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The Man in the Crowd

Pranav Jeevan P and Sulochana R

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste starts with this photograph taken in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, of shipyard workers heiling in unison, their right arms rigid in outstretched allegiance to the Führer, Adolf Hitler. This picture points us to the man (inside the circle) believed to be August Landmesser, who refused to salute—a lone man standing against the tide. At that time, he did not know about the horrors of World War II, but he knew the lies and propaganda the Nazis were feeding the Germans about Jews, which were readily embraced by the majority. He alone understood that Jews were fellow German citizens. His openness to the humanity of the people who had been deemed beneath him gave him a stake in their well-being. He chose to see what his fellow countrymen chose not to see.

In a totalitarian regime such as that of the Third Reich, it was an act of bravery to stand firm against an ocean. We would all want to believe that we would have been him. We might feel certain that, were we Aryan citizens under the Third Reich, we surely would have seen through it, would have risen above it like him, been that person resisting au­thoritarianism and brutality in the face of mass hysteria. We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in de­fense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to tran­scend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numeri­cally impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man. What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?  – Isabel Wilkerson

We have been witnessing a genocide in front of our eyes every day for the last one month. Thousands of unarmed civilians are being shot at, bombed and crushed under the rubble of their destroyed homes. Civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, bakeries, and refugee camps is being indiscriminately targeted, and innocent men, women, children and even babies are being killed. Every single war crime is being committed in the name of ‘defense’ by an occupying force. A collective punishment is being imposed on people for crimes they did not commit, their sole fault being not giving up their land to occupiers. Millions of innocent people, including children, are paying the price with their lives while the world leaders standby, watching without any shame or humanity.

The complete impunity accorded to this genocide by the leaders of the western world shows their racism, Islamophobia, and disregard for human lives. To them, only lives they deem worthy, such as those of white people, deserve to be saved, and only attacks against them need to be condemned. The current genocide openly exposes their flawed and hypocritical idea of human rights, which only matter when people who are oppressed belong to the ‘right’ race or religion. This savagery of the western leaders, who refuse to condemn this genocide and call for an immediate ceasefire, makes them party to these crimes against humanity. The so-called ‘developed’ western world has lost all authority to speak about human rights, democracy, or free speech to the rest of us and looks down upon us from their ‘moral high ground’. Protests have been clamped down, and threats of arrests have been made to people who raise their voice in solidarity with the oppressed.

Moreover, this massively lethal inaction of the leaders is normalized by the way the western newsrooms are spreading massive propaganda to further dehumanize the victims of this ethnic cleansing. From demanding one-sided condemnation of previous attacks by the oppressed and parroting government narratives to misreporting and spreading disinformation, they have been whitewashing the occupiers and villainizing the victims. Many western media outlets insist on highlighting the immorality of killing the occupiers’ civilians while soft-pedaling the immorality of the indiscriminate killing of civilians in occupied territory. They routinely spread colonialism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia to poison public perception and justify the ethnic cleansing. They conveniently avoid mentioning that human rights groups and the United Nations have described the oppressor as an apartheid regime. Insights that humanize the victims of genocide or deviate from the official line of unconditional support for the oppressor have been suppressed.

India is becoming a major contributor to the overflow of disinformation against oppressed people. Newsrooms and social media accounts have been at the forefront of spreading disinformation targeting oppressed people and supporting the occupiers. The rise of Islamophobia in India has found resonance in the genocide against the oppressed and the glorification of the oppressor. The decision of X (formerly Twitter) to scale down on efforts to counter fake news and disinformation has exaggerated the problem.

Apart from immense grief, witnessing this genocide has been brutally disillusioning for many of us, shattering our belief in systems of power. We can no longer read history and naively believe that it would not happen now, in this age of social and technical progress, which accords us connectivity through social media, with the entire civilized world watching. Unfortunately, we need not wonder what we would have done, as Isabel Wilkerson said, for it is time for each of us to be August Landmesser now.

While witnessing a genocide amidst maddening propaganda might overwhelm us and tempt us to, by exercising our privilege, isolate ourselves to be able to do so and avoid the news, it will simply not be enough. We must come out of trying to deal with it only individually and come together to share our shock, grief, and anger collectively. It would help us overcome our crippling sense of helplessness, find community, and enable us to act together. In the process, our voices will also help counter propaganda and keep in check the narratives and actions of the oppressors and their enablers. Sometimes, it takes rising up to fight against the oppression of others to be able to see and understand our own oppression. Unless we collectively come together to call out the oppression that others face and question coercive power, we will forever remain under oppression ourselves. We are never completely free unless each of us is free from oppression.

People can use their collective power to force their governments to condemn the genocide. The citizens of the western world need to hold their governments accountable, as they are spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to fund apartheid and genocide. They must come out and voice their protest to force their leaders to condemn the human rights violations and complete disregard for international humanitarian law and to implement a cease-fire immediately.

The resilience of the oppressed in the face of extreme adversity inspired millions to register their solidarity with them. Despite the massive state-sponsored propaganda in their countries, people are raising their voices and refusing to comply with the regimes that aid genocide. The progress of human civilization is not measured by technical advancements like space explorations or tall skyscrapers, but by how well we support each other, make sure that we reduce harm, and ensure justice, liberty, and peace for all.

 Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. – Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr. 


Pranav Jeevan P is a PhD candidate in Artificial Intelligence at IIT Bombay. He has earlier studied quantum computing in IIT Madras and Robotics at IIT Kanpur and Sulochana R is a PhD candidate in Science Education at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), TIFR Mumbai. 

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