Sunday, 26 June, 2022
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India needs time for penance and prayer. Naysayers are baying for blood

While we desperately try to make amends, all the while admitting to possible lapses and inadequacies, are our leaders to be condemned as haughty or callous?

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As I write this column, the results of the state assembly elections of 2021 are flashing on TV screens. But election results are not the subject of my thoughts. The voters seem to have given a clear verdict. This augurs well for stability in the states. Of course, there are upsets, like the otherwise triumphant Didi’s debacle at Nandigram. But this is not a time for celebration or regret, depending on which side we are on.

More than ever, we must set aside this time for penance and prayer. One way to do so is to recall another calamity, the Bihar earthquake that struck India and Nepal in January 1934. It left over 10,000 dead and caused an incalculable loss of property. Though Muzaffarnagar was the worst hit, with soil liquefaction and sand fissures, the impact was felt from Kathmandu to Mumbai, Ludhiana to Lhasa. The Navlakha palace in Darbhanga was severely damaged, and one of the towers of St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata also collapsed.

‘Mahatma’ M K Gandhi was touring the South, raising funds for his campaign against untouchability. He declared, much to the consternation of ‘Gurudev’ Rabindranath Tagore, that the earthquake was a punishment against the sin of untouchability. A famous public debate between the two ensued. In a detailed examination of their differences, I departed from the conventional wisdom that Tagore’s position was rational, scientific, and modern, while Gandhi’s was religious, superstitious, and traditional.

Instead, I tried to show that their contestations were not as much over rationality and faith, science and superstition, or modernity and tradition, but as two kinds of rationality, two ideas of science, and two approaches to modernity. Ultimately, both Gandhi and Tagore contributed, even with their contrasting perspectives, to the richness that made up being Indian. Our unique attempt to integrate rationality with a spiritual view of the world.

I wish I could say the same about the bitterly fought disputes over the deeper significance of the second surge of the Covid-19 pandemic. Still raging about, it is leaving behind a trail of death and devastation. Instead of civilised debate, what we discover in the already fraught and divided public sphere, is the worst kind of politics of blame and outrage.


Also read: India’s hope is ebbing. It needs a leader who focuses on health, not victory


Untimely blame game

How do disaster narratives attack their chosen targets? They mitigate and deflect those they want to protect or shield, but exaggerate and redirect blame to those they wish to assault. The opposition, whether political or editorial, is gunning yet again for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They have demonised him and his closest aides as monsters of irresponsibility and mismanagement. Hubris, governance failure, and callousness are the added charges to show up Modi’s leadership as authoritarian or defective.

The pandemic is a national disaster. True. But instead of helping or healing, the emphasis of the naysayers is on culpability and guilt. They are baying for blood. Someone must take the fall for this catastrophe. Heads must roll. Without blood money, they will not be appeased or silenced.

Unfortunately, there is a market for them. And there are those – let us call them catastrophe queens and Cassandras of calamity, or masters of misfortune and dukes of disaster – who will promote their own interests during troubled times. Fetishisation and fictionalisation of adversity is their special line of expertise, even if their stock in trade is supposedly reportage or opinion.

Less than two months back, in mid-February, when the daily nationwide caseload had reduced to less than 10 thousand a day, with deaths in double if not single digits, most Indians – leaders and citizens alike – thought the worst was over. We believed we had got the better of Covid-19. We even started congratulating ourselves, attributing our phenomenal success to all kinds of factors including climate and culture, not to speak of the innate resilience of the Indian masses.

Soon, we even started exporting vaccines, offering them free to neighbours and at nominal charges to friends, in our well-intentioned but misguided bravado of generosity. The rollout of life-saving inoculations was staggered in such a manner that several sections of the population still remain vulnerable. Yes, we were too premature in winding up Covid wards and facilities, quite unprepared for the shortage of life-saving drugs and, worse, even left gasping for oxygen.

Right now, as we debate whom to hold accountable for such a colossal human loss, we must also remember that 15 crore Indians have been vaccinated. That is about 7.5 times those infected and 30 times active cases, according to certain figures. Even after crossing 2 lakhs, our death toll is still less than half that of the United States, while our population is over four times theirs. Then why this orgy of India bashing, this rhetoric of self-loathing and revulsion? We don’t have to be certified post-colonialists to see that there is deep cognitive prejudice in the macabre and crisis porn genre of Western reportage in India.


Also read: Why India is seeing higher deaths despite coronavirus variant not being more fatal


Time for healing

All this must be admitted, even atoned for. If there was a sin we were guilty of, what was it? Was it overconfidence or optimism? Hope is not tantamount to criminal negligence. As to ignorance, whom has it spared during the pandemic? From experts to laity alike, all have been tripped up, proven wrong, and tricked by the tiny spikes of the novel coronavirus.

If we are to crucify the ignorant or the mistaken, who would be spared? But while we desperately try to make amends, all the while admitting to possible lapses and inadequacies, are our leaders to be condemned as haughty or callous? I think not. Hubris and cruelty are not crimes they are guilty of. Nor should their intentions be doubted even as their actions might be considered deficient. Modi has conducted eight meetings with the top decision makers in the land in the last 48 hours trying to manage the situation.
What is more, help has poured in from all over the world. In India itself, both frontline health workers and ordinary citizens have shown acts of great courage and compassion. Right through this calamity, our humanity and strength have shone through. We have not been beaten, let alone defeated. Even in this worst of times, there is much to be grateful for and much to cherish. Yes, I still hold that we will be able to digest, even overcome, this disease, which is as sneaky as it is deadly. But at what cost? With people dying around us every day, almost no family unaffected or disease-free, we must accept that we misjudged the progress of the pandemic.

Instead of mischief and misinformation, we need healing and reconciliation. There can be little solace or consolation for those who have lost loved ones. They must grieve and overcome their desolation as best as they can. We must offer them unconditional condolence and empathy in their hour of loss. This is not the time for relentless blame games. Saving lives is more important.

The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.

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