This article was first published in The Hindu on 26th March 2019
Hate has curdled the capacity for compassion in India. Will Indians take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book?
“We are broken-hearted, but we are not broken,” declared Imam Gamal Fouda, while leading Friday prayers in Christchurch in New Zealand one week after the terror attack. “We are alive, we are together, we are determined to not let anyone divide us.”
In a moment of immense tragedy, the people of New Zealand have shown a world riven by bigotry and hatred what solidarity and love can accomplish, even in the darkest times. It is a lesson which Indians, more bitterly divided today than ever since the blood-drenched days of Partition, must heed. But will we?
Display of solidarity
The azaan was broadcast before the memorial service all across New Zealand. Outside the mosques where the terrorist had massacred the worshippers, and in mosques around the country, hundreds of men, women and children assembled in solidarity with the families of the dead. They locked their hands with each other, creating a wall around their Muslim brothers and sisters who prayed. Many of the women wore hijabs.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended the prayer meeting, her head covered by a black dupatta. After the prayers she quoted Prophet Mohammad. “According to Prophet Mohammad… the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain,” she said. “New Zealand mourns with you; we are one.”
Earlier too, when Ms. Ardern visited the mourning families to comfort them, her head was covered by a black dupatta. As she embraced them, her face mirrored their pain, making plain to those who had lost their loved ones in the shootings that she shared their suffering.
The contrast with India over the last five years could not have been more telling. There have been many brutal mob attacks against Muslims, videotaped and circulated widely on social media. These hate attacks — by individuals and mobs — have spread fear and anguish among Muslims across the land. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never once visited the bereaved families and has never communicated his empathy in a public address or through social media. When Kashmiri students were being attacked in many parts of India after a suicide bomber killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir, Mr. Modi declared that the rage that burnt in the hearts of people burnt in his heart too. It was an unambiguous message encouraging revenge.
While Muslims constitute 14% of India’s people, in New Zealand they are only over 1%. Ms. Ardern recognised that many of them could be migrants or refugees, but “they are us… The perpetrator is not”. The message that Mr. Modi communicates with his deafening silences is exactly the opposite. He is rooted in the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which believes that the Muslim who has been part of this country for centuries is not one of “us”, but the perpetrator of violence is.
In the last several months, we have made 27 harrowing journeys of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat into 15 States of India. In each, we have gone to the homes of the families of those who have lost their loved ones to hate and violence. Each time we have learnt afresh how much our simple gesture of reaching out means to these distraught families. They feel alone and abandoned as they battle loss and the hate of their neighbours or strangers who attacked their loved ones. As we embrace and hold each other’s hands, our eyes turn moist as they weep. Often, families in distant parts say that we are the first people who reached out to them.
It is this that Ms. Ardern did for the loved ones of those slaughtered while in prayer in Christchurch. I have often wished that this is what our Prime Minister and leaders of the Opposition who claim to stand for secular politics would do. But none of them has shown the spontaneous compassion or the political courage to reach out to these stricken victims forced to battle hate alone.
Take also the symbolic question of headgear. Ms. Ardern covered her head with a dupatta to show respect to a stricken people, not necessarily as an endorsement of the practice. Inspired by the Prime Minister’s gesture, women all over New Zealand — newsreaders, policewomen, ordinary people — covered their heads with hijab scarves. Imam Fouda said to Ms. Ardern, “Thank you for holding our families close and honouring us with a simple scarf.” By contrast, Mr. Modi has worn every conceivable form of headgear in his travels across a diverse India, but he has pointedly refused only one, and this is the Muslim skull cap.
Ms. Ardern also took firm steps to not allow the hate propaganda of the killer or the video he live-streamed to be circulated, and pledged never to utter his name publicly. By contrast, the videos that perpetrators of lynching and hate attacks shoot and upload in India are freely circulated. So are the hate speeches by them and indeed by many leading members of the ruling establishment. Those charged with hate killings are celebrated by Union Ministers, with garlands and the national flag.
Religious leaders of Christian and Jewish faiths in New Zealand, Australia and around the Western world have come out in iridescent solidarity with the Muslim community, and have attended joint prayers in mosques. Stu Cameron, Minister of Newlife Church on the Gold Coast, said, “Good neighbours always weep when the other is weeping, and stand together in solidarity when the other feels threatened.” Sikh gurudwaras in New Zealand opened up for the survivors’ families. In India, there have been no similar demonstrations of care by religious leaders after brutal hate attacks.
Lack of compassion
However, what is even more worrying than the failures of political and religious leaders in India to resist hate violence is the profound lack of compassion and solidarity in local communities wherever these attacks have occurred. There is no empathy with people who are so pushed into fear that they can no longer recognise this as a country to which they belong. Nowhere in our journeys of the Karwan have we heard reports of care and support for survivors of hate attacks by neighbours from other religions and castes. In upmarket Gurugram, mobs supported by the administration have succeeded in bullying Muslim worshippers to reduce the numbers of places where they can worship on Fridays to a tenth of the original number. It is nothing short of a civilisational crisis that we have allowed hate to curdle even our capacity for compassion.
Imam Fouda in New Zealand said, “We are broken-hearted but not broken.” Our civilisation crisis is that as our brothers and sisters are being felled by hate around the country, we are not broken-hearted. We just don’t care. In fact, some of us endorse and celebrate the attacks. This is how broken we have become as a people.