I’m sure many of us resent that one friend who ruins the comfortable atmosphere at a dinner in a fancy restaurant by starting to talk about the increasing anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Think about all the times you have shut off and stayed silent when someone around you is talking about demonetisation, or the Kerala floods, or mob lynchings, or the increased curbing of dissent recently.
“I’m in finance/design/engineering/corporate law/tech (the list goes on), this has nothing to do with me” or “Bas kar yaar! Phirse shuru ho gayi…” or “Whatever, I’m going to get out of here and settle abroad soon…” . We have our own reasons for not taking active interest in pressing issues of the country.
The young Indian-urban middle and upper classes may think that they can exist in a world of coffee shops and malls, occasionally visit a monument or Chandni Chowk to get the “real Delhi feel” (or the equivalent in another metropolis of India), but the reality is that every single decision we make is political. You are never as apolitical (or ‘neutral’) as you wish you could be, politics follows all of us, regardless of our earnest desire to look the other way.
Let me clarify. Being political does not mean voting for a political party when elections come around. The connotation associated with ‘being political’ includes how we engage with everyday occurrences and place them in the context of a power structure.
For example, on a direct and tangible level, we are the consumers in a country where workers are rarely given minimum wages and other fundamental rights and dignities. Take our incessant shopping sprees for affordable clothes at high-end brand stores. The only reason the clothes are cheap is because of the often sub-human working conditions of the factory and sweatshop workers. Therefore, shopping is an extremely political move, because the source of goods is often exploitative. And no, slave-like working conditions is not an excuse for “well, at least they have jobs”.
So, what is my political position in this case? Do I try to engage and understand the exploitative economic structure at play? What choices can I make? Should I not buy from these stores? Should I buy minimally? Or do I say to myself “Chhor yaar… it’s none of my business.”
On a more abstract level, our apathy invisibilises injustice. Say, you don’t speak up when people around you say things that are sexist, Islamophobic, classist, casteist, homophobic and so on. You’re not actually apolitical or ‘neutral’, rather, you’re actively perpetuating these bigoted ideas by ignoring them. Speaking against unjust, stereotyped, or bigoted thinking disrupts the impunity with which people are spewing hatred these days. Even if you don’t have the energy to engage the person, it is not difficult to tell them that you don’t agree with them or that you find their statement offensive.
Maybe the reason we are not concerned with the numerous issues that our country (or our world for that matter) faces today – is that we are unable to identify with people whose lives are different from ours. We were too happy to celebrate the striking down of Section 377 on September 6 because we know people who are gay or queer. But we all lamented the ‘nuisance’ when lakhs of farmers protested to demand basic rights the day before – because we have no idea how to empathise with what they are going through.
I guess the real question is – have we decidedly become uninterested predators who sit high up on the food-chain of entitlement? Are those who are disenfranchised and sitting on the bottom rungs of the pyramid so much out of our realm of reality that we cannot even empathise with them, let alone feel enraged at the social order? I don’t mean that we should all become hermits and put a stop to our lives, because the majority of us are complicit in activities that oppress some or the other community, but the least we can do is try to engage, change the narrative and make things better.
As the elite of the younger generation, neither our school education nor our families have taught us to intermingle with the marginalised sections of the Indian society. I mean really… can you imagine how uncomfortable it would be to be friends with your domestic help’s daughter? She may be the same age, but not well-off enough to go to the pub on the weekends – which sums up our idea of fun.
It should not be acceptable for those of us already privileged by our birth into a middle-to-upper class family, to believe that it is enough that we’re ‘working hard’ towards our private sector careers. Working all day at a desk job, earning money, and always yearning for more upward mobility should not mean we abandon our inclination to discuss events/issues and understand the reason behind them critically. And even, god forbid, play a part in spreading awareness or making a difference.
I know the Indian education system may be all about rote learning, but have we really lost our ability to question? Or have we just lost our ability to care?
In the annals of history, unless we start turning our apathy around, our generation will be known for simply turning a blind eye to social issues, and looking away when injustice strikes. We will be known as the ones who sipped our 400 bucks coffee and watched, but never spoke up.