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Are we an apathetic nation?
March 12, 2003
As anti-war protests rattle the windows in Washington, London, New York, Tokyo, in Damascus and Rawalpindi, in Cairo, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur and Karachi, a frightening calm hangs over India.
Frightening because it indicates the levels of apathy that we as a nation have sunk to. An apathy that reflects in every sphere of our lives, an apathy that is reflected in our personal, national and international dealings.
The phrase 'Somebody Else's Problem,' from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could have been written with modern India in mind.
‘Why should we care about what happens to Iraq?' wondered a reader in response to an earlier column advocating Indian activism. ‘Don't we have our own pressing problems to worry about?'
Of course we do. These pressing problems make five able-bodied people turn their face when a young girl is raped by a scrawny vagabond on a suburban Mumbai train.
These pressing problems ensure that we accept corruption and governmental apathy with tired resignation. And these pressing problems prevent us from rallying together against the obvious bully boy tactics of a superpower.
This cancer of I, Me, and Mine has percolated through the entire length and breadth of our society, leaving deep furrows of silence in its wake. An entire generation trained to turn its face, to not see the sadness and despair, the hope and joy, the heroes and losers that constantly surround us. A generation more concerned with its immediate gratification, and proudly unconcerned about those less privileged.
This in no way implies that rallies and protests have any real, tangible effect.
If anything, the evidence points to the contrary. Did the anti-war rallies in the US stop Vietnam? Do the protests at every WTO meeting make any difference to the march of globalisation?
And did the rallies against the cause of the day in Kolkata do anything other than antagonise good, hardworking citizens trying to get to work?
Like petitions and charters of demands, rallies, no matter how large, seldom manage to achieve their objectives. After all, the government knows better.
Protest rallies against things that affect us directly like hikes in public transport rates or basic foodgrains have hardly ever led to a cut in those prices. Why then should we wave banners and shout slogans against something happening thousands of miles away?
Why should we care about the dying children in Iraq when they die like flies in our own country? Why should we care about the American threat to disarm or die when the threat is directed against another nation?
(Yet why, at the same time do we await international -- read American -- approval before we even contemplate similar action against Pakistan?)
Let us ignore the fact that it was India that taught the world what a non-violent movement could achieve. That India was the founder member of the Non-aligned Movement, which was created to oppose colonialism in any form.
Let us brush aside the fact that in September 1990, a month after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, then external affairs minister I K Gujral traveled to Baghdad and embraced Saddam Hussein and later urged Indians in Kuwait to support Iraq.
Let us conveniently forget the fact that Saddam's Iraq has consistently supported India's position on Kashmir. That during the 1970s oil crisis, Saddam shipped crude oil to India at reasonable rates.
India, which has consistently protested against the sanctions imposed against Iraq, now seems willing to sit back and watch the nation being attacked by foreign forces.
But in order not be seen as a crippled ingrate, it officially opposes any unilateral, or non-UN sponsored, attack on Baghdad. And urges Saddam to comply with the UN inspection program.
If one thinks about the choices before India, this 'middle path,' which is also being endorsed by other nations opposed to war, seems the only viable option.
After all, if India were to overtly oppose and condemn a war, all the bonhomie between India and the US would dissolve in an instant. And that is something India can ill afford at this juncture.
While if it were to openly endorse a US invasion of Iraq, it risks antagonising a huge Muslim population already seething over Gujarat, as well as the Arab nations worldwide.
(In fact, this situation is similar to what India faces over the West Asia crisis. While India has traditionally espoused the Palestinian cause, the Kashmir crisis and the Chinese assistance to Pakistan have increased its defence interaction with the US and with Israel. So officially, India today has a 'neutral' view of the crisis though there have been murmurs of protest about India's new found unwillingness to condemn Israeli 'atrocities').
But does that mean we, as individuals, do not have the right to protest against the blatant infringement of a sovereign nation's right to survive?
Protests, be they in the form of tame petitions or violent rallies, have never achieved much. Protests on the streets of India won't stop the war on Iraq.
But neither will they be exercises in futility.
A smart government could actually point to massive protests to hike up its price for 'supporting' the US, or at least use them as an excuse to stay on the fence. Right now, the general apathy prevailing in the nation does not give the government that leverage.
Protests, if nothing else, would prove that we care about issues that matter. That we are unwilling to let the government make all our choices for us. In a democracy, protests put the politicians on notice.
And finally, they would at least indicate our awareness of the fact that it is but a very, very short step from being an apathetic nation to a pathetic one.Ramananda Sengupta