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Between despair & hope

We’ve come a long way since 1947 and yes, some terrible mistakes have been made. But if we were to blindly believe international reportage, everyone in India is a bigoted bully

Between despair & hope

Photo for representational purpose only. File photo

Ira Pande

If one were to believe our newspapers or the bilge that is sent out on WhatsApp groups, it is easy to be persuaded that doomsday is upon us. Perhaps, it is a sign of the times that makes us so negative and humourless, or perhaps, it is that we wish to join the herd. It seems almost sinful to be happy and satisfied in a world that has shrunk into small groups, provinces and regions that are eternally at daggers drawn. Yet, look around you and point me to a country (other than little Bhutan) where natural surroundings are preserved, people are polite, caring and gentle, communities live in harmony and simplicity of life is a quality that is actively promoted.

Long ago, before Ravish Kumar became the self-appointed keeper of this nation’s conscience, he used to bring to us moving human stories, many of which have stayed with me. His coverage of Varanasi as he did a programme on the constituency that Modi had chosen in 2014, focused not on the campaign but on the forgotten history of Banaras. So he took us to Lamahi, the village that Premchand grew up in and where his memory is preserved in a modest museum. This remarkable institution has a self-appointed caretaker (a Mishraji, if I remember correctly), who guided Ravish through it. The episode ended with Mishraji saying that he felt he had graduated from being a reader of Premchand’s fiction to becoming a character from that world. Nothing, in essence, had changed herein for almost a century. The village and its people were still battling with the same social problems that Premchand describes so hauntingly.

There are two other episodes that I remember as vividly: one on the first Gandhi Ashram (now a crumbling ruin) set up somewhere in Meerut and the other on the condition of the poor patients who flock to Delhi’s AIIMS for treatment. As they await their turn, several poor patients and their families lie on the pavement outside since they cannot afford to stay anywhere else. Here again, a Dr Dash took us with Ravish to the cancer section and explained how no one, no matter how poor, was ever turned away for lack of money.

The purpose of this long recall is that there is still hope if only we are able to see it. However, since it is sexier to peddle stories of poverty, misery and social injustice, we have forgotten to register that India is multiple times the size of the small developed countries that have enviable records of social welfare.

Let me now take you to some of the stories that come to us from there. The National Health Service (NHS) in UK is now in a state of terminal decline. Its doctors and nurses have gone on strike and in any case, it is so overloaded that even an urgent X-ray requires a long wait. Private healthcare is out of the reach of most, so unlike in India, where the neighbourhood ‘dactar’ provides immediate care (say nothing of the steroids being pumped into uneducated veins). We seem no worse off. It is almost the same in the US, where unless you are covered by expensive insurance, you can wait eternally for a kidney transplant or heart surgery. It is no wonder that medical tourism is now a widespread way to access quality medical attention in Indian hospitals. Go to any well-regarded private hospital in India and you will meet people from all over the world, accompanied by touts and translators, who take them to our best doctors and at a fraction of the cost abroad.

Come now to the shameful international reportage of our communal tensions. If we were to blindly believe all we hear and read, everyone in India is a bigoted bully. Yet, honestly speaking, is the Islamophobia in the US any better? Add to that now anti-Semitism, with university campuses across the US erupting in huge student protests, brutally handled by the police and university authorities. Let us not even speak of the rampant racism still practised all over the white world. I concede that comparisons are odious and that we have a shameful record on communal politics, yet how long shall we tolerate different rules applied to developing countries, simply because the big boys’ clubs cannot make place for new entrants?

My simple point is that we have all come a long way since 1947 and yes, some terrible mistakes and decisions were taken in those years but, by and large, when I look around the world and try to see one country that has a flawless record in upholding social justice, equality, brotherhood and love, I’m afraid I fail each time. As I said earlier, apart from Bhutan (that practises a form of benign monarchy), I can’t think of another country that I would like to live in. Dynastic politics, feudal values, a deep commitment to one’s faith, along with some religious intolerance towards those of another faith — these are the warp and weft of India. Trying to eradicate all evil forever will never happen, not at least in my lifetime.

So the next time you open a toxic post or sign a public petition, don’t think you’ve played your part as a responsible citizen. We still have a long journey ahead.


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