Why is it that when we see the suffering of another individual or being, some of us are able to envision ourselves in their place and instantaneously make a connect and reach out to them, while others are unable to do so? The answer lies in our ability to empathize. As individuals, we tend to be in tune with our own wellbeing and what can be done to enhance that very state, while it takes more of an effort to think the same way about another person. This clearly demonstrates that empathy is not a universal trait. I believe empathetic individuals strengthen communities, enabling people to come together and grow through an understanding of emotions and perspectives associated with singular and shared experiences.

The Rohingyas fled to India, among other neighbouring nations, in large numbers to escape persecution by violent groups in Myanmar in 2012-13. There are about 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India, a number much smaller than the Tibetan, Hindu Pakistani, and Sri Lankan refugees. The Rohingyas reside in camps in the states of Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), New Delhi, Haryana, Hyderabad, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. They make a living by working odd jobs – if at all – such as manual labourers and rag pickers. Some have been able to drive autos as well, but largely, financial difficulties persist leaving them in a pitiful state.

Repatriating the Rohingyas to Myanmar while there is an ongoing genocide is inhumane and malicious. This suggeststo the Rohingyas that India doesn’t want them and would much rather see them be persecuted in Myanmar. This can be employed as fodder by radical groups functioning in the subcontinent to radicalize Rohingya youth via social media and other sources. India is failing to anticipate the long-term repercussions of disenfranchisement of this Muslim community for the entire subcontinent. India must therefore imbibe lessons from its shared history with Myanmar and act proactively, so as to avoid exacerbated security implications which would weaken the region as a whole. Choosing India as their host nation has been very disappointing for Rohingya refugees and India must do better for them as well as for itself.

Empathy has taken a backseat whenever the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ rhetoric has been propagated and presented to the public as cause for national concern. This can be witnessed in the case of the Rohingya refugees in India. 

People are scared, they don’t understand what it means to host a minority Muslim refugee group from Myanmar in India, a Hindu-majority nation. It shouldn’t matter from the perspective of human rights, but it does, because it is very much a security and economic issue as well. The generalisation of Rohingya refugees as a threat to Indian national security has been difficult to witness, because it has alienated the refugees, especially the widows, making it difficult for them to get jobs and acquire necessities such as food. If only an empathetic, yet pragmatic approach is employed, the refugees as well as India can benefit in terms of national security and basic human respect.

How can empathy help? It may not be a universal trait, but it can certainly be learnt. Over the past four years, I have worked with Rohingya refugees, and in these years, they have gone from not being known at all by most Indians to being demonised at large by the unaware masses. A little empathy can go a long way if only more people involved themselves with the community and learnt more about them while paying attention to where they are getting their information from. 

If only more people played with the refugee children! These have been born in the filth of the camps, fled the bloodshed in Myanmar with their parents, and simply require productive engagement, education and kindness to get through their days. Empathy can also materialize in the form of basic provisions, but based on my experience, the refugees don’t turn anybody away; even if you have no monetary aid to offer and just want to have a heartful conversation about their experiences and play with the children, it brings smiles to their faces. The parents understand the value of empathy and goodwill from those who choose to help while pushing for their children to stay in school, just as any Indian parent does. It is also important to think of them as able persons who are stuck in a bad situation and could benefit from your actions.

Being taught Gandhian philosophy, value education and praying in assembly every day, Indian students are expected to emerge as value additions to our traditional, culturally sound society. Our education system emphasises the theory of kindness, sympathy, non-violence and empathy, but has never given us a chance to learn it through practice: how are young adults expected to ingrain these value systems when they don’t experience them in reality? We do learn sharing is caring, but by the time we are adults, not many of us want to part with our materialistic possessions for those who have less than us. The Indian society takes pride in being collectivistic in nature, though action through collectivistic, empathetic, community thinking more than often lacks, unless demanded by religion. This must change. Values of empathy, generosity and social engagement must be emphasised within our education system so that students pick up emotional and practical skills through participation.

Empathy that makes a difference requires initiative to be taken; thought must result into action. Empathy must not be regarded as a weakness, it is a strength which can lead to communities like the Rohingyas and Indians coming together to find a solution to, or at least, ease the refugee crisis in South Asia. It simply requires the privileged to take a stand for those who cannot do so for themselves. 

Empathetic action displays a learned strength which commands respect. There is power in being gentle, own yours and lift others up.

Niharika Sharma

Niharika Sharma is a sustainable development and policy professional skilled in community development, research and analysis.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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