Not iron, cold indifference has entered the soul. A cyclonic storm of monstrous proportions struck Bangladesh in November. Originating in the southern fringes of the Bay of Bengal, Sidr’s initial trajectory was towards the direction of Orissa and West Bengal. It changed its course at the very last moment and lashed against the coastal districts of Bangladesh. On last count, some ten thousand people have perished in the holocaust; the loss of livestock runs into hundreds of thousands. The economically weaker strata of society live in low-lying areas in all countries, Bangladesh is no exception. Ramshackle huts and tenements of the poor have been washed away by the heavy flooding Sidr caused. On account of its geography, Bangladesh is destined to be perennially at the receiving end of nature’s cruelty. The consequent havoc to the life and living of the poor is generally accepted as inevitable. But sufferings of the victims of last month’s cyclone are excruciating even by Bangladesh’s standard.
The administration in Bangladesh is not known to be particularly competent. Besides, the country has been ridden by political unrest for the past several months. Whatever relief was hurriedly organized under official auspices proved to be awfully inadequate. The United Nations Relief and Reconstruction Agency has since moved in. Assistance has also been forthcoming from a number of Western countries, including the United States of America.
Apart from a formal message of sympathy from New Delhi and promise of supplying modest quantities of rice and onion, there has been very little concern shown by Indians at the calamity that has overtaken the neighbouring country. We have of course our own daily load of problems, problems often compounded by both ineptitude and cynicism on the part as much of officialdom as of the political leadership at different levels: militants on the rampage and army and police excesses in Kashmir, ethnic unrest in the Northeast, inter-caste clashes in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, the mess created in West Bengal by the state administration, increasingly rebellious mood of tribals dispossessed from their land in Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, occasional sparks of violence engineered by remnants of the People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, explosions of gruesome intensity indulged in every now and then all over the country by terrorists of various descriptions. We have convinced ourselves that, sorry, we have little time to spare for commiserating with hapless people in neighbouring lands such as Bangladesh for the woes regularly descending upon them.
To be more candid, there is a bit more to it. Economic liberalization and the global triumph of capitalism since the Nineties have had a major impact on the psyche of the upwardly mobile Indian middle class. Both during the freedom struggle and in the dizzy spell immediately following the end of World War II, a wave of anti-colonial sentiment accompanied by fellow-feeling for the world’s poor had swept the thinking segments in the subcontinent. It was mostly a product of old-world, late-19th century liberalism, meshed with what can be vaguely described as humanitarianism — a genuinely felt passion for eradicating instances of inequity and injustice, wherever they existed, from the face of earth. Supporting the cause of the underdog was regarded as an acceptable, honourable thing. It was as if the message had gone out: do-gooders of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the burden of your conscience.
The fervour spilled into the middle decades of the 20th century. In both Asia and Africa, Bandung and the non-aligned movement sought to give concrete shape to those, perhaps partly romantic, emotions carried over from the past. Latin America was, in the beginning, somewhat remote. Hanky-panky organized by Foggy Bottom in Guatemala, and then Cuba, soon drew in that part of the world too. The Indian gentry were a major constituent of the ideological solidarity thus ushered in.
All that passion is now spent. The script has changed beyond recognition in the course of the past two decades. Today’s sophisticated set, children and grandchildren of the liberals of yore, do of course still look beyond their immediate horizon. In any event, breathtaking developments in transport and communications have obliterated for them the distance between the home and the world. Sizeable sections of the nation’s middle class are as much Indians as global citizens. Their vision has however undergone a qualitative transformation. The once-fond dream of a universe ruled by social justice has been substituted by a stigmatism of a specific kind. Indians look out but they look out only to locate the regions occupied by the rich. The allure of materialism has colonized the mind. Since enrichment of the self is the central focus, in the neo-liberal philosophy, the average middle-class Indian has broadened his outlook, but — this may sound odd — only in a narrow sense. The world, they have come to accept as axiomatic, is of the rich, by the rich, for the rich; what therefore is supremely important is to learn the craft of being rich. For inculcating that craft, one must, reasoning suggests, have access to counsel and advice from those who have accumulated wealth at home and in the world. The colonial hangover, dormant for a fairly long while, has staged a magnificent comeback: learning about the life and living of expatriates, who have emerged as billionaires, several times has assumed much greater priority over efforts to understand the factors responsible for the huge number of farmer suicides in our own backyard.
It is a decisively new atlas of the world; this new world consists of the US, west Europe and possibly Japan; the rest of the territories are forgettable. Elitism is as elitism does. If the sight gets accidentally diverted from thoughts concerning the Silicon Valley and strays accidentally on this or that Asian terrain, the astigmatism does not become dysfunctional. If it is Burma, the interest is confined to the moneymaking army generals striking deals with Chevron or Total. Perhaps Aung San Su Kyi too receives a mention, presumably because she is a Nobel laureate and has Oxford connections. But not a thought is spared for the starving Shans, Arakans and Karens. If the gaze occasionally shifts to Indonesia, the plight of tsunami-ravaged multitude and the huge mass of urban unemployed does not come into focus; what rivets attention are the latest exploits of the Salim group in cohort with this or that Suharto scion. And if the vision strays to Vietnam, attention concentrates not on the toiling peasantry quadrupling the rice yield per hectare in the countryside, but on the fashion parades in exclusive malls crowded with bevies of young girls in outrageous swimsuits.
The poor and their plight have been taken off the agenda. It is therefore pointless to accuse us of not shedding torrential tears for the millions of poor in Bangladesh devastated by Sidr. We have ceased to worry over the conditions of the poor in our own country too. Our media go ga-ga while reporting the news that the man reckoned to be the richest in the United Kingdom happens to be an Indian. At the same time, the tiding conveyed by the Human Development Report of the United Nations — that we Indians continue to be amongst the wretchedest of the earth despite sixty years of independence — is curtly dismissed. Logic-choppers may debate whether the media reflect the middle-class mind or whether it is the other way round; the face of reality remains the same whichever way the debate is resolved.