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Aleppo crisis: No tears are being shed for survivors, not in India anyway

“And what is Aleppo?” That fateful answer, to a TV anchor’s query “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo,” is said to have sunk whatever chances Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson had of being taken seriously as a contender for the US Presidency.

Indian politicians need have no such worries. They’ll never have their Aleppo moment as no Indian journalist would bother to ask them such a question. Because no Indian reader or viewer would care to know the answer.

The civil war in Syria has already been going on almost as long as the Second World War. Over 2,000 days of bombing, killing, ransacking, pillage, rape, starvation, disease, displacement and all the horrors that accompany any war. But we were, at most, dimly aware of the havoc in a not so distant part of our continent until the refugee crisis rocked the Western world.

Even then, we may not have been overly concerned by what the UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, had to say recently, that Syria is a “living hell” and a “pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe”. A “meltdown of humanity” in short. Not our business, we told ourselves.

Reports of seven-year-old Bana Alabed bravely tweeting about the horrors of life in east Aleppo, of doing homework while the bombs fall around her, may (or may not) have tickled our curiosity but that was all. Her tweet on Monday ready: “Final message – people are dying since last night. I am very surprised I am tweeting right now and still alive, 6:19 PM – 12 Dec 2016.”

The images of dazed and bloodied children sitting alone in the back of an ambulance or lying face down, dead, on a beach did move us, but the spark of compassion was only too momentary, the ensuing introspection all too brief.

Today the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city till the killings denuded its numbers, is almost over but not the miseries of its long-suffering citizens. They stayed, and paid the price for not leaving their homeland with life and limb. But to Syria’s President and his allies they will only be seen as rebels or supporters of rebels, hence undeserving of any mercy. Aleppo will be cleansed of the anti-Assad opposition and anyone who sympathised with it, ruthlessly and systematically. We will be too busy living.

“Remember that terrifying moment in the film Hotel Rwanda?” a friend posted in Facebook. “When it’s clear no country is interested in helping those trapped in the civil war, except the UN camp guarded by UN peacekeeping force. That there is no shelter, no respite from the brutal violence, no escaping the bloodbath? As Aleppo goes down, it’s the same feeling of utter helplessness. There’s no power in the world to stop what’s likely to happen there as innocent people stare into the darkness.”

Should we care? After all, it’s not as if we don’t have enough crosses of our own to bear. Too many of them in fact, at any given time. Yeah, we are too vast, too varied, subject to too many natural man-made disasters, often all at the same time (think Chennai, clobbered by demonetisation, death and cyclone with barely any respite). News editors of this country are blessed: there’s rarely a slow news day in India.

Yet, with all our trials and tribulations, we used to, care that is. Not purely because of geo-political or economic reasons considerations but on humanitarian grounds too. As African National Congress leader Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years in jail along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, recalled in 2014, the 125th birth anniversary of our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “We will forever remain grateful to Nehru’s government for initiating the campaign to isolate apartheid South Africa.”

 Aleppo crisis: No tears are being shed for survivors, not in India anyway

People carry their belongings as they flee the Kadi Askar area towards Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, in rebel-held besieged Kadi Askar area of Aleppo, Syria on 5 December 2016. Reuters

Yes, initiating. “It was only in the 1980s that the rest of the world started to follow the lead of India and the isolation of South Africa from all facets of global life took hold,” pointed out Kathrada. “The steadfastness of Nehru and the All-India Congress leaders served as beacons for the international anti-apartheid movement.”

Our world was larger, it went not just me, my family, my country that is the mantra today. For Nehru, the racial policy of the apartheid government of South Africa was the “greatest international immorality for a nation to carry on that way”. Apartheid became history almost three decades after his death, but he never wavered.

It may have been the times, it may have been the leader, Indians subscribed wholeheartedly. Even in the Eighties, when India earning its place under the sun in cricket, boycotting South Africa on the fields was seen as a badge of honour. Idealism mattered, self-interest was not defined so narrowly.

No longer. Though this is what separates the boys from the men in the international community. The courage to take a stand out of conviction and moral resoluteness, not because it serves some immediate accounting interest dictated by considerations of trade or investment or diplomacy. When we did, as in earthquake-ravaged Nepal, we beat our drums so much that we ended up making enemies of the very people we wanted to help.

No tears are being shed for Aleppo’s survivors, not in India anyway. Few Indians have family or friends there, it attracts few students or tourists from here and is not the stuff of our dreams and fantasies. So who cares who rules Syria and how.

If anything, the Modi government, predicated on the fear of terrorism and buying into Syria’s assertion that its fight was against radical Islam and not mere critics, has taken pains to keep on the right side of President Bashar al-Assad. Diplomatic contacts between the two countries have never faltered, extending even to the organising of yoga classes in the besieged country, courtesy a Delhi police officer tasked with protecting the Indian embassy who knows his pranayam too. Evidently it did not nothing to calm the tempers there.

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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2016 12:24:41 IST

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