A tragedy that implicates us all

Catastrophes are no longer the epic tragedies that they were earlier. There is something stereotyped about the way we look at them. They become an event in somebody else’s backyard and therefore need not disturb us. Our everydayness is not touched by the others’ starvation. As we gorge on pizza and watch BBC reports on starvation, I sometimes wonder what happened to my generation. Years ago when famine struck Biafra, in Africa, there was at least a protest, a concern, a consternation. Biafra became a metaphor and, like Sahel, created some impact. Yet today the death and starvation in Yemen hardly affect people. You watch a child withering, dying a slow death and flip the page. He does not touch us. We are able to move on without batting an eyelid. There is no anger, no pain. It is as if ‘not caring’ is an essential part of surviving the global world.

Failure of our imagination

I realise part of the problem is Yemen does not capture the imagination. Yemen seems an Arab backwater, an agricultural country, not oil rich like Saudi Arabia. The contrast itself captures the realpolitik of the situation. Saudi Arabia is the paradigm of Arab respectability and hypocrisy. It is backed by America and Europe. The West, in fact, helped create the Islamic respectability of Saudi Arabia at a time when Indian and other Islams were far more creative and plural. In this moralistic contrast, Saudi Arabia is as respectable as its banks and its oil wells while Yemen is backward, a failed country in terms of the Arab dream. To an Indian, going Saudi is to search for a fortune. Yemen hardly enters the imagination.

The structure of perception also determines the way we see a country. We look at countries in terms of success and rankings. There is a clinical and technocratic attitude here that is startling. One can see it in the UN reports on starvation. There is almost something botanical about Yemen, as if it is a failed or endangered species. The State of Food Insecurity in the World report of 2014 states: “Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a Human Development Index ranking of 160 out of the 187 countries. Progress in economic and social development over recent years has been slow, mainly as the result of the political crisis of 2011, ongoing instability and weak governance....” The language is antiseptic. It is as if Yemen suffers from an epidemic instead of a man-made catastrophe orchestrated by the Saudis. It is almost as if food security books measure hunger, starvation and record them like temperature, without comment.

Being obsessed with the political economy of the struggle alone will not do. To reduce Yemen to a surrogate war between Iran and the Saudis explains little. There is an ethics here which transcends politics and asks a deeper set of questions. Writers like Vijay Prashad and those of the International Crisis Group have captured it competently. They are able to pin down the responsibility of the West and the Saudi government for starving a nation to death. Yet what one misses is a voice of conscience which asks a deeper set of questions. Years ago a Bertrand Russell could create, with great courage, a tribunal to try the U.S. for war crimes in Vietnam. A Noam Chomsky would follow suit, but today few have the courage to demand and label the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for a crime against humanity. People often blame it on disaster fatigue, observing that the world is tired of reacting to disasters, that mass death and refugee politics haunt every page of international relations. The bold clarity of the Russellian statement is missing. Even Pope Francis, one of the few great voices of our time, had only elliptical comments to make. He expressed shock and sadness at the diabolical attack on one of the Mother Teresa homes in Yemen, where four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered. Yet Yemen as a whole seems to elude the Pontiff. We are in a strange situation where charity and humanitarianism are equated to conscience, where politics creates the demologies of our time, but ethics and the everydayness of citizenship have nothing to say. The standard narrative is of a civil war between Houthi rebels and the deposed President now backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The very logic of the power struggle seems to permit and exonerate a slow genocide.

A narrower citizenship

I was wondering whether India has any stand on it. One senses that the BJP government in its narcissistic pursuit of India as a great nation state has no sense of global issues. One would have thought a nation which sends so many workers to the so-called Gulf would have something to say about Yemen. There is a little apart from a few notes on Aden, a little fragment of nostalgia. For Prime Minister Modi, Aden or Addis Ababa creates no trigger of action. He knows it is not a topic for Davos. But beyond the ethical illiteracy of regimes, one has to think of the India, the middle class, it’s sense of ethics and citizenship. I sometimes wonder whether apart from feeling a paranoid superiority over Pakistan in ethical terms, whether any crisis of conscience haunts India. We want to be global in terms of economic and technological participation; we are not international in our concern. Our media is America-centric or obsessive about India. To transform an old observation, we think a dog fight in Brooklyn is more important than the starvation of half a million children in Yemen.

There is a deeper problem in terms of civil society and our social movements. Our movements have been theoretically acute and organisationally substantial on issues like the right to information, the question of biotechnology, but they have been parochial, failing to combine the local and the international in creative ways. At a time when civil society should have reinvented the UN and its idea of peacekeeping, it has been retreatist and parochial. India has to step out and take stands on starvation, rights, energy, violence, sustainability without being knee-jerk and imitative. We cannot wait for the power game of the West to code our responses. In terms of responses to Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, India has been complicit with the West or tongue-tied. Its moral imagination in a post-Cold War world lacks the confidence to stand up, to challenge current frameworks. It has little empathy with the downtrodden and in fact tries to distance itself from what the West calls “the failed societies” of Asia and Africa, lest it be tarred with the same brush.

It behaves like a newly upwardly mobile nation, pretending that poverty and violence are things of the past. India’s new obsession is captured in the idea of “governmentality”. The emphasis creates a sanitised, technocratic space which has no sense of empathy or solidarity with other struggling nations. It is captured in the opposition of the idea of the migrant versus the refugee. The Indian elite feels Syria, Somalia, Bosnia are refugee material at the mercy of the West. India feels that along with its non-resident Indians it shares the American dream. Sadly, it also replicates the American need for hegemony and its lack of political ethics. Otherwise one cannot grasp what India has in common with sordid states like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Responding as a community

Years ago, one could attend an art or history of science lecture where a portrait of Vesalius’ anatomy lesson would trigger a lecture on power of the linear perspective, about the need for alienation and objectivity, of the necessary distance between observer and observed. Today, as I see a picture of a mother watching a starved and staring child, standing helpless as it dies without food and medicine, I think of an anatomy class. The face of the child and the distorted body of the child haunt me. I pray and apologise for my previous indifference. I realise that the body, sculpted by pain into a surrealism of suffering, challenges our sense of empathy, haunts the everydayness of our conscience. I have to respond. India has to respond as a community. Caring has to go beyond aid to create a new sense of community. If India fails, and all we do is pat ourselves pompously for a few aerial rescues from the Gulf, we fail as a moral community and a democratic nation. Yemen might survive but India’s moral idiocy may take decades to rehabilitate.

Shiv Visvanathan is Director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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