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Being Indian: Apathy For All, Empathy For Few

06/02/2017 6:32 PM IST | Updated 11/02/2017 10:40 AM IST
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The question of apathy in Indian society has come up again and again. A teenager in Karnataka bled to death after being hit by a state bus, while passersby huddled around him to take videos and pictures on their mobile phones. A woman on a busy Chennai railway platform was attacked by a machete-wielding man and lay dead in a pool of blood for two hours while people went about boarding trains. A man hit by a tempo lay dying on a busy Delhi road, mostly disregarded by people, expect for a passerby who stopped to steal his wallet. These occurrences, and many more, demonstrate what can only be called cultural, a value system that goes beyond apathy. It is but a cultivated behaviour at the intersection of boredom and spectacular resourcefulness, where even the dead or the dying become locational opportunities.

Indian society appears to be built with blocks or rings, where benevolence hardly ever radiates beyond the closed circle of people we know.

Understandably, many hesitate from showing basic kindness for fear of harassment from law enforcement. This certainly was the case when a man in Delhi decided to help an accident victim who unfortunately died in the back seat of his car before he could reach the hospital. He promptly became the prime suspect, with the police asking if he had run over the girl. Since then, Karnataka has passed a Good Samaritan law which protects people who help. But even if this law were to be promulgated nationwide, would it encourage us to step out of our well-worn but everlasting garb of indifference and discriminatory compassion? Indian society appears to be built with blocks or rings, where benevolence hardly ever radiates beyond the closed circle of people we know. At the nucleus of this ring are our own immediate family members, around them are a few members of the extended family with a few neighbours and friends thrown in—all held together by the great gravitational pull of self-regard. At best, we are vaguely well-mannered towards acquaintances circling arbitrarily outside of the ring, but strangers far flung from this ring, who presumably belong to another ring, appear to deserve nothing but our indifference.

If empathy is a naturally occurring human condition, where, leaving our own instincts of self-preservation, we are capable of inhabiting the lives of others, feeling their pain and fighting for them, then we appear to pick the wrong fights. At the Jallikattu protest, thousands may have been stirred by the peril of the obliteration of their identities or the livelihood of bull breeders or perhaps the longevity of the breed itself, but where are these guardians of identity, humanity and culture when the Ennore Creek near Chennai, the very land that nurtures a distinct collective personality, is being systematically decimated by ruthless real estate corporations under the patronage of the state? Shouldn't we be up in arms against the atrocious treatment meted out to Tamil Dalits, who are even denied access to public roads by higher caste people? Surely such unconcealed discrimination is not part of Tamil identity. To the custodians of ethnic identity who may argue that it is foolish and even insensitive to compare such serious issues, the counterargument is in conceding that they are right— every issue that threatens to turn the innately clear water of humanity into a cess pit of apathy needs equal and forceful action.

The customary garb of apathy can indeed be discarded by movements of bare humanity in action.

To a minority, including myself, last month's huge Jallikattu protests at Marina beach, may have appeared disproportionate and an ineffectual exercise in buttressing threats to identity. But admittedly what it did achieve was to bully the often indolent and self-serving state into desperate action. It illustrated that the customary garb of apathy can indeed be discarded by movements of bare humanity in action.

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