Ranjona Banerji: When humanity is on the brink

Nov 15, 2017, 06:38 IST | Ranjona Banerji

After a fascinating and infuriating discussion with people about compassion versus the 'greater good' when it comes to the effects of harsh government policies on an unsuspecting and hapless public, one was left with a terrible impression of the humanity of humans. This conversation was followed by another on the general lack of philanthropy amongst Indians in India and the effect was even more depressing. It takes an amazing mind to justify death and suffering all because of the love of one leader or one political ideal. It does not matter whether the leader is Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot or Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi. It is the mindset of the 'follower' that is in question. If someone says to you that their sick baby died because on November 9, 2016, the hospital refused to accept the now illegal cash you had saved for treatment, what is a 'normal' reaction? Shock, anger, empathy, sympathy, pain? Or do you dismiss the person and say that the baby could have died anyway or that people die all the time? Or even that a few deaths are normal when some major decision is taken? And that later, all will be well because everything takes time?

There is this clear moral angle to charity and compassion, and perhaps a religious one as well. Representation pic
There is this clear moral angle to charity and compassion, and perhaps a religious one as well. Representation pic

How many deaths are permissible for a government decision to be worthwhile and not disastrous? Is it only liberals who feel that one death is too many? I find it hard to believe that. Or rather, I hope that most people feel like this. Of course, I am wrong and I know it. The argument about compassion had several people sidestepping the issue of suffering and segueing straight into the need for collateral damage for the 'greater good', the fact that there is no evidence that the people who died in ATM queues died because they were standing in ATM queues, and so on. Finally, as every such discussion does, it ends with personal abuse and those who support demonetisation and their political ideal either whining about evil liberals or running to some authoritarian figure for protection from evil compassionate liberals: Mummy, mummy, aunty, aunty, see, they're being mean to me.

If no good can come of such discussions, it is even frightening to discuss why Indians on the whole, even if compassionate, cannot open their wallets to help those less fortunate than them. Research into the issue shows that most will happily give to religious organisations. This is regardless of whether the religious organisation opens a free hospital or just adds more glitter to a gold door. If your sins are covered, why bother about the rest? As no industrialists in India signed Bill Gates's Giving Pledge, we know we aren't in any top philanthropic category. Yes, there are some wealthy Indians and corporates who give back to society, from their personal money too, but that's a minuscule handful, given the enormity of India's problems. When it comes to giving, the privileged love giving away old clothes and books, contribute towards the planting of a few saplings and educating the girl child.

My sister used to work with HIV-positive people, to build awareness about the disease, but after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pulled out of AIDS relief and awareness work in India, Indian companies and people find it hard to contribute to anything that concerns sex. There is this clear moral angle to charity and compassion, and perhaps a religious one as well. It therefore becomes easy to quantify suffering. If you suffer because Modi demolished 86 per cent of Indian currency, that is your own terrible luck. If you are HIV-positive because your father infected your mother, well, too bad, life is not fair. Here, have a sapling which I picked up for free from a government nursery. Yes?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjonaSend your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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