Death has once again dominated the week. Pictures of bodies floating in the rivers of north India are now fast surpassing images of mass funeral pyres that became the global image of the pandemic only last week. There is no mistaking that what these images of dead bodies represent is cruelty.
Mass deaths and its imagery has rightly incited ire against the State.
Analysts were both quick and right to take this imagery of mass Indian deaths due to Covid as evidence of a failed State. Vaccine shortage, the lack of a public campaign on virus prevention and the failure to build medical and hospital capacity during the first lockdown — all point to the failure of the State. The utter dereliction of duty of political leaders and the casual neglect of danger in their holding mass public rallies and religious rituals has been lethal.
In the face of mass deaths, the powerful State and its otherwise popular leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi are missing in action. Instead, the various voices of the government are directing hapless and breathless citizens to remain positive and channel the power of prayer.
Silence of the state is but an act of cruelty.
Political rule and cruelty
Cruelty and the State are not disconnected. Far from it. Princes, philosophers, public moralists and political leaders over the ages have not only thought about the intimate connection between political rule and cruelty but also acted according to their beliefs on it.
Political philosopher Judith Shklar was the first in recent times to alert us to the fact that there was nothing natural about cruelty. In fact, cruelty was the vice above all vices.
In her pithy but powerful essay, Putting Cruelty First, Shklar made at least three big points. First, cruelty is important not because it is everywhere and ugly but because it is a human judgement on human behaviour. God, or even fate or destiny is not in the picture, so to speak. Second, cruelty degrades humanity like no other vice. Finally, but most importantly, cruelty ‘works’ because there are few safeguards against it. Ever since Machiavellian ideas became the model for rulers and princes, politics or power was separated from morals or ethics. The relentless pursuit of power and fame by rulers made them particularly cruel.
Cruelty in rulers is, however, possible only because of self-deception. We could simply call it delusions of grandeur that often inhabit the very powerful. Prime among such delusions is to mistake the torment of victims as love for their ruler. It is now neither uncommon nor irrelevant that Prime Minister Modi’s mass popularity has often been described as toxic love.
Modi too has pursued his legacy or his posthumous fame over the rapidly unfolding pandemic and deaths. The continuing work on $2 billion Central Vista project despite deaths due to covid crossing over 4,000 a day stands as sharp evidence of PM’s priority.
Floating bodies in rivers and burning pyres on ghats and elsewhere, it is perhaps projected, will fade. The new monuments to be cast in Modi’s mould in the political capital will be set in stone and it is assumed, will endure. As crematoria and graveyards run out of space, India’s premier location is being dug up day and night to undo the past and mark Modi’s presence in India’s long history. The Central Vista already feels like a memorial to the dead.
Gandhi against colonial cruelty
India has been here before. Famines, the 1918 influenza pandemic, prime among many other large epidemics, and the two World Wars among countless small wars had made death the constant companion to colonial rule. Then, as now, Delhi was being built to reflect the power of the empire.
This death-scape of cruelty is what the Mahatma had responded to in his politics. Famously, Gandhi injected a morality and ethics that could not be contained, let alone measured in the calculations of realpolitik or the ordinary pursuit of power. In fact, the Mahatma dignified death in his politics. Death had been brutalised, massified and taken away by cruel neglect by colonial rule.
In his idiosyncratic politics, Gandhi made death the basis of his politics mainly by dignifying and elevating its power. Caused by famines and reported in the form of anonymous numbers and statistics, deaths had effectively been dehumanised by the British causing widespread apathy. By contrast, Gandhi rediscovered death as a supreme individual capacity. For Gandhi, death was the only property that an individual human truly owned. Embracing death and directing it as sacrifice, Gandhi elevated moral principles against the relentless pursuit of power and profit.
Sacrifice could be big or small. Giving up on satisfying one’s appetites through individual habits of fasting was one major example of his politics. Indeed, fasting and controlling appetites directly spoke to the mass deaths due to hunger games of colonial famines. The cold logic of statistics was thus replaced by individual experience of hunger. Such a politics disallowed apathy towards death caused by cruelty.
Gandhi’s all or nothing philosophy that dignified death was based on moral courage alone. This was the main idea which ensured that ‘politics as usual’ or as the pursuit of power, interest and glory, as had been the case for the Empire of neglect and cruelty for over a century, was put to an end.
There is certainly no Mahatma in our midst today. But Gandhi’s pivotal lesson that death alone allowed for dignity against brutal power has never been more potent. Political apathy towards mass death is pure cruelty.
Asking individuals to stay positive or suggesting that the pandemic is the work of an ‘unseen enemy‘ that the government is hapless against is but an admission that the State has indeed failed. It is not failure but cruelty that is crucial.
The State’s cruelty needs to be named, blamed and punished. That alone will dignify death that is tormenting India. The State can succeed again. But any acceptance of Modi now means the acceptance of cruelty.
Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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