The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- We are callous towards evils that do not affect us

On November 5, twelve people were killed in bomb blasts in Guwahati. (Two more died later.) TV channels that evening hardly lifted the news above ticker level. Of three newspapers I saw next morning, only one carried it on the front page, in an inconspicuous corner. Another apportioned five column-inches on page 6. But it had not lost all sense of fitness. A five-column spread on the sports page covered the direst consequence: the threat to Ganguly?s Duleep Trophy match. The same media had given top coverage to the mere anniversary of the London transport blasts.

Ground Zero and Tavistock Square are more exotic than Dighalipukur and Phansi Bazar. Many in Guwahati must yearn for those dream countries whose very calamities ring round the world. The blast in their own backyard will increase their longing: they will want to distance themselves from it.

More and more of us are acquiring the philosophic art of detaching ourselves from the messy woes of our brethren and children. We learnt a month ago that unknown lakhs of dud blood-testing kits had passed through the public health system, putting unknown thousands of lives at risk ? very probably, having ended some already. We would be hard put to match this assault on so many lives by such quiet, casual, unstrenuous exercise of evil ? not war, not riots, not epidemics, just a few conscienceless operators working a system so supine that everyone participates in its corruption simply by belonging to it.

The crime seems to have shocked even the police. Not, however, the health officials and health minister, who ignored the matter as long as possible, and are now shrugging it off as though it were an accounting fiddle. They know they have nothing to fear: they have guessed, rightly, that it has not shocked us. We may shake our heads over a cup of tea at such misdeeds; but unless we have a thalassemic child of our own, we feel no horror or anger at mischief so monstrous that it might have cast a state into turmoil. Hence, to phrase things this way is to invite a charge of fomenting public hysteria: some may feel more indignant at such comments than at the crime that called them forth.

Let me add alarmism to my sins. All of us are allied in blood. I do not mean this sentimentally. It means that, thanks to a dedicated campaign that would have worked for good in a sane society, most blood is now donated, tested and distributed through the same channels. If a rich man thinks he can get safer blood by paying more, he is likely to get worse, from the illegal network of professional donors. In other words, none of us is immune from the consequences of the scandal. Fear of our own lives, or our children?s lives, might disturb us when our social conscience does not.

We are callous towards evils that do not affect us. It?s always other people who are beaten by the police, or mistreated (in every sense) in our hospitals, or run over by rogue drivers, or deprived of jobs by bribe-taking functionaries. If we are well-off or well-connected, we feel vaguely cheated if we find ourselves among the victims. Yet even that is not the whole story. There is a level of self-destructive, self-demeaning cynicism that admits we are vulnerable but still cannot bring us to protect ourselves, or even to feel specially sorry for ourselves. What more can we expect, we ask; what?s the use of protest ? or of trying to improve things'

That last is a crucial codicil. It separates the truly abject and disempowered from anyone reading this article. Even the humblest patron of The Telegraph has some weapon to fight back with, some power he wields over others ? some way he gains by subscribing to this cynical system. We are not simply victims: we are connivers. However we may suffer under the system, we have a vested interest in preserving it. This is a deeply relevant factor, as it bears upon the public functionary and the functions he serves. We often ascribe our moral inertness to economic reform, globalization and the demise of a mai-baap sarkar. We paint a past utopia when socialism served the poor, when we helped underlings and revered our elders, and the streets were washed every day.

The new order does hold out appalling new threats, including moral disownment of a quarter of our population. A Delhi economist has already argued that it doesn?t matter if people starve in Kalahandi: the district contributes little or nothing to our GDP. The economic ministries feel primary education is eating up funds better lavished elsewhere. We have concocted the fable that 92 per cent of our children go to school: that?s good enough for the rabble.

But was there ever a mai-baap sarkar' Even 92 per cent is a higher figure than of yore, and the constitutional right to education was granted only the other day. In the era of washed streets, the unfiltered water used to wash them caused annual cholera epidemics. Millions of refugees led sub-human lives, like famine victims a decade earlier. Then as now, the city that helped strangers on the streets also held the record for public lynchings.

People starved in Kalahandi even when demagogues were preaching the welfare state. The new inhumanity mirrors the old in all save its idiom. In fact, the blood-kit scandal shows what happens when the not-so-new immorality of conscienceless capital combines with the old immorality of conscienceless government.

To sustain this lucrative inhumanity, the population must be so tamed as to expect nothing better. No citizen must be allowed the luxury of self-respect, even to think of himself as a citizen. Public services must be unaccountable and incompetent, while corporate services make up in the former attribute their occasional shortfall in the latter. Hospitals ? possible sites of humane care ? must be so run that they debase the humanity of both patients and staff. Primary schools for the poor must be so derelict that a child who attends one will learn not to demand anything better in life. Basic services like transport and public hygiene must be so dispensed that we accept stress, humiliation, danger and even death as routine facts of life.

Twice in the last six months, I have nearly been killed by the actions of state-employed bus drivers. On the second occasion, some forty passengers shared my ordeal. This is not an unusual tally, as an hour?s observation at any crossing will bear out. A promising pupil of mine died this way three years ago. Every so often, a fatal accident sparks off street violence, and riot police compound the guilt of the traffic police. For this too Calcutta must hold the record.

Beyond risk to life, commuters in Calcutta routinely suffer physical distress, tension, abuse and hustling by transport staff; the old, infirm or handicapped face heartless insult. Commuters must swallow their self-respect if they wish to travel at all. It is normal: even to phrase the matter in these terms seems hysterical or simply eccentric. Small wonder we are blind to the poison gas spread by the same transport system, which has blackened the lungs of half the city?s children. Year after year, transport officials crown a spell of politically motivated inaction by moving the court to continue polluting practices banned in law. The resultant harm we attribute not to the authorities but to god, if we believe in god. Whether our leaders do so has engaged more debate of late than their material offences against the citizenry.

People like ‘us’ enjoy the luxury of such debates: we are creatures of relative affluence, privilege and leisure. Our abjectness appears when we confront the public services, or entities (like corporate firms) supposedly under public control. It appears blatantly in the contempt of the state of West Bengal towards the Right to Information Act — also, by implication, towards the people denied that right. Again our rulers know that they need not fear: our intelligentsia, which preens itself on its political awareness, is oblivious of the matter.

For the truly humble Indian, the deprivation extends beyond information to education. That is the best way to keep him where he belongs. It would be rather a nuisance to treat him as a fully human being. India?s greatest disgrace, its failure over elementary education, is more than a failure: it is virtually a policy pursued by governments of all hues and sanctioned by the educated public to preserve its hegemony.

Non-performance can be a political strategy, a weapon of power. Our rulers have always known this, while babus and darogas spread the message. We stand perpetually beholden to an order that will not grant anything as of right, but toss us scraps of favour or bounty if we abase ourselves to it. To imbue an administration with this unlovely image is a political masterstroke but a disaster for democracy. It reduces us as citizens and human beings. It also demeans our masters, but why should they mind'

Graham Greene wrote that no policeman can beat a man up unless, somewhere deep down, that man accepts his victimhood. Masochism can protect the weak and the disheartened from many moral challenges. We are unprepared for the human demands of our situation: like natty Neanderthals, we drive down shiny flyovers to the latest shopping mall. Lost to hu- man self-respect, no wonder we are unhappy.

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