Ranjona Banerji: In India, beware of compassion

Published: Nov 22, 2017, 06:12 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Every political move by the government towards social welfare is a vote-catching sop, but help to corporates is deemed as 'development'

The idea was that I would write about compassion again and about the "odd" nature of feeling empathy or even sympathy for others. Especially as seen in urban India today. Clearly, it is an odd concept since some Indian industrialists and businesspeople feel no compunction when they declaim on national television, "Spare me sob stories about the suffering poor".

Farmers who cannot pay back their loans are freeloaders; businesspeople who cannot repay their loans are either canny moneymen who opt for bankruptcy or the government steps in to replenish starving banks for the good of the country. Pic/AFP
Farmers who cannot pay back their loans are freeloaders; businesspeople who cannot repay their loans are either canny moneymen who opt for bankruptcy or the government steps in to replenish starving banks for the good of the country. Pic/AFP

This contempt for the "poor" in India is not new. Years ago, movie star Nargis expressed her unhappiness with Satyajit Ray's films because she felt they showcased India's poverty to the world. Bollywood since then has been showcasing India's crassness to the world without any self-awareness at all. Every political move which is made by any government towards social welfare is often seen as a vote-catching "sop". No political move to help corporates is presented as a "sop" since cheap land and tax breaks are seen as necessary for "development".

Even the otherwise generous Tata group had its then chairman exiting Bengal because the "poor" people of Bengal demanded their due in land acquisition. He moved from the "Bad M" of Mamata Banerjee to the "Good M" of Narendra Modi but no one cared that the farmers of Gujarat were equally short-changed, but sadly for them, voiceless.

Farmers who cannot pay back their loans are freeloaders; businesspeople who cannot repay their loans are either canny money men who opt for bankruptcy or the government steps in to replenish starving banks for the good of the country.

It's all perspective, of course. In India, we like to see ourselves as more moral than those in the West, more family-oriented, more community-minded, more inclusive. We believe this even when we live in the West and watch our children struggle with our various hypocrisies.

But when you strip it down, no society can survive if it forgets, ignores or pays lip service to its neediest. The democratic West, especially

Europe, understood this a long time ago. Communism presented the dream but then failed in compassion when it handed all power, including that of thought, to the "State".

And, where the state cannot fulfil its obligations, civil society steps in. Or it tries to. And we reach the crux of the problem again: The tightly-held purse-string.

Mention NGOs in urban society and you are bombarded with lectures about fake NGOs and leftie-liberal bleeding hearts, as if both are the same thing. Most fake NGOs have some political and/or business connection. Most genuine NGOs do not. But, it is so much easier to tarnish all NGOs than to open your wallet. While NGOs are struggling to get funding from Indians, successive governments make it more and more difficult for them to get money
from abroad.

There is a theory and it may well be plausible that there is a religious pinning to the lack of general generosity in India. That the reason why many Indians who donate R5 crore doors to temples will not give even Rs 5 lakh to some "worthy" cause is that they are looking out for number 1 when it comes to our various divine presences. The same theory tells you that in the West, Christianity teaches both compassion and donation.

I will buy these theories up to a point. Many generous donors in the West today are not religious, not any more at least. And there have been enough horror stories about what the Church has done with its money. However, even a total sceptic must concede that there is more compassion in these societies than we appear to have in ours. And we must ask ourselves why to be compassionate is almost a bad word in India.

For years we, the more fortunate, have inured ourselves to the misery around us. You cannot live unless you do that, we have told ourselves. And over the years, we have tried to make ourselves into the victim. A member of the film community in Mumbai, now a "popular" TV debater, had complained to a newspaper I once worked with that the media was too obsessed with slum dwellers and was ignoring the middle classes. Why talk about someone else, who is going to suffer anyway, when you can talk about me?

But, how long can we survive as a society as we continue to roll up the car window and turn away? No, don't answer that. You won't like what you will hear.

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

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