Employing the politics of solidarity against the rise of populism

Photo: Ryan Franco/Unsplash

We are living in extremely troubled times, amidst rising darkness, in my country, India, and around the world. We witness a world scarred by growing hate, mounting inequality, and the rise of a new kind of leadership around the world. In two of the biggest democracies in the world, India and the US, we have elected such leaders; in many others, these leaders are forming formidable oppositions.

What characterizes these leaders? The first is that they amplify, legitimize, valorize bigotry and hatred. Their politics thrives on deeply divided societies and instead of healing those divides, such people want to deepen and consolidate them.

The second is a peculiar moral inversion in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor and the oppressor becomes the oppressed. In this morally inverted discourse, white people in the United States, the dominant group, claim the role of the “oppressed” group—supposedly exploited by people of color, minorities, immigrants who are snatching away their due. In India, it is the dominant Hindu upper caste majority who is “oppressed” by various minorities, most of all Muslims. And, of course, the middle class and the rich are oppressed by the poor, who are labelled as lazy and parasitical; “we pay taxes” to subsidize the poor.  This discourse frees people of privilege from the duties of responsibility and solidarity.

We are seeing the rise across the world of a particularly uncaring middle and upper class, who mistake entitlement for privilege and who exile the poor from our conscience and our consciousness.

And, the third is just an extraordinary decline in the civility of public discourse—a kind of coarsening of the way we deal with people who disagree with us, the quick labelling of dissenters as unpatriotic and disreputable, and the crushing of this dissent.

But the important thing to remember is that the problem is not with the leaders. The problem is with us, you and me, because we are electing these leaders. And, we need to understand why more and more people around the world are choosing leaders who deepen division and make the world an increasingly frightening place to live in if you are a minority of any kind.

We are seeing the rise across the world of a particularly uncaring middle and upper class, who mistake entitlement for privilege and who exile the poor from our conscience and our consciousness. We’ve developed an extraordinary ability to see and look away. Mounting inequality and our ability to turn our faces away reflects above all a profound failure of solidarity. 

But the other crisis that is scarring the world even more profoundly is rising hate and bigotry against vulnerable and dispossessed minorities, whether of race, gender, religion, caste, or disability. I call this the partitions of the heart: partitions in the land can still be seen and fought, but much harder to resist are daily constructions of partitions between hearts, where we are taught  to hate particular minorities.

I see a profound failure of local compassion. People don’t reach out; people are not helping each other.

In India, this hatred is manifesting itself in a peculiar form of violence which is lynching, very similar to the lynching of African Americans over many decades in the United States. These are performative acts of extreme cruelty, captured on videos by the perpetrators and circulated triumphantly on social media. One act of lynching thus becomes ten thousand acts of lynching, which settles in the hearts of Muslims and other minorities and teaches them to live with hate and everyday fear.

Perhaps most worrying of all: I see a profound failure of local compassion. People don’t reach out; people are not helping each other. I also call this command hate, because not only is this hate is spilling out into the streets, it is legitimized and actively encouraged by leaders and the dominant political discourse.

Most of all solidarity is something I call radical love.

How do we, as a human rights community, respond? How should we respond? As citizens, and human rights defenders, and in our politics, I feel that we have to develop a new grammar in our response to hate and inequality and most of all to our indifference.

Solidarity must lie at the core of our response. I understand solidarity like a circle with many spokes. We can talk about fraternity, brotherhood and sisterhood. The Hindi word in our constitution for fraternity is “bandhuta”, which derives from the Sanskrit, meaning we are bound to and with each other. Solidarity exists when you suffer pain and tears spill from my eyes, when chains on your feet also imprison me. Empathy is an act first of imagination and only then an act of feeling: we have built worlds so separated from one another that I have lost the capacity to imagine what it would be like to be the person I stigmatize. She may be a homeless person, a desperate immigrant, a person of color, a sexual minority. Compassion—and I like to talk about egalitarian compassion—is not the idea that you are simply a passive receptacle into which I pour my compassion. Instead we are two human beings meeting each other as equals, but recognizing that you have had a particularly difficult time and I can help you today, as you can help me another day.

As Noam Chomsky said, social protection is ultimately the idea that we should take care of each other. But most of all solidarity is something I call radical love. This is love that is drawn from great courage and conviction—there may be a storm of hatred sweeping the world and I will still stand, if necessary all alone, unflinching, courageous, risking my life and everything I treasure, so that I can light a lamp of love in this darkness for you.

I think we need to find new instruments, this new grammar of resistance and protest, for responding to hate and inequality, founded on these sibling ideas of solidarity. In India, a group of us resolved to fight this rising and legitimized command hate with a caravan of radical love—Karwan e Mohabbat. We resolved that we would go to the home of every person who is lynched. We won’t go out like human rights groups and ask them to give testimonies. We would go as we would to a loved one that has suffered grievous loss. We would tell them four things: Firstly, that they are not alone in this suffering; we stand with them. Second, we seek forgiveness for what they have undergone because we could not prevent our country from becoming what it is. And, third, that we will stand with these victim survivors in their struggles for justice and as they rebuild their savagely broken lives. And fourth, we will tell their stories to the world, to break our collective silences.

Paulo Freire told us that true solidarity is risking the plentitude of acts of love. This indeed is what constitutes solidarity and it is with this plentitude of love alone that we will be able to resist, fight and one day overcome injustice, inequality, indifference and hate.


This essay was developed in collaboration with the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute, in connection with its recent April 2019 conference, “Human Rights and the Politics of Solidarity.”