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How many people really care?

Most of us worry about pavements, parking, garbage and streetlights. But how many among us care about the nature, quality and meaning of citizenship?

Khalsa Aid members serving tea outside Jamia Millia Islamia in December.
Khalsa Aid members serving tea outside Jamia Millia Islamia in December.

In recent months I have been obsessing about one question: How many of us actually care?

Not about pavements, parking, garbage and streetlights—those fantastic four identifiers of “good citizens" on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups—but about the nature, quality and meaning of citizenship in this country.

How many people draw parallels between the lack of concern US President Donald Trump displayed for the Delhi violence that unfolded during his visit and the jacket First Lady Melania Trump wore to a migrant child detention centre in 2018, with the words “I really don’t care, do you?" scrawled across it. The much-debated jacket echoed Benito Mussolini’s fascist motto Me Ne Frego (which, politely, translates to “I don’t care").

How many people agree with the headline of the Atlantic magazine analysis, written by author Mira Kamdar, and published after the savagery of the Delhi riots, “What Happened In Delhi Was A Pogrom"?

How many people worry about the fear storm that whirls around the lives and futures of Muslims in this country? How many believe the community has ample reason to feel scared and unsafe?

I even tried to make a mental list of people who I think care. I have been part of Karwan e Mohabbat (KeM), founded by activist Harsh Mander, as a response to hate in our society, so I know he and his team care. A slew of like-minded organizations, like United Against Hate, Swaraj Abhiyan, Anhad, ICLU (Indian Civil Liberties Union), Pinjra Tod, Our Democracy and a few other groups and individuals, along with KeM, have formed a citizens’ coalition and divvied up responsibilities, including actual rescue of victims from their homes and the verification of reports of violence that were still flooding in from Delhi’s poorest working-class neighbourhoods as I wrote this. They care.

“If you had asked me before, I might have said a thousand activists care," agrees Bilal Zaidi, founder of crowdsourcing platform Our Democracy and part of the above collective. But after attending many of the ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Zaidi feels most people care. “Some actively do something about it, others are scared, prefer the status quo in their lives, but they do care. The haters are not more than 20%. The number of people who are showing up to help with the relief effort is phenomenal," he says.

Yet it took Zaidi eight days to find a partner to launch a crowdfunding campaign for riot victims on his platform. “It wasn’t easy to find an NGO that was willing to take responsibility of receiving the funds and then dispersing them to victims," he says.

We know that Justice S. Muralidhar cares—the government issued the notification of his transfer to Punjab & Haryana high court the day after his bench reprimanded the Delhi police for failing to register FIRs against the hate speeches of three Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. But at his farewell on 5 March, we saw how many lawyers of the Delhi high court care. “When justice has to triumph, it will triumph," Muralidhar told the audience that had packed the lobby of the court to pay their respect.

Lawyers who are defending innocent protesters and the victims of police and mob brutality care. A small yet efficient monochrome hive promptly shows up after any SOS message that begins: “Lawyers needed at…." The same can be said of many doctors and journalists and a handful of stray politicians.

The Sikh community cares. We have all understood that clearly these past couple of years. Their caring is gold standard—they care equally about Kashmiris too. Delhi’s gurdwaras promptly opened relief camps after news of the riots spread. All schoolchildren should be taught the tenets of Sikh love, maybe then we will grow up looking for our heroes in places other than cricket, Hindi cinema and on government billboards.

Talking of sports and actors, boxer Vijender Singh and actor Swara Bhasker and a handful of celebrities have spoken up against divisiveness. They care. Since December, women, more than men, and students, more than older people, have shown they care. At last count, there were hundreds of sit-ins across the country, protesting the laws that together will put India’s citizenship through a religious sieve.

The women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh care. They encourage many people to care. “A new kind of woman is emerging…This new woman very rarely features in televised debates or appears in the mainstream media, but I keep running into her in every country I go," says Ece Temelkuran in How To Lose A Country, my current favourite book. “…She knows that you can only fight against a cause with another cause. She does not demand power, indeed she rejects it. She wants a decent life for everyone, and she knows that political polarisation and the hostile policies of the political powers cannot be dealt with using couples therapy techniques like empathy."

Some neighbours care, we saw from the stories that came out of the riots. They offer shelter, block roads, form a human chain to protect a temple, a Hindu man climbs a damaged mosque to remove the saffron flag rioters fixed on its minaret. Barkha Dutt interviewed Sanjiv Kumar, who pushed away his fear and risked his life to help his neighbour Mujibur Rehman’s family. The two have lived side by side for 25 years. Of course, Kumar then had to deal with the Hindus in his neighbourhood who felt betrayed by his action and labelled him a traitor.

Much as we would like it to be, this ephemeral rainbow of stories about people who care isn’t in the same weight category as the ashes-and-blood narrative of the violence.

“I see four sets of people on Twitter," says communications consultant Surekha Pillai, who has joined relief teams run by civil society group Khudai Khidmatgar and Delhi students. “Those who have always been known to care and who are stepping up and helping again; those who are living life like before, perhaps even annoyed at how things are disrupting their comfortable lives; those who thank people who are doing something and retweet pleas for help/donations but don’t actually do anything themselves; and finally a very minute percentage of folks who didn’t care much before but are moved enough to do something now."

How minute is this percentage, do you think? Which brings us back to the question: How many people actually care?

No government can ignore a non-violent civil resistance if 3.5% of the population engages in it, according to Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth. The good news is Sikhs are 1.72% of our population. We only have to make up the remaining 50%.

The best way to look at this, I have realized, is to stop worrying about how many people care and ensure that we will be counted among those who do.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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