In praise of some minor goddesses
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, asked leaders at a United Nations (UN) just one question: “How dare you?”Updated: Sep 29, 2019 00:20 IST
Fittingly, the week that led up to Navratri — a Hindu festival celebrating a warrior goddess who takes on the evil that gods and men cannot vanquish — offered new definitions of both courage and resistance. For example, we heard Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, who asked leaders at a United Nations (UN) just one question: “How dare you?”
We have no way of knowing if anyone present was actually listening to her, but while some celebrated her combative spirit, others sought to dismiss her by dredging up details like her having Asperger Syndrome. If only the planet’s rising temperatures and sea level were hallucinations of those on the autism spectrum. Unfortunately, even if the earlier doomsday predictions about the end of the world haven’t panned out, the impact of climate change – delayed monsoon, extreme rainfall, rising average temperatures, disruptions in crop cycles – is real.
More constructive have been the conversations about the role race and privilege have played in Thunberg getting the attention that she has. Unwittingly, this furiously determined teenager has pushed all of us to notice those who haven’t got the attention that she’s received. Young activists like 11-year-old Riddhima Pandey, who is one of 16 children to have filed a complaint to the UN that seeks to hold governments of countries responsible for letting climate change escalate into the present-day crisis; 19-year-old Artemisa Xakriaba and 17-year-old Helena Gualinga, who have been campaigning to protect the Amazon rainforest; 16-year-old Isra Hirsi, who, aside from being an activist, also pointed out the racial bias in how climate crisis is depicted as a “white issue”.
While we’re fortunate to be among minor goddesses like these girls, you can’t help but wonder whether adults are treating them as we do our divinities — with lip service and superficial adoration.
What has also been evident is the need to broaden our idea of what counts as bravery. If you’re working for the BBC, for example, stating the obvious could be an act of courage. Presenter Naga Munchetty had her knuckles rapped for suggesting on air that President Donald Trump’s comment from July this year that American Congresswomen of colour should “go home”, was racist. (Her comments were scrutinised after a member of the viewing public complained against Munchetty. Ironically, this complainant had no problem with Munchetty’s co-host Dan Walker — who just happens to be a Caucasian male — even though Walker was the one leading the conversation and appeared to be equally appalled by Trump.)
Closer home, it takes guts to answer the call of nature. We know this because Arun and Khushi, aged 11 and 12 respectively, were beaten to death in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri district, after being caught relieving themselves in the open. They were doing so because even though Arun’s father had applied to the panchayat for a latrine, his application had been rejected. This is a good point to bring in the detail that Arun and Khushi were Dalit and their killers are Yadavs, higher on the caste hierarchy. Shivpuri superintendent of police Rajesh Singh Chandel told the press, “Although Yadavs are dominant in the area, there is no history of animosity between the communities.”
The family of the two dead children will tell you differently. Around 20 years ago, for ₹45,000, their family paid for the right to live in Bhavkhedi village and to play the dhapli (a drum) during ceremonies. Twenty years later, the Dalit family can only fill water at the village hand pump once everyone else is done. Their children have dropped out of the local school after facing caste-based discrimination. While the school couldn’t handle the idea of Dalit students sharing the same facilities as other students, it had no problem hiring the eldest daughter of the Dalit family to clean toilets and sweep rooms (for ₹10-20 a week). She is 12.
Imagine needing courage to beat a drum, to eat off a plate, to go to a bathroom.
There are those who will tell you societies of the past were far more unequal and exploitative than ours is today.
They will tell you that it takes time to transform how people think. Funny thing though: When it came to the lifestyle changes that ended up destroying the environment, we were pretty darn quick to adopt them. Yet when it comes to progressive thinking and enabling social justice, we need time.
First Published: Sep 29, 2019 00:20 IST