India’s hero narrative

Opinion | This is not the time to create warriors and angels out of regular people, but to question why they needed to become so in the first place, writes Varun Rana for The Hindu Weekend

Updated - May 15, 2021 12:17 pm IST

Published - May 14, 2021 12:19 pm IST

The greatest disservice we can do the nation right now is to call people — all who’ve rallied on the ground and on social media to help their fellow humans — names like superheroes, warriors, and angels. I say this without taking away any of the deep appreciation and gratitude we all feel for them.

There is no need for me to list what they have already achieved through their collective endeavours powered by social media and their kindness, moral upstanding, and sense of ethics. My head is bowed. But in the same breath, I also raise my voice in caution. This is not the time to be enamoured by lofty-sounding labels. They are only nomenclature, and hide the reality of the people bearing these titles like their personal crosses.

Great expectations

Calling citizens and frontline workers heroes and warriors puts them on a pedestal and creates divides, sets unreal expectations, and allows for the obfuscation of true responsibility and answerability.

It’s divisive because it plays into the myth of ‘someone’ coming to the aid of the people at a time of need, especially in a country like India where our very culture is steeped in legends of strongmen stepping in to save the day. This leads to expectations, but misguided ones, that rely on faith. Moreover, this stops people from posing relevant questions to the responsible authorities.

And the authorities, you’ll notice, are always the first to celebrate such dedicated, helpful workers and citizens. It’s a lovely way to deflect public scrutiny or direct questioning into their own shortcomings. Remember the flowers showered from choppers for hospital and nursing staff even as the same people were crying out for essential PPE kits last year?

When we designate someone as more-than-human, a curious thing happens. We focus solely on their achievements and attribute to them powers that we believe they have and we don’t. This simple psychological remove is dangerous because once it is established, we deny ourselves the possibility of seeing beyond their so-called strengths. To our minds, they can now overcome anything. Once we name a garbage-collector a ‘hero’ or a ‘frontline warrior’, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that they are working without protective gloves or have little or no access to education or healthcare. When it comes to private individuals, calling people heroes and warriors helps institutionalise a similar blind spot for their real concerns and needs at both the governmental and public levels.

Shifting the focus

Beyond this, there is a longer and more lasting aftermath of pedestal-ing the genuine efforts being made by frontline workers and private citizens alike. It creates a culture of seeking comfort and inspiration, of positive psychological reinforcement in the life-affirming instances of small efforts made by powerless individuals, especially in these trying times. Like many of you, I found some twisted catharsis and hope while listening teary eyed to the story of an older gentleman afflicted by Covid-19 who gave up his hospital bed for a younger patient.

That was when I caught myself giving in to the lullaby of the hero narrative.

Why did he have to even make that choice? What brought him to such a juncture? And what does his sacrifice — for it was nothing short of one — mean in the larger context of the state of the nation today. Contrast this with the questions now being asked about why British and American taxpayers’ money should come to India, a country that built a giant statue worth £330 million while allegedly receiving £1.1 billion in aid the same year? A country that has $2.8 billion to lavish on architectural refurbishment but needs individuals and corporates to donate to an opaque, private fund championed by the Prime Minister, which has shown no accountability to the people who filled its coffers?

Where are the ‘leaders’?

At such a time, naming victims warriors, or making heroes of those who are risking their mental and physical health just to be useful, is to completely ignore the root causes that exposed them to this dismal situation in the first place.

I worship the power of collective, collaborative, and community effort. But not blindly. I always ask if it is required in the first place, and why? I pay my deepest tributes to those who are doing their best, but refuse to pressurise them more by relying on them or even holding them up as inspiration after having expressly voted responsible representatives into positions of power. Through the systems of Representative Democracy, we gave them authority over our lives. Why must we also give them a free pass by celebrating the efforts of common people who were given no choice, and certainly no leadership duties?

This is not the time to create heroes and warriors out of morally upstanding frontline workers, private citizens, and those with internet access. Respect them, love them, and join them in the good fight if you can. Contribute your money as you see fit. Volunteer where you will. But never let the spotlight shift from the faces of those who abdicated their public duties.

The writer is a fashion and social commentator.

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