Yesterday was a day of pure terror. The death toll in Sri Lanka continued to mount throughout the day. By evening, it had crossed two hundred people. By this morning, it had risen to 290 innocent people.
The world watched in horror, plunged into spontaneous grief and mourning. Which human being would not be touched by this? We Indians mourned as well, stung by the pain of Sri Lanka, our neighbour and friend.
And yet as I watched the headlines roll across the screens yesterday: Presidents, Prime Ministers, ex-Presidents and world leaders tweet their condolences and condemnations, I was struck by a nagging realization. I was trying to remember. I was trying to remember February 14 this year and the terror attack in Pulwama that killed 44 Indians. Did the world react with a spontaneous outpouring of grief and mourning? I don’t seem to remember.
The most important word in that sentence is ‘spontaneous’. To be sure, “everyone” condemned the attack in Pulwama. You can find a list here. We got it all: spokespersons of various Foreign Ministries around the world, Ambassadors of various countries posted in Delhi, the head of the Diplomatic Corps, all released statements condemning the attack.
In other words, we got cold-blooded official statements, with carefully chosen words, from every Embassy. You know the sort. I suppose every country has a pre-approved format for issuing these letters of condolence: they just fill in the place and the date and the nature of the event, put the seal and signature and send it off to whichever country has been struck by a terror attack, accident or natural disaster that day.
The reaction yesterday was very different. It was spontaneous. Donald Trump tweeted his condolences. So did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. So did every Prime Minister, President and every politician of any consequence everywhere in the world. For CNN and BBC, it was the biggest story they followed all day, taking precedence over everything else.
I can’t help wondering: why didn’t India’s pain get the same spontaneous reaction in capitals across the world?
The question of why this tragedy in country X got more global coverage than that tragedy in country Y has been asked many times before and in various contexts. There are some well-known forms of hypocrisy that underlie the amount of coverage. For example, a tragedy in a so-called “first world country” gets more coverage than an event in a “third world country”. This is known as the “empathy gap”.
Another common explanation for the “empathy gap” is that people are generally “desensitized” to tragedies happening in known conflict zones.
The problem is that in the case of Pulwama, neither of these common explanations seems to apply.
We saw a spontaneous outpouring of grief for the massacre in a Christchurch mosque in New Zealand last month. We saw the same spontaneous outpouring of grief for the massacre in Sri Lankan churches yesterday.
But not when 44 Indians were killed in a terrorist attack in Pulwama. Why the empathy gap?
Neither Sri Lanka nor New Zealand are particularly powerful countries and certainly not comparable to India. Perhaps New Zealand is perceived as a “first world country”. But surely Sri Lanka with its decades of civil war falls well within the definition of a “conflict zone”.
Then what made all the difference? These are the questions we need to ask if we want to understand how the world really perceives the worth of the lives of us Indians.
Yes, the world sent us official condolence letters after Pulwama. The whole world stood with us when India mounted anti-terror strikes in Balakot. As an Indian, I am very grateful for that support. But wasn’t that simply a result of our economic and diplomatic power? I can’t help thinking that the global support, expressed in form letters from foreign Embassies, came from the brain, not the heart.
In other words, the nations of the world calculated that it made more economic sense to support India than Pakistan. While that is a positive development for India’s foreign policy, it is distressing to realize that there were no essentially human reasons for the world to support us. Their reasons were all based on economics and realpolitik.
Just imagine that you have suffered some terrible loss and are in deep mourning. Imagine if the whole neighbourhood came to your door with the words: “We all came to express our sympathies because we think it will make you more willing to do business deals with us”.
How would you feel?
Every human life is inherently and equally valuable. Whether lost in Pulwama, New Zealand or Sri Lanka. In times of grief, such as the attack in a mosque in New Zealand or the attack in churches in Sri Lanka, it is a small consolation to see people and nations of the world unite in mourning. Leaving behind the cold-hearted calculations of economics and realpolitik to mourn for our common humanity. We didn’t see that Pulwama. Why? I have some theories. Please tell me I am wrong.