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Opinion | Are we a nation without empathy?

  • For Kashmiris studying and working outside the state, their families just dropped off the grid
  • A people’s pain was dismissed and reduced to pithy opinions—“This was required”, “It needed to be done”—offered with a shrug

Women wait to have their names checked in the National Register of Citizens in Nagaon, Assam.
Women wait to have their names checked in the National Register of Citizens in Nagaon, Assam. (Photo: PTI)

Last week, empathy got a state funeral. The stage was set when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which had been guaranteed for more than 65 years under Article 370 of the Constitution, and, over two days, muscled through both houses of Parliament a Bill that split the state into two Union territories.

Even as constitutional experts questioned the validity of the process, thousands of troops enforced one of the strictest curfews residents and veteran Kashmir reporters had ever seen. Millions of citizens were trapped in their homes, without any communication services. For Kashmiris studying and working outside the state, their families just dropped off the grid.

A people’s pain was dismissed and reduced to pithy opinions—“This was required", “It needed to be done"—offered with a shrug. With the Kashmir we once knew was buried our already ailing empathy.

As constitutional expert Menaka Guruswamy summed it up at a public event in Bengaluru last week, “To my comrades out there who will see this week as being legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional, I think (B.R.) Ambedkar would say to them, my friends, countrymen and countrywomen, this is far too essential and far too important to be just that."

WhatsApp drowned in jeering forwards about how Indians could now access prime real estate and light-skinned Kashmiri women. Even Lt Gen. Vinod Bhatia, a former army man who called the government’s move a “historic decision", felt the need to remind people on Twitter that “we have to respect all…. Empathy is the need."

The pain-is-only-pain-if-it’s-our-pain theme played out simultaneously in Assam, where thousands of our poorest countrymen—who could ill-afford the expense of travel—were told that they had a day to rush hundreds of kilometres away for National Register of Citizens (NRC) hearings. For four people, it was literally a race to death.

Why just Assam and Kashmir? One favourite response of many acquaintances to the spate of bovine-related lynchings and other assorted hate crimes in recent years has been to simply announce that they have stopped reading/watching the news because it’s too “stressful" a start to the day.

Newspapers and news websites are constantly under pressure from their marketing departments to ensure readers are not yanked out of their cocoons first thing in the morning. The daily tortures of invisible India are tucked away in the crevices between the “good news" stories.

Yes, Chennai’s water emergency broke through our bubble but how many of us know that Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra have been hit by devastating floods?

Yet, if a study published in 2016 is to be believed, Indians rank as average on the empathy scale. When William J. Chopik, Ed O’Brien and Sara H. Konrath surveyed 104,365 people from 63 countries to rank the world’s most empathetic countries, India ranked somewhere in the middle at 35, above the UK, Australia and most of Eastern Europe.

Travellers to India often ruminate on how this country forces them to examine their lives and teaches them empathy and the need for giving. We, on the other hand, find it easier to block out reality. We often don’t acknowledge the smiling child who presses her face against our rolled-up windows at the traffic light. We can spend hours discussing maid problems without acknowledging the sub-human working conditions we provide our household staff. In this country, accident victims routinely die ignored in crowded public spaces. Some of you will probably stop reading this column here—it’s so preachy, right?

Empathy can be exhausting and lead you to switch off, especially in a country like India, where fresh horrors lurk around every bend. Some people argue that this is precisely why empathy that doesn’t lead to any constructive action is overrated. Maybe it’s better to focus on actual acts of compassion.

In Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice And Indifference In New India, Harsh Mander, author-activist and my favourite empathy role model, says empathy breaks down when “I can persuade myself that the ‘other’ is, in some ways, not like me, not fully human in the way I and the people of my family, my community, my caste, my gender, my race, and indeed, my sexual preferences are". Empathy can be taught, and equally, empathy can be blocked, adds Mander, citing hierarchies and the politics of difference as two effective walls.

One of the oldest examples of our lack of empathy is our total and utter disregard for caste atrocities. In 2019, many of us believe that caste has largely been eliminated. “Untouchability remains a lifeline of India’s present," writes Suraj Yengde in his stunning new book Caste Matters, citing innumerable examples and adding that those who refuse to acknowledge the stories and statistics of this reality are the “ones who partake in perpetuating violent casteism". Yengde says “Dalit Love"—or the audacity to hope in a dark world—“has kept the community alive and guarded it against utter destruction". It is this love that allows Dalits to embrace even those who show no empathy, he adds.

“If you are in trouble, or hurt, or in need—go to the poor people. They are the only ones that will help—the only ones." In his book, Mander quotes this from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath and adds that he agrees wholeheartedly with the American author. “It is in their giving and solidarities in which I find my greatest hope that the claiming of a caring and just world is possible."

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

Twitter - @priyaramani

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