How we respond to the pain of others

Love thy neighbour is a very different and in fact a revolutionary religious message
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 51 AM IST
Narendra Modi was also Gujarat’s home minister when water released from a dam flooded Surat in August 2006. Photo: AFP
Narendra Modi was also Gujarat’s home minister when water released from a dam flooded Surat in August 2006. Photo: AFP
Updated: Sun, Jun 30 2013. 02 23 PM IST
How do Indians respond to the trauma and pain of other Indians? If you are willing to look at it without emotion, a report in The Times of India on the Uttarakhand floods will tell you. Harmanpreet, a 3-year-old Sikh pilgrim to Hemkund Sahib, said he was asked to pay Rs.500 for a rice-bowl and Rs.180 for a roti.
Harmanpreet, along with his two brothers and grandfather, “starved for a marathon 43 hours and resisted their hunger pangs until his grandfather spotted Harmanpreet scavenging on garbage picker’s collected food. On Friday, upon his return aboard Punjab government bus, the teenager and his family broke into tears, while narrating harrowing tales of trauma of spending five days with little or no food.
“Locals refused to waste their own food on us. They started screaming at us, asking us to run away from their neighbourhood as water reached their terraces.” When they managed to secure transport, they were asked to pay Rs.15,000 for a 200km journey for four people, according to the boy’s grandfather Balwant Singh.
The comments under the report were of the angry sort. Why did the paper not report on the many positive stories instead of this one? I would say that this is more representative of reality.
In 1900 Gujarat experienced a famine that is still known as Chhappaniyo, meaning Fifty-sixer (since it came in Vikram Samvat 1956).
The famine affected the entire Bombay Presidency and a few years ago I was taken aback to watch, on Pakistan television, a peasant from Sindh referring to the “Chappaniyo dukaal”. The effect of this famine was recorded in the memoirs of Bhailalbhai Patel, founder of Vallabh Vidyanagar and the higher education movement. He described how Gujarati families raised money for food.
“In the middle of winter, they began to sell their quilts and mattresses, querns and mortar-pestles... When there was nothing left in the house to sell, they sold the beams and roofs and finally door and doorway.”
While people began to die of starvation, “the cities of Gujarat had money during the Chhapaniyo. The textile mills had started about half a century earlier and they were now well established. There were many wealthy people in the cities but it did not occur to any of them to step in to save people from dying.”
Patel wrote that “lakhs of rupees lay in the coffers of the Swaminarayan temples. The wealth in the Jain temples multiplied as interest gathered upon interest generated by the fortune there. Yet not one dharmaguru had the good sense to keep alive the starving people by generating work for them. The well-to-do lovers of the Hindu religion, who profess to believe in vasudhaiva kutumbakam did not think of extending a hand.
“Only foreign priests believing in a foreign religion felt compassion for the multitude. They begged for funds in Europe and America and used the money to rescue lakhs of people from the jaws of death without a thought to their caste or status. A majority of Gujarati Christians today are those who survived due to the mercy of these foreign padres.”
In their book, The Shaping of Modern Gujarat, which excerpts Patel’s writing, Achyut Yagnik and Suchitra Sheth say that from 500 in 1899, the number of Christians in Kheda, the Patel heartland, went up to 25,000 in 1902.
The church is responsible for many crimes and many have been committed in its name. However, one reason for its success is its spreading of the philosophy of Jesus. Love thy neighbour is a very different and in fact a revolutionary religious message.
When I was a boy, a relative who had migrated to the US described to me the difference between the two countries. In India strangers are like this, he said holding his arms out and apart as far as he could, while friends are like this (joining his palms together). In America, strangers are like this, he said with his palms separated by only a foot, and friends are like this, palms separated by six inches. To me the interesting aspect was the difference in the distance of strangers.
What attracted Americans to strangers? It was puzzling and not easy to understand without knowledge of that aspect of Christianity that stresses the horizontal man-man relationship rather than a vertical man-God relationship.
If you are born into a culture that stresses not brotherhood but separation, you are likely to face the problems that Indians do in a crisis as we have seen in The Times of India report and the writing of Patel.
In August 2006, Surat was flooded by the release of water from an upstream dam. A report on the Unicef website describes the state of the city: “3.5 million people, including women and children in Surat, were marooned on Monday by the swirling waters of the Tapi river, which flows in the middle of Surat city.” There was “no drinking water, no food, no milk, no electricity and no telephones”.
There was also no state. I was working in Ahmedabad when I heard of the flooding. My parents lived in Surat, by the edge of the river, and their phone was dead. There was no transport going into Surat and I hitched a ride on a bus carrying a magistrate and about a dozen or so government workers he had with him to save his own family.
There was no access to the city because of the flooding and I spent the night outside. The next morning, I swam and waded my way to the bridge on the Tapi just across from where our house was. There was a company of soldiers with one small tin boat. That boat was being used to carry out corpses and there was no rescue work I could see. For the next three days, every day, I came and stood by the end of the bridge hoping to be able to get across but there was no means to do so. There was nobody from the government around. On the fifth day, as the water went down of its own, I made my way and met my parents walking the other way. They had been on their terrace without food and water all this time. This was, remember, in the middle of Surat, the second largest city of Gujarat.
In that year, 2006, Narendra Modi was himself Gujarat’s minister of finance, home, industries, the giant irrigation projects of Narmada and Kalpsar, mines and minerals, energy, ports, petrochemicals, administration, besides others. Now he has also taken on the task of saving north India from its disaster.
I have no problem watching him strutting around Uttarakhand spewing his gospel of micro-management and pretending his touch fixes everything.
I am only worried he has himself begun to believe the pap he ladles out to his supporters. I wonder if he remembers his performance in Surat.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 29 2013. 12 51 AM IST
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