Leaders must draw from New Zealand PM’s courage and wisdom

Updated on Mar 18, 2019 11:56 PM IST
By saying “they are us” while referring to the 49 victims of the massacre, she reverses the us-them binary
Non-refoulement could not have been defined better than in Jacinda Ardern’s words. The darkness of that massacre has met the only light that can dispel it(REUTERS)
Non-refoulement could not have been defined better than in Jacinda Ardern’s words. The darkness of that massacre has met the only light that can dispel it(REUTERS)

Wisdom in tranquillity, like courage under pressure, is admirable. But not unknown. But wisdom and courage, both, being displayed in a situation of unprecedented tension, are exceptional. If a Nobel Prize for Peace could be given to a spontaneous statement for wisdom and courage, rather to a person, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deserves it. The words spoken by her after the terror attack in Christchurch were few. They are unforgettable. One single, three word sentence, the most so. Referring to the 49 or more killed, she said: “They are us”. Not “they are one of us”, or “they could have been you or me”. None of that cautious, self-insulating, self-indemnifying vagueness. Simply, they are us.

Those learned in Sanskrit scripture would call this pure Advaita, captured in Ramana Maharshi’s way of looking at things in the term “I am Thou”, captured by the Indian philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi for the eponymous title-theme of his extraordinary book. If at one level Ardern gave us a metaphysical statement, at another level she also gave us, spontaneously, a highly practical political philosophy that is critical to human survival today.

Reversing the “us” and “them” binary, throwing old concepts of otherness out of the window, giving no space to either cliché or platitude, she then said “…the person who perpetuated this violence is not”. The significance of both statements is mutual, colossal.

Almost all the targeted victims were Muslim, the attacker or attackers, white and Christian just like Ardern is. In saying that the terrorist or terrorists behind the attack may have been from New Zealand’s majority community but they do not represent it, cannot represent it, for they have done something inhuman, something that goes against civilisation, she said something that each New Zealander needs to know. She could have said she was grieved, agonised, appalled. She could have said ,as the head of government, as one who has to maintain order and uphold law, that she was horrified, angry, in righteous fury. And that would have been considered right, termed appropriate. But no, Ardern spoke from a thinking heart and feeling mind to say something that was totally different, totally timely and timeless. The perpetrators of terror are the aberration, she conveyed, the anomaly, the deviation, divergence from civility, from humanity that places them in a universal not one of us-ness. She made a difference, drew a line, that was not about ethnicity but human decency. And then, in an amazingly topical observation for a world that is closing its eyes and shutting its doors to immigrants and refugees, she said, and I quote her exact words, “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.”

And in so doing, she said something that philosophers in positions of statesmanship have, like the emperor Asoka did, for their times and for all time. Being the other, being migrants, refugees, immigration or asylum seekers, being in a minority, being different, being isolated, bereft, in other words, being orphaned, is a condition that can be ours, yours or mine, at any time anywhere.

On the subcontinent of India, in South Asia, the condition is endemic. Each one of us is, in the next mohalla, a potential other.

A Christchurch-like mosque or temple exists in every city, town and village in India and can be the scene of terror attacks, exactly like the mosques in Christchurch. And since Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs now inhabit places outside India in large numbers, Christchurch repeats can happen anywhere, across the globe. What will be the effect? Perpetual revenge, retribution, vengeance. Perpetual , mutually sustaining hatred.

If extremists practising their macabre method under the name of Islam now wreak vengeance on churches and chapels with Christian congregations at prayer, the world will not have a day of peace, its religions no freedom from tension, fear, hate. No immigrant anywhere outside South Asia , whether Hindu or Muslim or Sikh will then feel secure. Nor Christians, of an ethnicity same or similar to that of Christchurch’s mass murderer.

India’s leaders have to draw from Prime Minister Ardern a lesson in spontaneously courageous wisdom or wise courage to say that victims of violence are us, and no perpetrator of violence is us. More specifically, that migrants and refugees seeking shelter in India from ethnic prosecution are in their own home. Non-refoulement could not have been defined better than in Jacinda Ardern’s words.

The darkness of that massacre has met the only light that can dispel it.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal


    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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