It was the way he was dressed: the dark shorts, the red shirt and the shoes. It made countless people on my Facebook timeline say: This could have been my child.
But what if he had been wearing tattered clothes, broken slippers, or perhaps not even that? What if he had been thin and dark and malnourished? What if he had been just another poor child escaping not war but hunger and landing up on the streets of our cities? Would he even get a passing glance?
As the picture of the drowned Syrian boy went viral, the emotional outpourings on social media left me somewhat cold. The picture had focused attention on the plight of millions caught in a bloody endless war in Syria and the heartlessness of Western governments that weren’t letting them in—surely that was a good thing. But something wasn’t quite right about the way the image was being circulated, and it took the Times of India, the paper that best understands the English-speaking middle class, to inadvertently put it in words. Publishing the picture on its front page on Sept. 04 (Friday), it said:
“TOI did not publish this photo of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on the Turkish shore of Bodrum on Wednesday because we felt readers may find it disturbing. But it has generated a wave of outrage at the inaction of developed nations in helping refugees.”
In effect, the paper was telling us that it was publishing the picture because of the wave of outrage. The paper—and hundreds and thousands of people sharing the picture on social media—wanted to be part of this wave. What had made this tragedy worth mourning was the opportunity to mourn with others. It was “the big emotional experience” that writer Teju Cole had critiqued in 2012 while writing about the video campaign in West against the Ugandan warlord Kony Joseph.
Such an experience acts as a pressure valve: by sharing the video or image, we feel we’ve done our bit in urging governments to do the right thing. We rarely go on to engage with the difficult questions—in the case of the drowned Syrian boy, as Max Fisher argues in Vox, those sharing the image in the West weren’t pausing to think of their complicity in making migrants objects of hate to be kept out by governments. For such readers, “a single dead refugee child is a tragedy, but a million suffering refugees are a threat,” he said. As for the picture, it becomes “another piece of viral currency.”
Indian elites, who virtually live in the West, and unselfconsciously think and feel in similar ways, were sharing the picture much in the way they would download the latest episode of Game of Thrones. They were participating in an emotional experience that had originated in the West.
This is not to say that Indians should not feel the pain of people elsewhere in the world. It is simply to acknowledge the role of Western hegemony in the way emotional experiences are shaped among “people like us” in India.
The only time that the Western filter stops working for us is when the picture is that of an Indian child: naked, pot-bellied, evidently starving. Those images are Western clichés, we say, turning away from them.
The truth is that we are numb to the tragedies around us. If we cared to look, there are millions of children in our cities who are refugees like the Syrian boy. They are escaping the hunger and destitution wrought by policies of successive governments that have underinvested in health and education, neglected agriculture, and left millions with no choice but to cram into cities that don’t even offer them a home. The child displaced by a coal mine in Chhattisgarh is a refugee. But we don’t care for him because that would mean asking ourselves difficult questions about our consumption choices. The child in the slum is branded an illegal migrant. That’s where any possibility of empathy ends.
The war in Syria is a grave humanitarian crisis. But so is the crisis in our midst. As many as 30% of the children surveyed recently by the Indian government and UNICEF were found to be underweight and 40% were stunted. Yet, the government gets away with halving the budget of the Integrated Child Development Scheme that provides a meal to children in anganwadis, while also possibly nipping in the bud the National Nutrition Mission meant to monitor malnourished children. Needless to say, nothing going viral.
It isn’t that we shouldn’t care for the Syrian boy. The question is: Why aren’t we capable of caring for those closer home?