Disasters have a peculiar way of affecting the imagination. First, one has to recognise that disasters are not disasters unless they are labeled so. One either needs a media story or a UN certificate. Till then the world moves in happy indifference. Syria, Sudan or Afghanistan could be empty spaces, a Third World more alien than Mars. In fact, ironically, one looks for life in Mars and gets Russian entrepreneurs to colonise Mars, but death in life situations in the Third World raises little in terms of response.
If disasters do arise in or concern the consciousness of the West, they have to be located in a dualism of good and evil, where evil is the drug lord, the terrorist or the demented cleric. Battling them are the good forces of the West because only a Western takeover can solve the problem of the regime. Ordinary people who have lost the everydayness of work, livelihood, community become non-persons in these savage struggles.
Disasters create their own networks of corruption where smugglers, black marketeers, local warlords and bandits thrive on the extreme desperation of the people. One watches this sequence of tyranny, genocide, displacement merely as a litany of body counts. India too has lost its sympathy for liberation struggles and disasters. It was not always so. But now, like the West, we see these areas as seedbeds of terrorism. There is a distance, an indifference to worldwide suffering that was not there two decades ago.
A society which championed Mandela and Palestine, that fought for liberation struggles now feels life is easier making defense deals with Israel and buying nuclear reactors on the quiet. As an aspirational nation we have no sympathy for the defeated, the displaced, the anonymous boat refugees thronging Europe. We feel superior to them. We Indians as a green card nation have little sympathy for the defeated of the world. But there is a politics out there we need to understand and our silence, our indifference or even our ignorance is no answer to it.
Take the case of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach and moved Europe temporarily to tears. There are three worlds we have to understand here. The West, by demonising Syria, has made it an unlivable place. As a perpetual policeman, the West has become a bully boy of post-Cold War politics, refusing to allow other countries to decide their political futures. Once the axis of evil as a mythical diagram is drawn, Syria can do no right till the West intervenes, in the process Syria becoming a victim of civil war as forces backed by the West are not completely successful. In this strife-torn situation, the ordinary man suffers and becomes a refugee.
For Europe, which can see no difference between refugee and migrant, the Syrian or any boat person threaten their borders. These people, caught between a West that is hostile and an Islamic fundamentalism which thrives on their misery, are unwelcome. The ISIS sees these refugees as traitors rushing off to the fleshpots of the West.
Meanwhile the world discovers that Europe does not have a conscience. It merely creates a government that allows a few exceptions. It offers a quota system where a specified number of refugees are welcome. European generosity works in terms of ration cards and quotas. It has no sense of hospitality. It prefers humanitarianism abroad to hospitality within. A small moment of sentimentality makes Europe and the West feel human, but the reluctance and the hostility is clear. There is a coldness that few, except Pope Francis, have the guts and the compassion to talk about.
Citing Mother Teresa, he asked Europe to open its heart and not just its gates. But European charity is strictly limited. There is a hardness of heart among European nations which is chilling. Ironically, the West might award itself a peace prize for its decision in the same way the Nobel committee awarded a war criminal like Henry Kissinger a peace prize.
The ordinary citizen in the current geopolitics is a victim of several forces. He is a prey to his own regime, he is a target of fundamentalists who compost his misery, he is a suspect to a West which creates the disaster and he is prey to all the forces of corruption from clerks to human traffickers who exploit him with the promise of freedom. But the story does not end there because in a way what is even more saddening is our indifference, in fact cowardice and complicity in confronting the situation. Worse, we have no Chomsky to spell out the dynamics of tyranny and oppression.
There was a time when India displayed Third World solidarity. Our Krishna Menons could stand up to the West. We realised, at least till the Cold War, that there was little innocence in Western foreign policy, that Western multinationals were not Mother Teresas. But today we have no Rajni Kothari to be the dissenting intellectual and even the Arundhati Roys are not coming forward to remind us of the death of conscience in Syria. Our current regime is pathetic. It has lost its sense of ethics to its foreign policy and is busy notching up brownie points with Israel and Europe.
There was a time when at least a few intellectuals from the Left would spell out a challenge invoking a Nehru, a Ho Chi Minh or a Fidel Castro. But today the Left is impotent, the Right is jubilant, and our area specialists write mediocre little tutorials outlining their limited understanding of the situation based on previous readings of Time, the Economist or the Guardian. India does not summon the UN to action. There is no non-aligned world to even invoke the memory of nationalist struggles. The think tanks we have are so opportunistic that they are happy echoing the West rather than reading the current crisis with compassion. The idea of India is brutally restricted. Indifference cannot be an act of ethics or of foreign policy.
Syria today is a symptom of the emptiness of Indian intellectual life. We do not seem to care. We either gloat over the Syrian crisis or watch Indrani Mukerjea with moralistic relish. In fact, there is not even a letter to the editor. I remember a time processions would be organised and letters signed by leading academics would enliven the editorial pages. Our Indian intellectual today is toothless, indifferent, content and smug that such a crisis is not happening in his backyard. I cannot think of a deeper sadness than this act of vacuity where Indian foreign policy and Indian social science have violated the very idea of what being an Indian meant. Sadly, ours is a complicity of indifference which is genocidal. I wish something had been done to fight this global crime of silence. The future may not forgive us.