Shiv Visvanathan, in the Hindu, December 16/16
(Note: It is Christmas time. What will make good headlines are stories about Joseph and Mary walking the length and breadth of posh residential areas, knocking closed doors in vain, to find enough room to deliver a baby Jesus or the genocide of innocents by Herod to eliminate for sure an imagined competitor, Jesus, to his throne. But these are not stories but history of 2000 years ago, which has lost all its grim, fierce, brutal features.
History repeats itself in similar or worse forms. They are the myriad stories of innocents driven out of their homes and homeland and are on the road as refugees or migrants seeking shelter and protection from terrorist attacks, bombardments from the skies or open wars of evacuation. One such is the happenings in Aleppo in Syria, where terror from the heavens has been descending on its inhabitants incessantly from its own President Bashar al-Assad and his key ally Russia while US tries to make hey when the sun shines. Yes more than 310,000 innocents have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. It continues to be an endless way of the cross for the victims, not for those who wage war.
Nothing happens until it happens to you. Christians can easily identify with the way of the cross of Jesus, though it happened 2000 years ago. But to follow his teachings we have to learn to identify with the sufferings and the way of the cross, His little ones are going through around the world today. In short what Prof.Vusvanathan tells us through this article is to differentiate between etiquette and ethics and try to behave ethically: “Etiquette tells you about how to eat, it is a ritual of table manners. Ethics tells you to look out for the starving and impels you to share your meal.” Yes during this Christmas we all have to learn to sup with the hungry, the suffering, the homeless, the oppressed and marginalized around us. Aleppos are mushrooming all over India as well. Only we have to sensitize our eyes to see, ears to hear, lips to comfort and hands to caress. james kottoor, editor)
For too long, we have been a passive society, deaf to Rwanda, Somalia, Syria. Our foreign policy is a piece of empty piety. Maybe Aleppo can be a first step to a more humane India.
It began in a simple banal way. I had just spent a wonderful winter’s day suffering a faculty meeting and was blaming myself for having lost a sunny afternoon. I went back to my room and found my usually ebullient student stunned and in tears. All she could say was, “Aleppo. People are dying in Aleppo and no one seems to care. I was reading the messages on Facebook and could not face the suffering of the people. How can 50,000 children be killed in Syria? Is this what they mean by evacuation? Why is it that no one in India is responding? Don’t lives matter?”
The cascade of questions and the sheer spontaneity of emotions moved me. My student was mourning, mourning for the people in Aleppo and mourning for the death of conscience in India. India, for all its global aspirations, is illiterate about Aleppo.
I read all the newspaper reports which are titrated and even sanitised by the Indian press. There are filters in our mind that diminish international tragedies. We want to respond only to the biggest and most devastating. Aleppo seems a middle-range tragedy; the Syrian death toll of 4,50,000 seems a day’s work in a genocidal calendar when dictators like Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, Hitler have eliminated millions. The number 4,50,000 shrinks in modesty before these larger statistics and in fact disappears from memory. It is a hiccup in today’s violent world. The very act of comparison becomes a failure of ethics. It is almost as if the small and the minuscule do not deserve attention.
There is a second fear that accompanies this and many countries have become cautious of media reports. George W. Bush triggered the Iraq war by planting irresponsible reports on the Iraqi nuclear effort. Countries feel that genocide has become a global imaginary, a giant Rorschach of fear that distorts foreign policy. There is a genuine fear about exaggerations in media given the recent American efforts to demonise certain countries. However, such scepticism which fails to do its homework becomes an alibi for indifference. While one-sided narratives have created trigger-happy wars, indifference has been equally catastrophic in letting people die. There is a confusion here between foreign policy as etiquette and foreign policy as ethics. Etiquette tells you about how to eat, it is a ritual of table manners. Ethics tells you to look out for the starving and impels you to share your meal. When false propaganda silences the power of ethics, something seriously becomes amiss.
There is a third filter that is equally devastating. The demonology of terror, the idea of failed states in Africa creates a web of stereotypes where Indians and other nations feel Islamic territories are volatile and immature and therefore deserve what they got. Adding to the power of these stereotypes to immobilise the mind is the nature of memory today.
Failure of the failed
Memory as so many bytes, so many discrete but disconnected pieces of information is skin-deep. It soon yields to erasure, indifference and triage, the argument that a failed society deserves to fail further. In the new global history of aspiration and success, failure does not seem to deserve a response. The logic of sociobiology works in a Darwinian world where Syria does not fit the model of the fittest.
I was just recollecting the irony that 2015 was the year Svetlana Alexievich got the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a journalist had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her classic Secondhand Time was an attempt to create a quilt patch of memories, which showed how the Soviet dictatorships had corroded everyday life. The irony is at the very moment a journalist is awarded a Nobel, there is a crisis of journalistic integrity. The legend of great war journalists who wrote the truth about war has evaporated. The Syrian violence has not produced a Seymour Hersh or Julian Assange. There is little of that sense of disclosure in a year which prides in ‘post-truth’ being its new linguistic achievement.
Even the narratives in the newspaper have a tone of strategic inevitability, as if mass death is a logical step. The pace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s battlefield advances is praised and as a potential victor he is hailed as soon having “control of all the major cities”. This sense of inevitability, an anticipated gloating over his victory, hides the nature of tragedy. The word evacuation has a double meaning. Evacuating the city earlier meant rescuing people in a city. Now it has become a sanitised act of violence which decimates a city along with a policy of exterminism — the total elimination of a population.
While war is getting to be technocratically lethal, ethics has taken a deeper downturn. The great Western ideal of humanitarianism, which created legends like Henry Dunant of the Red Cross and Albert Schweitzer who was awarded the Nobel for Peace for his work in Africa, has become a diminished exercise. It is as if ethics has not been able to cope with the technocratic and political logic of war. A lone voice like Pope Francis is not enough. Humanitarianism has become a side show to war, a cubbyhole next to it rather than an ethical challenge to war. The work that groups like Médecins Sans Frontières did in challenging the passive nature of humanitarianism needs to be deepened and thickened.
The logic of war sometimes paints a situation with broad brushes. To paint an entire city as terrorist allows for mass violence, permits one to ignore the innocent living helplessly within it. Even the poignancy of Facebook messages falls on deaf ears, disappearing into the silences of the global world. Syria and Russia operating in tandem read it as the march of history. Sadly, there are few to write about the causalities of history. Inevitability is a word the victor uses to hide his lack of fairness and discrimination. It is a time of impunity and brutality where victorious armies will be executing civilians without an afterthought. Shooting down families in houses by labelling them militants is a mere prelude to genocide.
Watching the destruction of some of the world’s heritage cities reminds me of two stories. The first is about the great Russian artist Nikolai Roerich who spent years in India. Roerich suggested the establishment of the Green Cross to complement the Red Cross. Its role was in protecting the cultural heritage of the world. One wishes a Green Cross had been instituted to save these cities. Dubbing cities as world heritage sites is useless if we make no genuine effort to protect them.
The second story is about the scholar Edwin Reischauer who later became American Ambassador to Japan. Kyoto was picked as the original site for the nuclear bombing. Reischauer was flabbergasted. He rushed before General Leslie Groves and began shuddering. He was so stunned by the prospect that he started weeping. Groves, embarrassed to see a man weep, promised to pick another city, Hiroshima, so he could get rid of the scholar. I wish some scholar had wept for the cities of Syria or the children trapped in the city. The sheer fatalism that war created and the hollowing out of ethics is one of modern wars’ greatest casualties.
Bringing back compassion
The option before civilians, many of whom are dissidents, is pathetic. To stay might be to face torture. To leave might condemn them to a permanent status of refugees. Either way, any prospect of homecoming ceases to exist. Homelessness and genocide seem to be twin companions of war.
This “meltdown of humanity”, as a UN report calls it, includes children and women. Today as Indians read the newspapers celebrating Virat Kohli’s cricketing exploits or discuss the wisdom of demonetisation, I hope they spare a moment for Aleppo and I hope they will act on it. For too long, we have been a passive society, deaf to Rwanda, Somalia, Syria. Our foreign policy is a piece of empty piety. It is time the little creativities of compassion and ethics enter our lives. Maybe Aleppo can be a first step to a more humane India.
Shiv Visvanathan is Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for Study of Knowledge Systems, Jindal Global University.