The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Pysician, heal thyself first!

Swapan Dasgupta
Daily Pioneer
Sept 05 2005

It may sound callous, but the truth is that the thousands of middle class Indians who sat glued to CNN watching and discussing, of all things, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, weren't remotely driven by a sense of Christian charity or Hindu compassion. On the contrary, you could detect their smirk at the descent of the American Dream into a Third World nightmare.

Don't get me wrong, the Indian viewer wasn't gloating at the possible discomfiture of President George W Bush or echoing the global warming alarmism of the ayatollahs of environmentalism. There was just a quiet satisfaction that a country which believes in its divine right to offer gratuitous advice to everyone on every conceivable subject was now being shown up with its pants down. BBC World, the world's most infuriatingly sanctimonious TV channel, didn't need to lace its footage with the sepulchral voice that accompanies every calamity in 'Bungler-dish' and sub-Saharan Africa. The chaos of New Orleans was the worst advertisement for Western civilisation in a very long time.

It is not merely that India manages its disasters, from the Orissa super-cyclone and Gujarat earthquake to last year's tsunami in Tamil Nadu, much more effectively. Narendra Modi, for example, should have got his own back by offering the services of the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority to the State of Louisiana. What we witnessed on real time TV wasn't merely a demonstration of administrative sloth, political panic and social disarray in one American city. In the unhinged, profane rantings of the Mayor of New Orleans we witnessed the demolition of some of the most fundamental assumptions of the American Dream.

Most striking was the widespread demonstration of criminality. Every disaster leads invariably to some looting and lawlessness. Even the folklore around the Blitz in London, 1940, cannot wash away the fact that some people took advantage of someone else's misfortune. However, what was witnessed in New Orleans wasn't just crime; it was the descent of a city into complete anarchy. The organised armed gangs looting empty houses and ransacking shops, the widespread instances of rape and the desertion of one-third of the police force, made New Orleans resemble a Central African town in the throes of regime change.

It is said that the goonda-raj was a result of helplessness. Some 70,000 people packed into a baseball stadium without drinking water and toilet facilities can easily forget the importance of decency and gentlemanly conduct. Yet, what I find inexplicable is why there weren't armies of volunteers bringing food, water and medicines into New Orleans. In the aftermath of every flood or earthquake in India, we see home-grown organisations such as the Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevasram Sangh, RSS and assorted Rotary Clubs taking charge of emergency services and complementing the Government machinery. Have voluntary agencies disappeared from the US? Are American NGOs only for export?

More significant was the irrelevance of Church bodies. The evangelists who litter the landscape of the Deep South are cash-rich and have an amazing knack of turning up at odd places promising deliverance. How come we didn't hear of them providing solace to their flock and engaging in Christian charity in New Orleans? There are reports that the few charity workers who turned up beat a hasty retreat after being threatened. What does this reveal about the supposed importance of Christian values in the civic life of America? And to imagine US evangelists have the gumption to preach to Indians.

What was equally striking was the horrific lack of compassion for both humans and animals. The Daily Telegraph reported a Baptist hospital turning away homeless survivors from the deluge at gunpoint. "They would not even let us into the parking lot." The Washington Times described how a distraught boy was forcibly separated from his pet dog by the National Guards.

In the past three days, American sanctimoniousness was busted. The message from the rest of the world is loud and clear: Physician, heal thyself first.

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