It hurts when society plumbs the depths of indifference

In 597 BC, the statesman Solon created a legal code that underpinned the democratic government in Athens. He forbade his people from being indifferent to other's plight. He insisted that the Athenians work for a just cause rather than play safe as a bystander.

By Shalini Verma (Centrepiece)

Published: Sun 4 Aug 2019, 9:15 PM

Last updated: Sun 4 Aug 2019, 11:17 PM

On June 4, 2017, a 17-year-old girl goes missing from her village in India. The family files a missing person complaint. A few days later she is found some hundred kilometres away after she is allegedly raped by a local politician. Two years on, her father dies in judicial custody, her uncle is in prison, her aunts die in a horrific car accident, her lawyer is in hospital in a critical condition, and she is on a ventilator fighting for her life. Her life reads like the script of a Bollywood thriller. It took all of this and more to occur before the Supreme Court took cognizance of the family's letter of appeal for help.
On July 24 this year, CCTV cameras in Mumbai captured a building security guard brutally thrashing a young dog. All that the poor animal sought was shelter against the pounding rains that Mumbai knows all too well. A building resident had ordered the thrashing to set an example for other street dogs.
On July 31, VG Siddhartha, owner of the Indian coffee chain Café Coffee Day, got down from his car near a river. He walked towards the bridge and was never seen alive again. He allegedly took his own life by jumping off the bridge. His actions in the run up to his final walk on the bridge suggest that he committed suicide because his company was neck deep in debt. He gave up on life as he could not face the pressures from his equity partners and the tax department.
An alleged rape victim is lying critical in a hospital and her family is destroyed despite repeated appeals because the police are apathetic towards victims who accuse the more powerful. The dog is now comatose in an animal shelter because the city does not care about the animals that roam the streets. The founder of a giant coffee franchise that started the café culture in India is dead because his investors and government officials couldn't care less about his financial troubles.
These heart-wrenching incidents are expressions of a more widespread indifference that runs deep in our society, businesses, and institutions.
Investors are more keen to take their pound of flesh than nurture the business they invest in. Businesses face routine indifference from clients who squeeze their vendors to the last dollar, knowing fully well that the deal maybe financially unsustainable. Perhaps the extent of indifference that Siddhartha felt was far deeper. A decade ago, Siddhartha had spoken about the indifference of customers he experienced on the New Year's Eve when he chose to go behind the counter to personally serve the customers.
He noted, "I was simply amazed how indifferent people are to those who serve.
Three rich women came, ordered their drinks, did not once look at me, and settled the cheque, did not care to tip me, but worse, did not say a 'thank you' before leaving for someplace else where revelry awaited them." Ironically, his response to the indifference he experienced was to show the ultimate indifference towards his own life.
After a road accident, the bystanders and those who stall the traffic to observe and take pictures far outnumber those who try to help. Bystander apathy is a social, psychological view that people are less likely to help when other people are present. In crowded cities, we feel that it is someone else's problem. The growing lack of cohesiveness in large cities has contributed greatly to our indifference. Villages often have a greater sense of community. If a neighbour has racked up a large debt from the local money lender, the villagers meet as a community to deliberate and find a viable solution.
But in the face of an invincible adversary, even this community can fall apart.
The family of the rape victim was waging a lonely war against the politician, while the neighbours remained bystanders, who did not even join the victim's family to mourn its dead for fear of harassment from political goons.
In philosophy, indifference means a state of being entirely free from pathe or emotions like grief and anger. Yet indifference doesn't always mean that people don't react. They react briefly before looking away, just as we as tourists react to beggars. Eventually, we get desensitised.
These incidents will become fleeting expressions of our indifference because we will move on. But we can do better.
In 597 BC, the statesman Solon created a legal code that underpinned the democratic government in Athens. He forbade his people from being indifferent to other's plight. He insisted that the Athenians work for a just cause rather than play safe as a bystander. This instilled in Athenians a sense of civic duty that later served to unite them against subsequent Persian attacks. It is incumbent upon each of us to do our civic duty and not be a bystander.
Indifference can only end with a reaction, a response, an action, similar to Khaleej Times' response to a distressed email from a suicidal expat in Dubai.
We all have to do our little part.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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