Compassion hurts us all!

Blogs

  • It has now become crystal clear that the elite in our society are mostly heartless, when it comes to country’s destitute and poor.

  • Perhaps, the rich man’s apathy has emanated from a notion, seeded within each one of us, much earlier in life—that misery and poverty are inevitable in Pakistan. We have grown up learning that our country is now small, and also poor. I have been exposed to stories of poverty —even, when our country, Pakistan was a part of British Empire, or the eastern wing of Pakistan.

By Nazarul Islam

Perhaps, in this aftermath of a spell binding, pandemic-induced lockdown, it has dawned that if it wasn’t already true—now, has become crystal clear—that the elite in our society are mostly heartless, when it comes to the country’s destitute and poor. Rather than lament the situation, let us reflect on an issue we have been hiding under the carpet. How can our elitist’ absence of compassion be jacked up, even with the help of crutches, if needed?

Baby steps needed in this direction would begin with specific awareness— of the reason identifying why our privileged members of Pakistani society, don’t feel enough for their less privileged and suffering compatriots, who are bound together in a common journey of global pandemic. And certainly, this is not enough to confront our own culpabilities or prod our governments into meaningful action. As educated and thinking elitists, surely we should be doing that.

Perhaps, the rich man’s apathy has emanated from a notion, seeded within each one of us, much earlier in life—that misery and poverty are inevitable in Pakistan. We have grown up learning that our country is now small, and also poor. I have been exposed to stories of poverty —even, when our country, Pakistan was a part of British Empire, or the eastern wing of Pakistan.

This has become the peg for our adults to explain tales of starvation, violence, and exploitation reaching young, inquisitive ears. Since we are a poor country, we unfortunately house a disproportionate share of the world’s suffering and share of vulnerabilities, which they share with us. This point has rung truer, after every encounter with our past misfortunes.

With a passage of time, and sitting in cushy perches, occasionally perturbed and guilty, we become sensitive to human misery, yet are unwilling to concede that our ‘station’, is anything less than hard-earned. Therefore, we fortify the inevitability theory, with other positions. To justify that the poor are lazy, addicted or alcoholic, unhygienic, etc., and have only themselves to blame for their situation. This castigation has come quite smoothly. The poor are often deemed to belong to another ‘social’ group, with parallel existence!

Often, we tell ourselves that having done our bit as voters and taxpayers, possibly even as volunteers and donors to sundry public causes, there is nothing more we can realistically do. And then finally, there is the idea that we must cut the government some slack. After all Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are not easy nations to govern, in a hostile neighborhood. And this line, of course, is selectively deployed, only when the party in power happens to be the one we have endorsed.

All this, mind you, is when we are still capable of mustering a semblance of compassion. Things get worse when ivory towers are high, when claims of recaptured national glory are loud. The woes on ground appear exaggerated, even staged, the handiwork of anti-national, anti-investment, poverty-peddling forces in politics, media, and civil society.

Evidently, we need to find our empathic side. In this endeavor, one piece of encouraging news has always come from the field of psychology. Empathy deficits, research suggests, are not hardwired into humans and can be overcome with sustained effort. Even if this insight seems inconsistent with the insensitivities and cruelties we are aware of, let us repose trust in it. Won’t our disbelief in redemption, be an unconscionable surrender to darkness? Try and answer this, when you are alone or, when you go to sleep!

Moving forward, we need to abandon our core beliefs and re-center our moral core with two fundamentally changed positions.

First, that poverty and its pains aren’t inevitable; these are avoidable….and addressable. Tragedy will not happen just because we are a large and poor nation. It will happen because we are an underprepared and an insensitive one.

In the neighboring Indian state of Odisha, with its handling of natural disasters, and Kerala with its handling of COVID-19, have revealed the loss of life and livelihood that need not be a ‘fait accompli’—even in the most catastrophic of circumstances.

Second, having established that many a loss we have hitherto considered providential, are attributable to failures of society, markets, and our State. It is necessary, indeed patriotic, to ask inconvenient questions, seek answers from those we have chosen to represent us, seek greater bang for our (tax) Taka and Rupees—and locate our acts of giving not in frameworks of charity, but in frameworks of rights and empowerment.

Do we have an idea what will constrain us from embracing these positions? The concept that poverty and injustice are man-made conditions will not be easy to wrap our heads around this. It runs contrary to a long-held, bias-affirming, self-absolving understanding of our common subcontinent, we share. The point about being able to pursue more questioning is probably more acceptable in principle, but one imagines those punches, that were pulled at real, crunch time.

The question has remained: Is this somebody else’s fight? It is something that could embarrass political party and leaders we support, and there is no predicting how far an establishment, with a bruised ego can go. Let this not be deemed as an understatement!

Then, the central challenges to our empathy-building efforts are those of imagination and citizenship. We need to imagine a Pakistan—where every citizen feels secure and respected and enjoys a decent quality of life, and safety nets. We need to believe this is possible, not in incremental, dithering steps but in rapid, purposeful strides. And we need to push ourselves, our communities, our enterprises, and our representatives to work on this dream, and interrogate them when they falter.

This is onerous – but also doable. Provided the right policy framework and attitude-shaping cues, we have, both as individuals and a social class, found the incentive, will, and enterprise to reshape our relations with family, society, business, knowledge, governments, politics, tradition, environment, technology, almost everything. There is no reason why this cannot be extended to all our citizens.

And, whether we can manage the spine to demand answers, we have to re-discover our famed argumentative side, recognize that national interest is better served with searching queries than in indifferent silences.

That still leaves us with the question: ‘What is in it, for me?’. Here, it is useful to remember two things.

One: individual nations spread along the vast expanse of our subcontinent —are like workplaces or sports teams, which are only as strong as their most fragile links. The pains of malnutrition, disease, skill shortages, and social unrest may be borne disproportionately by some but are inescapable for everyone in the long run.

Two: It is in the nature of unquestioned power, to subjugate. A foothold on a higher rung of the food chain only marks a graduation to a relatively safer place. Predatory instincts are better reined in when underlying structures are safe and just.

Imagine the sights of twin towers. We come across beside the waterfronts and beaches. One has been fire-proofed through and through, another, where only corner offices have protection.

Where would you rather be when the flames rise? Or, when the buildings collapse?

________________________

The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and lives in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *