We urgently need rehumanising narratives to counter the dehumanising narratives swirling around inside the country and beyond.
Chennai’s Muthiah Annamalai Chidambaram Stadium, commonly known as Chepauk, known for many memorable cricket matches and one of the most sporting crowds, lived up to its reputation. In 1999, the Pakistan team had received a standing ovation at Chepauk though it had beaten India. Last Monday, once again, the crowd was there for the Pakistan versus Afghanistan match, appreciating and applauding good cricket. They gave a standing ovation to the victors: the incredible Afghanistan team. This was Afghanistan’s first win against Pakistan in the eighth ODI between the sides. They also cheered when Babar Azam, captain of the Pakistani team, which lost, scored his half-century. “Every batter who made a significant contribution received a standing ovation from the crowd. Be it Babar, Iftikar, Gurbaz or Ibrahim… What a ground! What a match! What a crowd! What people!” tweeted a friend who was at Chepauk on October 23 to watch the game.
Such moments matter in these fraught times when we are increasingly boxed into binaries, either-or narratives, and when we are being asked to love or hate, without caveats, and when the sporting spirit goes for a toss even on a cricket ground. For me, no expert on cricket, the response of the crowd at Chepauk was a rehumanising moment. The crowd showed that it did not feel compelled to damn a cricket team simply because we have had a complex, acrimonious and strained relationship with the country that it represents.
We urgently need rehumanising narratives to counter the dehumanising narratives swirling around inside the country and beyond. Rational arguments, intellectual ballast may work in conferences, seminars, and among scholars, but not necessarily or always in the wider world.
We need to counter logic-defying visceral hatred towards entire communities, cultures, and countries. We need to do this in our own interest. Because this drip-drip of hate and constant demonisation, and the “othering” of people we do not agree with or who are visibly and culturally different from us, amplified by the social media, not only impacts “them” -- those being denied humanity -- but also “us” by closing our minds. Where the mind is shut, and no ideas from outside that challenge our biases are allowed in, there cannot be growth, intellectual or otherwise.
We are seeing this in the ongoing war between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas. So many people are unable or unwilling to distinguish between the latter and ordinary Palestinians, and between the current government in Israel and the Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere. We cannot condemn a people because we disagree with their present government. This is as true of Israel as of India.
If minds were not closed and if we weren’t bombarded by dehumanising narratives, many more of us would realise that it is totally possible and human to find reading about the victims of Hamas’ savagery and hostage-taking horrific and painful, and also feel intense pain while watching images of Palestinian bodies being dragged from the rubble or listening to doctors in Gaza say patients arriving at hospitals are showing signs of disease due to overcrowding and poor sanitation. More than 1.4 million Palestinians have fled their homes for temporary shelters under Israel's heaviest-ever bombardment.
“The loneliest people in the world right now: those morally heroic Palestinians and Israelis who can see the truth and the legitimacy of both narratives, and who care and grieve about the kids on both sides as if they were their own. I love you so,” posted Ami Dar on X, formerly Twitter. Dar, an Israeli-American, has created an online supermarket for social action which makes it possible for virtually anyone to act on their desire to change society.
Their voices are getting drowned in the blitzkrieg of hate and dehumanising narratives. But it is these “lonely people” who offer hope.
“We are all focused on the horrifying present now, but there will be a future. There always is. And that future will be neither more nor less than the sum of every action, every word, every gesture, that each of us takes today and tomorrow. Every detail builds or destroys…” as Dar says.
And yet, lonely, or not, we must persist.
Why is it so important to counter dehumanising narratives beyond and within India? The short answer -- history has shown us again and again that that hate starts with words, with numbing stereotypes, which seek to reduce entire communities to cliches.
“It always starts with words: stereotypes, cliches, tropes. The fight against dehumanisation, therefore, also needs to start with words. Stories,” as Elif Shafak, the award-winning British-Turkish novelist, so memorably said in a commentary piece in The Guardian. “It is easier to make sweeping generalisations about others if we know close to nothing about them; if they remain an abstraction. To move forward, we need to reverse the process: start by rehumanising those who have been dehumanised. And for that we need the art of storytelling.”
In a country which rightly prides itself on its huge diversity, we have seen dehumanising narratives which seek to rob entire communities of basic human dignity. And lives.
Remember Mohammed Akhlaq, who was brutally beaten and killed in Dadri’s Bisada village in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 for allegedly consuming and storing beef? Remember Bulli Bai, an online mock auction of prominent Muslim women in India?
It starts with dehumanising words, sweeping generalisations about entire groups. It gathers momentum when people let themselves be corralled into bubbles and remain uncurious about those that eat, mate, or recreate differently.
Even in this festive season when we talk about dispelling darkness and embracing light, we have seen bitter, verbal jousts over vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. But the fact is that we do not celebrate in an identical manner, and religious festivals are about fasting and feasting. The Navratri thali is as much part of the Indian reality as the fish chop in Durga Puja pandals. That is the way we are. That said, clearly, there is much more to Navratri and Durga Puja than food. We would know this if we only made the effort to know each other, and junk the stereotypes and dehumanising narratives.
“Data and information are crucial, but not enough to bring down the walls of numbness and indifference, to help us empathise with people outside our tribes. We need emotional connections,” says Eli Shafak.
I couldn’t agree more. Hate can’t be the organising principle of life if we wish to remain sane. Closing of the mind eventually destroys. Fellow human beings, including those we disagree with, have equal worth.