April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…” read the opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. India has suffered its own cruel month of April with its tortured land sprouting funeral pyres instead of lilacs. And May might bring even greater pain and suffering. How did things come to this pass? We need to reflect on this with calm and objectivity, as difficult as this may seem in an environment full of pain, anger, and frustration. If we do not acknowledge, with humility and brutal honesty, where we have gone wrong, the monumental task of repair and healing can neither take place nor prevent another tragedy from overwhelming our beloved India.
We are a country whose soul has been seared. Our wounded spirits are more damaging than the countless bodies consigned to the flames or buried in Mother Earth. The living need hope of a brighter tomorrow.
What the elections cost us
We dropped our guard and became complacent as the first wave of Covid-19 receded. We ignored the fact that countries around the world were being hit by a second wave with new strains emerging. The successful development of vaccines within a remarkably short period of a year reinforced the sense of the danger passing. I grant that ordinary citizens of India should have continued with masking, sanitising, and maintaining social distance. The educated among us have no excuse. They should have held off on marriage ceremonies, parties, and large gatherings. But governments at both central and state levels, in particular senior political leaders, should have led by example. We were witness to elections going ahead, with massive public rallies and processions, with leaders themselves either not wearing masks or having pulled them down to the collar level. How could social distancing be maintained in such situations?
We had Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah participating in these election rallies and even boasting that such crowds were unprecedented. They cannot escape the responsibility of putting themselves as leaders and ordinary people at grave risk.
And when it had become clear that we were facing a “tsunami” of a second wave, why did the election campaign still continue? Why did the Election Commission not suspend the elections forthwith and put the lives of the people ahead of polling? Why is it that despite the scale of the crisis having become dramatically manifest, the election show had to go on? As election results have poured in, victory celebrations again bring crowds to the streets. There are commentators who declare that there is little evidence to link the rise in infections to the recently concluded state elections.
There is more whataboutery — why is the infection spreading in states that are not having polls? Because this virus is blind to political boundaries, because millions of people are criss-crossing state borders daily, and because we still do not understand the nature of this virus and its variants and why it behaves in certain inexplicable ways. In these circumstances, is it not prudent to adhere to the preventive measures we know can reduce if not eliminate the danger that we face?
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Need for single-minded focus
In April, we were witness to the extraordinary spectacle of thousands upon thousands of people gathering on the banks of the Ganga at Haridwar, day after day for weeks on end, in celebration of the Kumbh. People were streaming in from all parts of the country and then heading back to their towns and villages, several carrying the virus with them. This was a superspreader event with a vengeance.
Why was it allowed to be held? Why was the leader of the state — Uttarakhand CM Tirat Singh Rawat — actually inviting pilgrims to come to Haridwar, even assuring them that a dip in the holy river would cleanse them not only of their sins but also of the virus? Should we tolerate such obscurantism in this day and age? Prime Minister Modi, rather late in the day, urged religious leaders to observe the festival only symbolically, but even thereafter, the crowds continued to gather and the authorities were mostly missing in action. Today, Uttarakhand is one of the worst-affected states.
Who will be held accountable for such a complete lack of responsibility, for wilfully endangering the lives of people? It is reassuring that the Char Dham yatra has been suspended, and that there are talks to call off Jammu and Kashmir’s Amarnath Yatra as well. Even the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage must be called off. The gods will understand.
The most uplifting part of this crisis has been the manner in which ordinary citizens, local communities and non-governmental organisations have come together to extend a helping hand to their fellow human beings. Even in the locality where I live, a medical camp has been set up by doctors, professionals and ordinary good samaritans. They have been using social media to reach out and provide succour to those in dire straits. The least that the State can do is to get out of their way if they are unable to support them.
The ill-conceived attempts to silence those who are conveying their desperation and asking for help on social media, is adding insult to injury. The scale of the tragedy unfolding in India is so large that no attempt to camouflage it will succeed. The ground reality will keep calling out carefully constructed media narratives deployed by the State. This insistence on weaving a fantasy while the world is crumbling around us is undermining whatever residual credibility is still left in our institutions of governance.
We must acknowledge that we are in an unprecedented crisis. Our people need help. We should, with humility, seek out and get help from wherever we can. Our diplomats around the world should be allowed to focus singularly on this objective. Many of them are doing just that and I commend their efforts. Burnishing India’s external image and bringing acclaim to its leader must wait for another more congenial day.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal
[Edited by Fiza Ranalvi Jha]