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Our Collective Moral Bankruptcy and the Perils of Performative Wokeness

By Kaveri Patwardhan

Faizan a year older than I am now. On February 24th, 2020, he went to look for his mother, Kismatun, at a sit-in protest in Kardampuri, Delhi. He had probably shut his tailoring shop down for the day, neatly folding the piles of sarees and putting away the salwars. I’d like to think he remembered to take his tiffin carrier with him - you know, the one that parents pack your lunch in and constantly remind you not to forget.

On that same day, I was furiously tweeting things like ‘NO CITIZENSHIP AMENDMENT ACT’ (all caps, naturally), and reminding my followers that ‘grand labels disguised unforgivable things,’ unaware, almost callously, now, of what was about to occur, and the real nature of the protests surrounding the Act.

I put my phone down, satisfied with the moral ground on which I stood, and moved on to stressing about school, boys, graduation, frat parties, and the coffee stain on my shirt. What I didn’t know was that at that very moment, policemen in Kardampuri were attacking Faizan and the people around him with rocks, switching to spraying him and other protestors with tear gas when they got bored.

As I was responding to comments on my tweet, the police were alternating between striking Faizan with a baton and shoving the same baton down his throat, demanding that he sing the national anthem.

As I was arguing with people on the Internet, Faizan’s mother and sister, Sonam, were frantically searching for him, sick with worry. They didn’t find him – he’d been taken to the police station, and by the time they released him and sent him home, it was too late.

He was 23.

I don’t know what happened to Faizan’s tailor shop. I don’t know what happened to the poultry business that the family was planning on starting. I want to reach out to Kismatun, Sonam, and the countless others that aren’t named, the ones that never make the news, and apologize for my part in all of this. For our parts in all of this. Something is broken, and nobody wants to fix it. On the other end of the spectrum, and arguably worse (or at least as bad), is that all we do is ‘want to fix it,’ this desire finding only the weakest outlet for its expression – a tweet. Two hundred and eighty characters or less.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot what a good government was supposed to do, and we became content with retweeting Arundhati Roy to express our dissatisfaction with the state of our politics, with the state of our home.

At what point is wanting to vote the BJP out of power lamentably inadequate? The BJP did not cause this. The Congress did not cause this. Let us not give them all the credit. When the monsters arrived, we did what we do best – we made sure we were safe, and then promptly looked the other way, as the monsters did what they do best – they preyed on the most vulnerable among us.

Part of why the social and political landscape is morally barren today is because none of us can see beyond the shoelaces of our hundred-dollar sneakers and the unshakeable, blinding belief in the primacy of our own moral rectitude above all else.

This is More than a Just a Moment, it is whole Reality

As I work on this essay, thousands of farmers have gathered in the nation’s capital to protest the agricultural legislation the government dubs a watershed moment for Indian agriculture, but, in its true form, actually eliminates the protection that our farmers desperately need when we throw them to the wolves of the free market economy. The moral rectitude that I was talking about has begun to take shape on my Instagram feed, expressing outrage at the US media’s lack of coverage, declaring that we must all stand in solidarity with the farmers. After all, kisaan hai toh hum hain. In February, my Instagram feed told the world that we stood with Faizan. In October, after Hathras, we said that it was time to take a stand.

Now, even as we come back from our shopping trip to Nature’s Basket, it’s time to protest the exploitation of our farmers and demand that the US media cover the protests. As we find ourselves in the middle of what is arguably the biggest farmer protests in years, we are asking why the American media isn’t paying attention to us.

Where were we in September, when the government introduced and passed the bills?

Kisaan hai toh hum hain, but where were we in September, when the government introduced and passed the bills? As we tuned into CNN and cheered for Kamala Harris, Rashpal Singh, a farmer in Sirsiwala, lost his father to suicide. The next time you talk about organic produce, think about Leela Singh, a farmer in Akanwali, who hung himself after being unable to borrow 7000 rupees to keep his farm going. In many ways, the current moment was foreseeable, the product of decades of complacence that has been embedded into our DNA, now manifesting as the moral squalor we find ourselves surrounded by. This is the result of a casual shrug of the shoulder, accompanied by a slightly apologetic but ultimately unconcerned ‘well, this is India- what can you do?’ each time the Brahmaputra floods and people lose their homes. ‘Adjust,’ after all, is our favorite word, and, unfortunately for us, we use it as liberally when we tell a farmer that good times will come as we do on crowded trains when we’re asking people to move.

This is so much bigger than the Delhi Chalo march. This is not only about Faizan. This is not only about Hathras. This is about Sardar Singh Jatav, the farmer from Madhya Pradesh who was attacked with a razor for being Dalit. This is about Nirbhaya. This is about the migrant workers the government played its disfigured version of football with over the summer. There will be another soccer game with migrant workers.

There will be another Hathras tragedy. There will be another Sardar Singh Jatav, because next week, the internet will be done expressing its outrage – look how quickly we forgot what we fondly like to call the Hathras tragedy.

My Indian-American friends will go back to focusing on the civility of the President-Elect, on the fact that Black Lives Matter (fun fact – they mattered before the goras made it cool). At home, my friends and family in India will go back to complaining about how the cook has the audacity to take two days off.

My Instagram feed will return photos of people at pumpkin patches, interspersed with masked brunches and socially distanced Christmas get-togethers.

Surely the farmers gathered in Delhi won’t mind. The girl’s family, back in Hathras, has probably gotten over the loss of their daughter. Kismatun and Sonam will move on. The CAA will celebrate its first birthday this year. Another day, another Faizan. Another Delhi Chalo march. Another farmer suicide. One more tweet, one more Instagram post, one more Nirbhaya, one more news cycle. Another wheel that turns nothing.

The Responsibility of Reconstruction

If you are reading this, I know you feel the same sense of helplessness and rage that I feel. But it is precisely this helplessness that the people in power are counting on.

I often find myself thinking of a particular line in Red Jihad, by Sami Ahmad Khan – he reminds us that each of us is a ‘Dalit in Khairlanji, a Pandit in the Kashmir valley, a Sikh in 1984, a Bihari in Maharashtra, a Delhi-wallah in Chennai, a woman in North India, a Hindi-speaker in Assam, a Tamilian in Madhya Pradesh, a villager in a big city. We're all minorities. We all suffer; we all face discrimination. It is in resisting the tribalism of the majority that we are human.’ At the time, I took him to mean that engaging in debate, being vocal about what you believed in, showing up to protests, spreading the word – this was fighting the good fight. Now, I know better. This isn’t about our own humanity, and Sami Ahmad Khan wasn’t telling us that our work was done when we retweeted Arundhati Roy. Our work begins when we truly care about justice for the most vulnerable among us, an investment that goes beyond our empty activism on Twitter and Instagram. This investment needs for us to say, for perhaps the first time, phrases like ‘running for office’ out loud, because we will not survive the moral bankruptcy in our own backyards with this kind of passivity. It requires us to turn our attention away from CNN, and look at our own homes, our own politicians. It requires us to demand accountability from the government that is supposed to work for us, not against us, and it demands that we do so not just for a week, or for a month. It requires us to remember that politics is not a dirty word, that after a point, knowing, tweeting, and debating isn’t enough. Only action is.


About the author

Kaveri Patwardhan is originally from Chennai, India. A recent graduate in philosophy from Dickinson College, US, she has focused her studies on propaganda, ethical theory, and the philosophy of language. She is currently pursuing her Juris Doctorate at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, Canada.


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