The shame of our collective empathy deficit

The shame of our collective empathy deficit

By Mouris Bashir

A young man, in the prime of his life and shouldering the dreams of a family, was murdered by the occupational forces along with a rebel in Pulwama some weeks ago. Carrying my rage and my grief, I went out to the ground adjacent to a martyr’s graveyard. I remembered being in this very place a decade earlier and watching hundreds of bodies bending in prayer, in waves, as they protested and offered funeral prayers for another death.
The death(s) belonged to all of us, built from all of our lives. That is what I wanted to convey to a bunch of people discussing Shariq and Parvaiz’s martyrdom, but all they felt worth was bantering about was “so is there a hartal tomorrow or will it be just in Pulwama district?” I swallowed the statement with anger and hurt, but it made me think of how, within a very short span of time, we have been divided again, based on the contours of a map drawn not by an Indian security agency or by Jagmohan but by our own: the separatists.
When a Kashmiri is martyred or picks up arms he does it for the cause, for us, for our Kashmir. So when he meets his creator should we be worried about when and where the hartal will be? Should we restrict hartal/protest to their hometowns? Did he go out to fight for his hometown or was it for beyond the boundaries of his hometown? Does his death belong to his hometown and not to us? Or are we communicating to him and to others that your death is your death. That though the death came at the hands of the occupation, it does not belong to Kashmir? ‘Your death does not belong to everyone though we claim it and smear it across T-shirts and banners and computer screens and chant about it; your death belongs to you, your kin and your community’; is that what we are saying?
When they massacred people in Gaw Kadal, in Handwara or in Sopore, they killed them because they were freedom-seeking Kashmiris and not because they belonged to a particular geographical location. So why should we restrict the mourning or celebration of their martyrdom? Who gave Hurriyat the authority to decide which part of Kashmir should shut down and which should not? And why should we shut down? Why should we mourn? Why not celebrate their death, celebrate their martyrdom? Martyrs are not mourned, they are celebrated, and that is how their legacy is carried forward. I thought we were all equally occupied and equally massacred, or do the leaders see it differently?
Hartals may have run their course, but when there is a martyr let everyone grieve. For, we are not grieving just for him but also for the friend we lost in a grenade attack years ago, for the brother who disappeared in custody, for the cousin who was killed in far away forests, for the son who went away to liberate us only to fall to the enemy’s bullets. Ours is a collective mourning, a collective grieving. Let it stay that way.
Three recent interviews from three pro-freedom leaders to a Kashmiri newspaper summed up how confused they are. Only one of the three thought that we need to restrategise. The other two repeated the same lullaby that we’ve been hearing for the last two decades. In the last two-and-a-half decades of armed rebellion, India has been tactical and conniving in its occupation. They have adopted all sorts of methods, every military technique, restrategised and collaborated with other occupiers like Israel to crush Azadi sentiments here. Even after the death of Mufti Sayeed, India has no reason to worry for it has nurtured the next generation of pro-India leaders here, while our Hurriyats are still stuck in the early 90s. They seem to be content with the occasional adulation they receive. The last time we saw a young leader emerge and given political space by the freedom camp was with Mirwaiz Farooq, and that was in the early 90s. Since then, there have been a couple of others, but they lack the ability to connect with both masses and classes. Yes, a few of them have been caged and their movements restricted but have their minds and thoughts been caged as well?
Why do we get a politician’s answer from them whenever a newspaper interviews them about the fact that the pro-freedom leadership is caged? Don’t they still have access to social networks? So, network, restructure and rebuild your grassroots links with people who are for the cause not for a big bank balance. Right now, when everything seems to be quiet and calm, why can’t we come up with fresh ideas rather than waiting for India to murder a few more so that we turn the flesh and blood and death into a spectacle, into material, into memorial, an artifact laid at the altar of history, and the body of the dead becoming a vessel for the anxiety, fears, and hopes of the living….
We — the Kashmiris — have an empathy deficit too and this is something that was not there a decade or two ago, but something that was cultivated and has crept into our society recently. And we need to talk and argue more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see our Kashmir through the eyes of those who are less privileged than us — the oppressed child who is hungry, the oppressed daily wager, the oppressed man from the far-off village cleaning our rooms, the oppressed orphan in one of our 700 orphanages, the oppressed who are child labourers in our streets, the oppressed old woman who lost every male member of her family to this occupation, that oppressed mother in Sopore who still waits for her son to return and carries his mobile phone in her pheran pocket.
It is far easier to debate in an interview and side with someone who has not much to lose than siding with one who has a lot to lose. Most of Kashmir defends and cares more for the separatist leadership than we do about the possible deaths of another generation. I am bewildered at our lack of empathy for people who have suffered and lost a lot, yet they do not get the audience or the platform to voice their opinions. Where is our willingness to understand an individual’s situation, a cognitive and emotional exercise that could, in turn, inspire compassion?
Having witnessed the darkness of the 90s, we should not be blinded by an emotion that can preclude more rational thinking. We have cultivated a reduced stereotypical thinking, we have never shared the sorrow of those fallen; if we had, the APDP monthly sit-ins would not have been so desolate. We have defended and drawn too much attention to an individual, who perhaps is standing in the way of effective resistance. We are occupied, so sometimes it’s easier to walk away and not stay in the struggle. Many have drifted away. We have to persuade and make them believe that we all need to stay together, because who is anybody to say otherwise?
Our previous generation and their parents did not flinch when they came from every direction, wrapping whole towns tight enough to squeeze the very breath from each of us. The stench of resignation was in the air and seeped from the twisted mouths of embittered people, including the whiny parents we now scorn more than ever. But we survived.
But in a changing world we might not survive again. That is not being pessimistic, but realistic. We have to stop being emotional about Azadi and be rational and think, because emotions might win us a battle but rational thinking will win us the war. It will win us Azadi.

—The writer studied at the University of Edinburgh

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