The season of smiles

The season of smiles
As another year comes to an end, we welcome the New Year with hope in our hearts and prayers on our lips. May strife and enmity reduce in the world around us, and in our own backyards. May our elected leaders continue to work for improving our economy, our environment, and the living conditions of our masses. May netas bury their hatchets and expend their energies and lung power on nation building instead of launching tirades against their opponents. May the spirit of freedom and respect for our fellow citizens and for our motherland continue to prevail. May we continue to deserve and value our freedom by also being conscious of our responsibilities as citizens of the world’s largest democracy. May we also remember that freedom does not mean license to indiscriminately and aggressively do and say as we please. May humanity survive the unending onslaught of wars, terror strikes and growing environmental pollution which are bent upon destroying us and our planet.

In 2015, terror, war and hapless refugees fleeing war, cast shadows all over the world. Paris began the year with a murderous attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine which published, among other things, satirical cartoons of various religions, and religious and political leaders. Another heinous terror attack upon Paris ended the year. Meanwhile, Mali is emerging as a centre of terror in Africa. Hostage taking, attacks on public utilities are becoming business for insurgents along with narcotics smuggling. Boko Haram has continued to launch deadly assaults in Nigeria, and strife has flared in Yemen and in Palestine. Terror has spread its tentacles to Denmark, where there were attacks near a Jewish synagogue. Peace eluded Ukraine, while ISIS continued to launch offensives and execute hostages. Somalian militants have targeted non-Muslims in attacks such as the one on April 12 on Garissa University College in North-east Kenya. The IS claimed responsibility for attacks in a beach resort and the National Bardo Museum in Tunisia.

The tragedy of Alan Kurdi, a cute Syrian toddler whose body was found washed ashore on a Turkish beach, personified the worldwide refugee crisis. Alan Kurdi and thousands like him died violently while fleeing war in their homelands. The immigration crisis in Europe intensified. Thousands of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan, Syria and the turbulent regions of Northern Africa poured into the Balkans. Many European nations offered refuge to only a few migrants, turning away the rest. European Union officials struggled to reach an agreement on tackling the crisis. Western nations are concerned that terrorists will mingle with genuine refugees to infiltrate their countries. We pray the New Year will bring peace and reconciliation among all the countries and factions at war.

Indians can take justified pride in the fact that India has always been a welcoming haven for immigrants from distant lands, and for victims of religious persecution. The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala, also called Syrian Christians, trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of St. Thomas in the 1st century, at a time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman emperors. This is among the oldest Christian communities of the world. According to Wikipedia, St. Thomas Christian culture is Hindu in origin with influences from East Syrian, West Syrian, Jewish and later European sources. Our fellow citizens include Jews and Zoroastrians whose forefathers came to India to escape religious persecution in their native Persia. India has generously sheltered huge numbers of refugees from war-torn Bangladesh in 1971, and later from Sri Lanka. Over the decades, many of these hapless victims of strife have found new lives in our motherland. May the rest of the world embrace the spirit of magnanimity and continue to shelter unfortunate victims of war and persecution.

That ‘welcome’ feeling...
Bangladesh-born author and literary translator Mahmud Rahman now lives in the US. “Back in 1971,” he says, “I joined millions of my countrymen and women to flee an insecure life in an occupied land. India gave us refuge, and for that I have always been grateful. When I flew to the US with these identity papers (issued by India to refugees from Bangladesh) — newly-independent Bangladesh was not yet recognised by many countries — I could not stop in London for a planned visit with some friends... When I landed in Boston — I did have a proper visa in my possession — the immigration official said, “Welcome to the US.” That was a precious moment. There’s no question as to what’s right today when it comes to Syrian refugees. It would be a shame if our borders were shut on them.”

The end of 2015 saw mass shooting in the US and stabbings at a London underground station. Terror links to both incidents are being investigated. Countries around us are in grave crises because of rifts created among their own people. Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria were peaceful once. Like India, these countries have a rich cultural heritage, and were home to ancient civilisations. Yet, today, opposing factions are killing each other, while ordinary citizens drown in the seas to escape anarchy and mayhem. The poison of pointing harsh, accusing fingers, and spreading hatred among our fellow Indians is extending vicious tentacles over our homeland. We must be alert to nip in the bud messengers of divisions and enmity among the people of India, and prevent our motherland from becoming another Syria or Afghanistan.  
We are most fortunate to be living in a free country. We can rant and rave about the ‘system’ and the powers-that-be without being beheaded or imprisoned. May our democracy continue to prosper, and may we enjoy our rights and freedom responsibly. The mainstream media plays a vital role in disseminating information. The onus falls on mainstream conveyors of news to provide a balanced and rational perspective, which in turn moulds public opinion and people’s reactions to current events.

“What’s with our media?” wonders literary translator and editor Keerti Ramachandra. “Unless their callers, panelists, respondents blame the government, the authorities... they are not happy. Anyone who says a good word, shows any appreciation of the government’s efforts, is choked off. Why not highlight the generosity, the helpfulness of the people of Chennai — the constable, the fireman, the staff of the corporation (who, by the way, are also ordinary people whose homes are probably flooded) and yet they continue on duty.” “The media is getting really ugly these days,” says Chitra Iyengar, a young engineer. “I miss those days when news was a 10-minute one every hour, and half an hour programme every 3 hours. That news was actual news, useful.”

The comparative sobriety of the Western news channels in reporting the recent terror attacks in Paris must be appreciated. Our media prefers a shriller, sensational tone. TV news presentations sizzle with histrionics, and invited guests are shouted down before they can speak a single sentence. Newspapers, too, abound with aggressive headlines with phrases such as “strikes back”, “lashes out” and “blazes away”. This aggressive tone can help pit people against each other, fan the flames of controversy and deepen rifts and animosity.

When these controversies and enmities move on to social media, a multi-headed monster is born. Malicious writers latch on to selective quotes and facts, and spread misinformation and half-truths to further their narrow agendas. Incendiary messages flood our social media feeds, urging us to react and take sides. Facts get buried under the noise and ordinary people like us react wrongly without realising the sensationalism or spiteful insinuations. Heaven knows who will benefit from spreading such divisions and hatred. If this poison continues to spread, we will surely die in the crossfire. People like us must remain cautious and balanced and not hastily react to, or pass on such messages. We must remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Terror is just one among the many dangers our world faces. Climate change and uncontrolled environmental degradation will surely destroy this planet, finishing what terrorists have started. Global warming and the El Nino effect are considered major causes of the recent unprecedented deluge in Chennai and the neighbouring areas of coastal Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh. While some parts of the country reeled under floods, other areas such as 50 districts of Uttar Pradesh were declared drought hit. Crop losses due to the vagaries of nature and mounting debts continue to push our farmers to take their own lives. The Hyderabad High Court recently described the farmers’ suicides and the crisis-like situation of agriculture in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as “alarming”. Delhi, like most of our urban settlements, is beginning to smell like a gas chamber, prompting the state government to control the number of vehicles on the city’s streets.

“The Paris COP 21 talks could determine the outcome of our immediate history,” says author Amitav Ghosh. Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has supported Prime Minister Modi’s case for India’s growth, saying it will be unjust to make developing nations shift to low carbon emission green energy, when it is much costlier than traditional fossil fuels.

Governments and ordinary people are spreading awareness, and rays of hope are piercing the noxious fumes. India’s total forest cover has increased to 24.16 per cent, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar said, releasing the ‘India State of Forest Report – 2015’. If pollution is increasing, the carbon sinks provided by forests are also increasing, he added. India has been shown as an example at the Paris Summit. However, pollution continues to grow, and we are yet to attain the desired 33 per cent forest cover. Meanwhile, various species are becoming endangered and sinking into extinction due to increasing pollution and the ongoing human-animal conflict. The return of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles for breeding on beaches off the Bay of Bengal delighted wildlife lovers. We hope they and other rare species will survive and thrive to enrich the beauty of our planet. We also pray that our planet itself will survive, and continue to sustain us all.

Cheery notes
There’s more good news to cheer us. India is, for the first time, leading the World Bank’s growth chart of major world economies in 2015, overtaking China’s 7.1 per cent growth rate. The Bank said reforms had buoyed the confidence in India. Concerns over the current account deficit, fiscal deficit and inflation have dissipated with the fall in oil prices. It said new reforms were improving business and investor confidence in India, attracting new capital inflows.

There’s hope on the international relations front. Prime ministers Narendra Modi of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan had a cordial impromptu meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 climate summit. The National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan met in Bangkok on December 6, 2015 and “agreed to carry forward the constructive engagement”. China was happy to see a thawing of relations between India and Pakistan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. In another instance of positive international co-operation, Germany has promised 125 million euros to help finance green energy projects in Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. May our leaders set aside rivalries and work together to nurture these green shoots. Meanwhile, ordinary Indian citizens have quietly worked to make this world a better place. Indian doctors from major hospitals such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Fortis, Maulana Azad, CMC Vellore and Apollo have conducted free camps for African patients, partnered with local hospitals, organised continued medical education programmes and exchange programmes through the Pan African e-Network Project linking 48 African countries.

During the recent disastrous deluge, citizens of Chennai embodied the true spirit of India as they poured out of flooded homes to help others in greater distress. The official rescue forces pitched in bravely to do their duty in Chennai, and wherever else their help was needed. Among the many ordinary Indians overcoming narrow divisive forces were members of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), who cleaned temples as well as mosques in the flooded areas of Chennai.

As we remember the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, let us salute the courageous Indians who laid down their lives selflessly to combat terror. Slain Maharashtra Anti Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare, Assistant Commissioner of Mumbai Police Ashok Kamte, Senior Police Inspector Vijay Salaskar, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, ASI Tukaram Gopal Omble — these noble bravehearts are the real heroes of our country and of our times. All these brave and generous Indians may not command prime time TV, but let us keep them and their ideals alive in our hearts. When confronted by repeated images of animosity and divisiveness, may we, the people of India, refuse to take the bait to destroy each other. May we continue to stand together as proud and responsible citizens of a great nation.
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