A plane disappeared from the skies, and yet there have been no public expressions of outrage, says the husband of Chandrika Sharma, a passenger

Casual conversations have a way of suddenly turning serious, sometimes even fiery. There was one such conversation a couple of nights ago and the embers of that outburst still glow low. I am hoping that words will aid in putting it down. If this lights a fire, then we will burn for the same thing — to shed light. This is neither a guilt inducing trip nor a rant.

When MH370 vanished, all I could do was wait. I thought it would be a matter of time before we got the facts, the missing links, and then the whole story. In Chennai, far from the grieving families, it seemed possible to stay calm, place one’s trust in the relevant authorities to do whatever was necessary by way of search, rescue and investigation, and contemplate choices that lay ahead. As the weeks went by, loss seemed easier to deal with, however painful, than the black hole of an information void: intolerable and an affront to human intelligence and capacity. The former felt real; the latter somewhat forced — a consequence of motivated withholding, a sleight of hand, a cloak of concealment, and in part plain incompetence.

Nothing learnt

As I look back over the 40 days since the day MH370 sent out its last pings, I sense fatigue. It is as if all that had to be discussed has been done repeatedly and all the consolation that had to be offered has been exhausted. Yet, we are no closer to knowing what really happened to MH370, and where it is. We are nowhere near knowing how to prevent the occurrence of such a tragedy when another plane takes to the skies. What are my concerns, beyond the personal and familial, of the immediate future? It would appear that MH370 is just about the passengers and their affected families, friends and colleagues. Many of the newspapers have largely relegated it to some corner — no editorial, no opinion leads, no commentary...nothing. It is the same case with television.

One wonders why. Is it the numbers — ‘just’ 5 Indians? Is it because this did not happen in our backyard? Because there are no conspiracy angles? Nothing to bludge on the government of the day? Isn’t it strange that Indians claim great strides in satellite technology, space missions, oceanography and aviation, and yet we haven’t heard any luminary from these fields make a public statement or raise questions in the media? Isn’t it also strange that India does not exercise its rights under international conventions as a signatory to be represented in investigation processes?

Similarly, we are led to believe that it is business as usual. We haven’t heard from any airline of a review of aircraft and passenger handling processes, from ground authorities on what precautions have been introduced or reinforced, and other relevant authorities on what they are doing to ensure safety in the skies. Oddly, I haven’t received calls from anyone asking for information that might reassure a traveller. With the holiday season approaching, doesn’t it worry anyone that his/her parents, children, spouse, other family members or friends and colleagues may be at risk when they fly to various destinations?

One may argue that air safety is an issue for the rich or the middle class; that it is not a bread-and-butter issue of the marginalised and the poor. But one may also argue that the media has largely been about the ‘haves’ and so should have engaged with the issue. But this hasn’t happened. Similarly, if one believes in self-interest, then it should have been a matter of concern for those who can afford air travel — MH370 would at least be a rallying symbol for inquiry and demands for assurance. This hasn’t happened either. There have been no panel discussions, no scholarly inputs or public expressions of curiosity, indignation or outrage.

So what does one make of the silence and lack of engagement? Apathy? Indifference? A belief that as individuals our voices don’t count? Is it that we have turned active participants in the electoral process this time and everything else is a distraction? Or is it that enough sound bites have been aired...we are fatigued, and ready for the next spectacle?

Early enough in the unending wait for MH370, it became clear that this was not just a private matter between the family, the passenger, and the carrier. Governments got involved. There are issues of national security, country and corporate preparedness and liability, and most importantly, of air safety and security. It seems, however, that in the minds of the people, there are limited groups that have legitimacy to access information, to ask searching questions and pursue the truth: the families of the passengers, the media and governments.

The media tires rather quickly and crises, celebrities and crimes emerge with unfailing regularity to feed the morbid need for ‘breaking news.’ Our government is in caretaker mode — mute and impotent. The affected families have been left to understand technology, ask questions and search for answers themselves in routine press conferences. The intelligentsia perhaps hasn’t seen a role for itself in the aftermath of the plane’s disappearance, except to hold forth on myriad aspects of the electorate.

Getting involved

What will move us to get involved? Some people track developments; some suggest what the families of the passengers should consider doing; some others don’t inform themselves, and ask questions about developments that are weeks old. In other words, most have remained invisible spectators or well-wishers. Close friends and family have offered their time and company to tide over difficult times. However, I know there are many out there who are competent to scrutinise the claims of INMARSAT and confront the necessary challenges in the quest for truth. There are defence analysts who should be able to weigh in on the cursory self-certification by countries in the Northern Corridor. These are but two examples from many that one can bring up. Where are they?

The plane’s disappearance is personal, but it goes beyond that. Finding the truth will require more than persistence by the affected families; it will require a marathon effort on the part of the public to bring our talents to the fore, speak out loudly to those charged with the task of investigation, and demand that the aviation sector be safe and accountable. Prayer is not about seeking divine intervention but a call to ourselves to engage with whatever we believe is meaningful. All lives are precious.

(K. S. Narendran is the husband of Chandrika Sharma, one of the passengers of MH370.)

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