Mighty monarchs passed.
Pious-king Yudhisthir too departed.
This land did not go with anyone.
The domain will not accompany thee.
– Anshu Malwiya in Hariyali ke Akhetak Along with purification, penance and prayers, Ramazan is also an occasion to share simple pleasures of life with loved ones. Joys multiply when combined with the satisfaction of caring for the needy. In hallowed Islamic tradition, Muslims are expected to set aside at least two-and-a-half percent of their assets (called ‘zakat’) for the welfare of the less fortunate. Our achievements are the blessings of the one and only supreme being and there is no better way to show gratitude to the almighty than by helping the poor. The beneficiary of zakat merely accepts his due. The mercy is that of the almighty, not the one who has performed his duty by donating a very small part of his or her wealth.
Hindus too mark the memory of Dinbandhu (brother of the poor) Baliraja, who gave away his earthly possessions to the deserving. Daan – selfless giving – is the most potent source of spiritual power. During the monsoon, on Guru Purnima day, priests invoke the spirit of a mighty king who became arrogant about his generosity and had to be chastised by the god-incarnate in the form of a dwarf. When selfless giving takes place, the receiver is doing a favour to the giver of daan. The donor, by earning merit, is the prime beneficiary in this transaction – he gives his earthly possessions to acquire salvation.
Renunciation has an important place in Jain and Buddhist traditions. The idea of ‘giving up’ goes beyond the notion of altruism – it is a reaffirmation of faith that, shorn of all worldly privileges, everyone is the same in the all-seeing eyes of the supreme. Once such a realisation is achieved, the act of giving and receiving loses its traditional meaning. Every person becomes a receiver of nature’s wonders.
In Christianity, Christmas is usually celebrated as the season of giving. However, there is no bar on doing a good deed at any time of the day or in any month of the year. Every religion emphasises the importance of sharing and caring. One does not have to be a religious person to accept the importance of giving. Mohandas K Gandhi defined god as conscience and ‘the atheism of the atheist’. A commitment to the good of humanity is merely a different manner of serving one’s own god – the conscience of the atheist.
Sadly, the fiercer the believer, the less seems to be his concern for the underprivileged and the deprived. The function of some mosques and madrassas for preaching jihad apart, the increase in the number of suicide bombers shows that the life-affirming power of the religion is probably on the decline. The more temples Hindus build, the less they seem to care for the poor and the marginalised. Gone are the days when Christian missionaries ran some of the finest schools and best hospitals in Southasia. The rich benefited most from these facilities, but no matter – at least they internalised the core values of the missionaries, which may have been superior to those being preached by profitable enterprises in the business of education and health.
Nowadays climate change and global warming are fashionable expressions. But they merely hide the fact that despite sanctimonious sermons and pious platitudes, the rate of exploitation of nature is increasing. The earth has miraculous powers of curing itself, but when attacks on it exceed its healing capacity, the discomfort is manifested in devastating manners. Almost the whole of Bihar and a major part of the Nepal Tarai are in the grip of a severe drought at a time when the dry lands of Sindh and Punjab are seeing unprecedented floods. Impending assembly elections have brought the Biharis some respite in the form of ambitious relief packages– leaders know when not to risk voters’ wrath. Challenges of implementation remain, but drought-hit farmers at least have something to look forward to. With a caretaker government at the helm, deprived Nepalis of the plains have no such luck.
Devastation created by cloudbursts in Leh drew the attention of the Dalai Lama and Aamir Khan, to say nothing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Their mere presence was enough to give a sense of hope to the people. However, the fury of nature has been fiercest in Pakistan and the attention it has received from Southasians or world leaders has failed to inspire confidence in the ability of our societies to cope with a calamity of this scale. President Asif Ali Zardari showed contempt when he failed to cut short his paid European sojourn as the flood levels rose. Estimates of the damage wrought by floods in Pakistan vary, but key data indicates that the deluge has affected 20 million people – the combined populations of Sweden, Norway and Finland. More people are under the grip of the flood in Pakistan this time than the sum total affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and the one that struck Haiti earlier this year. The magnitude of the catastrophe made Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, exclaim that he had never seen a disaster as bad.
The response of the West to the crisis has been less than generous so far. A frontline state in the US-led ‘war on terror’, Pakistan suffers from a bit of an image problem. It spends far too much on defence and way too little in defending the needy. Despite being a beneficiary of billions of dollars of military aid from the US, sections of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have been blamed for harbouring, nurturing and protecting militants of Islamic jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The oil sheikhs of West Asia, however, seem to think that Pakistan does not do as much as it should for the ummah, and have refused to loosen their purse strings for flood relief.
Occupation forces in the Af-Pak region are said to be spending upwards of USD 12 billion every month; all UN member countries put together have failed to commit even USD 1 billion so far for flood relief in Pakistan. Apart from Pakistan’s image in the West, there is another reason for the West’s stinginess. Rich countries are still struggling to get back to their pre-recession prosperity. Their priorities are stimulus packages for the domestic economy rather than humanitarian assistance for the victims of natural or manmade calamities abroad. Unlike military or developmental aid, compassionate assistance does not create profitable markets for the goods and services of corporations. Billionaires who have pledged half of their assets for charity would rather fund more popular causes – vaccination, HIV/AIDS and environment – rather than provide immediate succour to the victims of catastrophes. Southasians will have to devise their own mechanism of dealing with the challenges that they face.
The value of empathy
The hoopla over information, communication, and entertainment (ICE) industries notwithstanding, most of Southasia’s super-rich owe their wealth to nature’s bounty and the manipulation of government largesse in their respective countries. A closer look at the fortune of our billionaires would reveal their complicity with the crimes of corrupt or undemocratic regimes. Put a little differently, they have benefited at the cost of lesser well-connected citizens. Hence the well-to-do of Southasia owe a debt to society.
In normal situations, few harbour any grudge against the one-billion-dollar glass mansion of Mukesh Ambani in a country where over two-thirds of the national population are forced to live in absolute poverty. But when times become difficult, the rich have to prove that they deserve their islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty. Forbes India had calculated last year that the net worth of 52 Indian billionaires exceeded USD 276 billion, which was equal to nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP. It has been estimated that about 60 million Indians have a higher standard of living than France or Britain. Individually and collectively, at least some of their fortune needs to be shared with those in crisis.
It is not just the government; even the civil society of the Indian republic has to begin thinking like magnanimous Southasians rather than chauvinistic Indians. Pakistan may have some hesitation in accepting government-to-government assistance. That need not stop philanthropists and citizens from joining hands with organisations across the border for relief and resettlement programmes. Religions offer the most convincing explanations: What is given returns manifold in various forms to the giver. An atheistic explanation is no less compelling; anarchy would most certainly reign in whichever region has empathy in short supply.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine, the Republica daily and the Nepali Times.