the government’s own—the indigent old people who gathered at Jantar Mantar in the winter of 2013 under the banner of Pension Parishad demanded a universal pension equivalent to half the statutory minimum wages of unorganised workers, which is roughly `2,000 a month. This `2,000, incidentally, is a fraction of what many of us in the middle classes would spend in an evening outing with the family, watching a film in a multiplex, and then some dinner afterwards.
At a Pension Parishad at Jantar Mantar in ’13, indigent old people asked for a Rs 2,000 pension, worth a single evening’s outing for many of us.
Talking to some of them about what they would do if they actually got the pension was both educative and heart-breaking. Suhagan Devi of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, said, “I’ll use the money to get treatment for my filariasis, because of which my son keeps me out of my house.” A lady sitting next to her nodded and added, simply, “If we get this pension, our children will take care of us.” One old couple told us, “Out of this 2,000 rupees, we’ll spend money on food, medicines, rent.... And if we are able to save some money then we’ll set aside 100 rupees every month for our cremation.” Others made even more specific plans: “If we get this money, we won’t sit idle, we’ll buy a goat, and that goat over a period of time will become a source of income and we’ll live a better life.”
For some who were fighting disability and disease, the `2,000 would only make bare survival possible. “I’m handicapped, so I’ll spend this money on arrangements for me to move around. And I can afford the medicines I need.” An old woman said, “We are a family of seven, my husband is a cancer patient; my son is disabled and his wife is a TB patient. Even basic needs like food cost much more than `2,000 every month. We are under heavy debt. I don’t know what I’ll do with this `2,000.” An elderly widow said, “I have two sons. One of them is deaf and mute and the other is a drunkard. Food, clothes, water—all of it costs much more than `2,000.”
One old woman was more expansive in her day-dream, “If I get this pension, I’ll use an autorickshaw to travel to hospital and get my medicines. I’ll be able to eat good food. This much money will satiate my soul. And most importantly, I won’t be a burden on my family anymore.” On the last day of the dharna, an old widow from a village in Bihar looked very distraught. Shankar, a senior activist helping the elderly on their dharna, comforted her. “Don’t worry, amma, you will be back in your village soon.” “That is what I am worried about, son,” she replied. “Here in the dharna I ate three meals every day. How will I fill my stomach when I’m back in my village?”
There are fewer girls on the streets of Delhi than boys, but they must negotiate the metropolis at its predatory worst, every day. Unlike the majority of street boys, who courageously negotiate lives alone on the streets, rebelling against abuse and neglect in their homes by severing links with their families, most girls we encounter on the streets of Delhi continue to live on pavements or in slums with families, who send them out to earn money to support their siblings and parents. This they do stoically and bravely, but with much less of the reckless joyfulness that street boys craft out of their hard-won freedom. In their early years, girls mostly beg. As they grow older, the majority rag-pick in waste dumps and markets, earning more than a hundred rupees daily. Often bullied and molested, they learn to shout swear words and grapple with their fists. Many chew tobacco or sniff adhesive solutions. And, either through their parents or on their own, many soon learn ways to furtively earn larger sums from older men who seek casual sex with children.
We met a few such girls outside Hanuman Mandir in Delhi, not far from Yamuna Pushta, an embankment along the Yamuna in Delhi adjoining the Nigambodh cremation grounds, home to thousands of homeless people.
Farah, delicate and fragile underneath her grubby exterior, was barely 10. She came from a family of migrants from a village near Calcutta. She could not hear or speak, nor could her younger sister. Their father was addicted to smack and would spend his time in a drugged haze. His two daughters would beg, with wordless insistence, at the Hanuman Mandir where many homeless children and women gather for food and alms. Devotees at the temple distribute bananas and other fruit; others bring cooked kulchas and kachoris with halwa; many give away sweetmeats as prasad. On festival days or in memory of loved ones, some even distribute clothes. But the day’s work for the sisters would not be complete until they had collected a few coins from the worshippers at the temple. Their mother would sit on a side lane, and the girls would run up to her periodically, deposit their collections, and run back for more.
A group of volunteers was sitting outside the temple gates, talking to some of the girls, when all at once Farah tensed, visibly wilted, and tried to hide behind one of young women volunteers. An older girl, Shabnam, ran up and fiercely grabbed the shirt of a disabled old man who was walking past. He, too, was mute, but he angrily gesticulated and threatened the girls. Shabnam protectively embraced the younger Farah. Gradually, the sordid tale unfolded.
Farah’s mother had sold her to this old man. He would rape her regularly and, in return, give money to the family. We located Farah’s mother and angrily urged her to let us take the girl under our care. She declined sadly. “I love my daughter. But if I let her go, how will the family live? He will not allow us to beg here, and we will all starve.” While we tried to get the police to rescue the girl, I struggled to not judge the utterly defeated older woman, but could not quite succeed.
When young, girl children on the street mostly beg. As they grow older, they learn to earn larger sums from older men seeking casual sex.
It is a harsh unforgiving winter each year for homeless people who survive Delhi’s streets. Through long foggy nights, bleary-eyed with sleep, they squat around tiny fires, desperately trying to keep the chill out. Many curl up together, sometimes under a single thin blanket, bony bodies pressed against each other, some along with stray dogs, all sharing body warmth. But we also encounter the stiff sleeping forms of single, lonely people, almost frozen in the cold. Every wintry night leaves behind more bodies—anonymous, dispensable people; rickshaw-pullers, balloon-sellers, women thrown out on to the streets by violent spouses, children who have escaped abuse, abandoned old people....
There are still no shelters of any kind for more than 90 per cent of over a hundred thousand men, women and children in the nation’s capital for whom the open sky is the only roof.
Entrepreneurs in the walled city around Jama Masjid have learned to profit from the failures of the state to provide for its most dispossessed citizens. They hire out quilts to homeless people at 10 rupees a night, and mattresses for an additional 10. They also occupy open tracts of government lands—where the government could have built many shelters—on which they erect makeshift private ‘shelters’, with plastic sheet roofs but no walls. Under these, they lay small cots with blankets and mattresses which they rent out to the homeless people who can afford to pay 30 rupees a night. A bonus of sleeping in these privatised ‘shelters’ is that the police are paid off to not harass the people who pay to sleep here.
Winter forces homeless people to make difficult choices. If you want the warmth of a quilt to keep out the cold, you may have to give up a meal.
When the dust settled after the general elections of 2014, it was apparent that this had been no ordinary poll. What had been waged was no less than a battle for India’s soul. No election in free India’s nearly seven-decade history has left the moral, social and political landscape of India so profoundly divided.
It is important to understand that the election of 2014 was not just the emphatic victory of one political party and the humiliating defeat of others. This has happened many times in the short history of the Indian republic—in 1967, 1977, 1980, 1989, 1999 and 2004—and is indeed the stuff of democracy. What was more significant this time was the rapture, hope and triumphant vindication which significant segments of the population experienced in the victory of Narendra Modi. Equally stark was the collective sentiment of dread, gloom and hopelessness, as well as a profound insecurity among millions of Modi’s opponents.
The real story of the 2014 elections is of the social, and not merely the political, winners and losers—one segment of people who felt that Modi’s victory signified the glorious consolidation of their own economic and social ascendancy, and another segment who felt devastated by the result, seeing in it a crushing of their dreams for themselves, their communities and their country. For the latter, it was not the parties they supported—which many recognised to have floundered and failed them spectacularly and unforgivably—but they themselves who had been vanquished.
Through long foggy winter nights in Delhi, people squat around tiny fires, then sleep curled up together, often with stray dogs.
Who are the social winners of the 2014 elections, the people who voted for the BJP and who celebrate its conquests as their own? They include not just large numbers of India’s urban, overwhelmingly caste-Hindu middle and upper classes—the most influential cheerleaders—but also people Modi himself describes as the ‘neo-middle class’—the new entrants to the middle class—and the aspirational class, those who have not yet entered the middle class but are hopeful and impatient to benefit from India’s growth. Many among these are first-time voters between 18 and 22 years of age. In addition, the BJP benefited hugely from a unified anti-minority Hindu votebank—there was a striking blurring of most caste lines and a significant recruitment even from among the subaltern castes, including that of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, against the religious minorities, especially Muslims but also of people in tribal areas, many of whom are Christians.
Who are those who perceive themselves to be the social losers of this election, many among the three out of five voters who opposed the victorious party and its allies? There is first the mass of secular Indians. This secular electorate comprises not only people from the numerically small upper-class liberal elite, but millions of ordinary Indians in the small towns and villages of the country who—in the ways they live their lives—oppose ideologies of difference and divisiveness and uphold an intensely pluralist though, simultaneously, a highly unequal civilisation. The second set of losers are India’s minorities, especially Muslims but also Christians, who are stunned and frightened by the scale of majoritarian consolidation, unmatched even by the aftermath of Partition and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which would count as the two lowest points in communal relations in independent India. Many Muslim friends confessed to having wept when they heard the results. Also in dread of backlash and persecution are India’s sexual minorities.
The third and the largest set of social losers are India’s very poor people—migrant workers, landless farm labourers, displaced forest-dwellers, farmers driven to despair and suicide, weavers and artisans threatened by extinction, women in unpaid or underpaid work, over 200 million people who still sleep hungry, over 100 million people condemned to the squalor of slums, young people who have never had the chance to enter school or continue beyond primary school, and people whom each health emergency pushes further into catastrophic penury or kills outright. They are the 21st century Indians, who cannot even dream of one day entering the golden middle class, people exiled from aspiration. One of India’s greatest living writers, Mahasweta Devi, once remarked that the first fundamental right of all is the right to dream. These are people in permanent exile from dreaming.
Despite overwhelming evidence, supported by virtually every commission of inquiry established after every major communal riot, and many independent, scholarly studies, that the large majority of victims in almost every communal riot are Muslims, the middle class remains convinced that during riots, Muslims are always the aggressors. This is what that indefatigable warrior against prejudice, Ram Puniyani, calls the ‘social common sense’, which remains unshaken with its preconceptions and prejudices despite all evidence to the contrary. On the flip side, there is also a continuous attempt to play down the numbers of lives lost, and to suggest that a significant proportion of people killed were actually Hindus.
The conviction that Muslims are aggressors even when they are manifestly and overwhelmingly the victims plays out in the prejudiced mind in ingenuous ways. During my year of self-imposed exile to Ahmedabad after the carnage, a friend took me to a group of doctors working in a leading private hospital. When the doctors learned what I was doing in Gujarat, their conversation unsurprisingly turned to the communal riots they had seen in Ahmedabad over the years. One doctor said, “When Muslim persons injured in riots would come into the government hospital in which I worked, I found they usually had simple shallow injuries. But when Hindus were brought in, the knife injuries would be deep and complicated, because Muslims are taught how to injure and kill with a thoroughness and cruelty which Hindus are incapable of.” Their conviction, that Muslims are particularly skilled at aggression, despite witnessing the unimaginable cruelty that had been visited upon the victims, mostly Muslim, remained unshaken.
This “blaming the victim” plays out in many other ways during communal riots, to breach the natural flow of human sympathy with the survivors. In Muzaffarnagar, within three months of the violence, the state government forcefully shut down all relief camps at the height of winter, even though people were too terrified to return home in a continuing climate of hate. As a result, hapless survivors were left unprotected in the open, and at least 50 children were reported to have died in the winter chill.
But I heard many officials—and even some journalists—observe privately that the government had to shut down the camps because Muslims otherwise were getting habituated to eating ‘free food’ for no work in the camps. This, again, is something I have heard in the aftermath of riots I have managed as a district officer over the years, and also in Gujarat when camps were again shut down within six months to give an impression of normalcy before the state elections.
I wish those who believe any human being would voluntarily choose to live with his or her loved ones in the humiliating, unsanitary, underserved, highly cramped environments of a relief camp in India would himself sleep one night with his own children, wife and parents in one of these camps, and then decide if any human being would choose this life of ‘free food’ out of laziness and greed.
India’s very poor are the largest set of social losers, condemned to sleep hungry, live in slums, exiled from dreaming, from aspiration.
As a small offering of solidarity, I spent one night in the Shah Alam Camp in Ahmedabad in 2002 among ten thousand others, and it is a memory which I will carry until my death. Ten thousand people—body pressed against body—slept within the narrow confines of the medieval mazaar amidst graveyards. People were stoic in their memories of suffering, betrayal and loss, and busied themselves in the everyday tasks of daily survival. A child needed milk, a baby was being born, a sick old man needed care. There were barely a score of toilets for ten thousand people, and a person could bathe only once in nine days. I recall the stench of unclean toilets and crowds of bodies packed together, the absence of privacy, the shame of pushing among the crowds for food, the broken childhoods of children, women delivering babies in the camp, and so many other indignities. My stomach was violently infected for a month after my stay in the camp. Mushtaq, a young resident of the camp who went on to join us as a peace worker, said to me, “I was the youngest in my family, and everyone spoilt me. The killings broke out in our colony Naroda. I saw children and women being burnt alive. I saw our neighbours loot and burn our home. I still did not cry. We were transported in trucks to Shah Alam Camp a day later. I still did not cry. Volunteers had cooked rotis for thousands of people streaming into the camps. There were no plates; the rotis were strewn on the dirt floor. My family was famished, and I saw them push other people to grab the rotis from the bare dirt. It was then that I began to weep for the first time.”
I also recall an incident in the Khargone district when, as the district magistrate, I was immersed in trying to help the survivors of a small local riot connected with the build-up to the Babri Masjid movement in 1989. An RSS activist with a red tika on his forehead walked into my office one day and said, “Collector saab, we all can see how much you have taken this riot to heart. But you should not. These Muslims set fire to their own homes only so that they can get compensation.”
At that time, the compensation was the princely sum of 2,000 rupees.
I was overwrought, perhaps, and could not hold myself back. I got up and pulled the startled man by the hand to the door of my office, saying, “You have to come with me now and set fire to your own house. I will give you 2,000 rupees from my personal bank account right away. But first, you must set fire to your house in my presence,” and continued to drag him out until he freed himself from my grip and fled.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and a peace worker who lost both his parents and sister in Auschwitz, reminds us that, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” And while I am dismayed by reports of Wiesel’s fierce opposition to Palestine, it is to these luminous words that I turn while opening this last segment of my book, for an initial, tentative exploration of the possibilities of love, empathy and public compassion being fashioned into instruments of social and political resistance, justice and, indeed, social transformation.
I will reflect briefly on whether love—variously understood as empathy, compassion, caring, solidarity, fraternity, forgiveness and non-violence—contains within it the capacity to dismantle indifference and prejudice. I will try to acknowledge the possibilities, but also the limits to empathy. I will talk of non-violence as resistance, and also of unmapped pathways we can embark upon to claim a more just and caring state, and a more just and humane society. I will also suggest that justice and empathy are closely intertwined, through the mediation of solidarity and fraternity (and because the word fraternity literally refers to a brotherhood, I will speak equally of sisterhood).
In the strange new ‘social common sense’ cultivated for our times in new India, it is the rich and the privileged who are being led to feel oppressed and shortchanged by the poor, rather than the other way round. The dominant narrative is: “We work hard and earn an honest living, and then we are taxed to supply freebies to the undeserving poor, rather than encouraging them to work hard and pull themselves up by their own efforts.” Likewise, it is the religious majority which feels persecuted by the minority, rather than the reverse: “Cynical political parties cultivate religious minorities as votebanks, and in return they are soft on terror, the mafia, their regressive clerics, religious conversions by fraud and bribery, and on their proclivity to breed large families.” The Preamble to India’s Constitution identifies four pillars of constitutional values: liberty, equality, justice and fraternity. Each has been compromised in many ways in India’s journey as a republic, but what is often least acknowledged in the dangerous fraying of our fraternity.
Amartya Sen, in The Idea of Justice, makes an important linkage between human empathy—combined with reason and the love of freedom—and the pursuit of justice. “We could have been creatures incapable of sympathy,” he says, “unmoved by the pain and humiliation of others, uncaring of freedom, and—no less significant—unable to reason, argue, disagree and concur. The strong presence of these features in human lives...does indicate that the general pursuit of justice might be hard to eradicate in human society, even though we go about that pursuit in different ways.”
The existence of empathy in human nature provides a clue to why, even though injustice has been a feature of all human societies throughout history, every human society has also seen stirrings for greater justice. Closely related to the idea of empathy is that of compassion. The Dalai Lama—one of the living men in the world I most admire—often stresses the highest value of being a compassionate human being, one who is moved by the suffering of others.
I am most drawn to the idea of what I describe as egalitarian compassion, because it does not place the giver on a pedestal above the receiver. The idea is that of two human beings, each equal in dignity and worth, but one in difficult circumstances, to whom the other reaches out with care and—importantly—with respect.
Compassion is constructed through feeling the pain of the other as one’s own. The related idea of empathy involves both the cognitive act of imagination, of understanding the feelings of another human being; and the emotional, of actually experiencing the feelings of another.
If only those who believe any human being would voluntarily live with their loved ones in a relief camp spent a night there with their kin!
My faith in the central role of the state for social and economic justice and the protection of the rights of people disadvantaged by class, gender, caste, faith and other social identities remains undimmed. The change within my thinking is my growing recognition that a just and caring state can only be located ultimately in a just and caring society. All the inequities and injustice which I have described in this book, without exception, represent profound and culpable failures of the state and its laws, policies and institutions. But these failures of the state are due to the social sanction given by the influential middle and upper classes to inequality, prejudice, caste and communal injustice, patriarchy, the differential treatment of children, the oppression of labour, discrimination and violence against minorities and their criminal profiling, and the denials of healthcare, social protection, housing, clean water and sanitation, and a hundred other basic requirements for a decent, healthy life.
This does not mean that progressive laws should not be passed even far ahead of social consensus for these measures. It only means that it is important to be mindful that it is not enough for us to agitate for changes in laws and policies. For instance, it is futile to make states more accountable for the protection of women without fighting battles in our own homes for gender equality, for raising men to be kinder and women more assertive, and in schools and workplaces for the equality of men and women. It means that it is not enough to fight for stronger laws to end corruption, without recognising and resisting ways in which the middle and upper classes are not just victims of corruption, but also participants in and beneficiaries of it.
Of course, to achieve greater justice and equity, we need better state laws and policies. This is absolutely necessary but this is not enough. We must recognise the ways in which we—people of relative privilege and power—are also acutely culpable in these injustices and inequities, for our failures to fight these more intimate battles, including with our loved ones and colleagues, within the popular discourse, and with ourselves.
Baldly, what I realise today is that India will not change until we—the middle classes—also change.