Searing of the nation’s soul

The scale of the tragedy is so large that no bid to camouflage it will succeed

Searing of the nation’s soul

REACH OUT: Our people need help. We should, with humility, seek out and get help from wherever we can. Reuters

Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research

April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…’ read the opening lines from TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. India has suffered its own cruel month of April with its tortured land sprouting burning 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, 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.

The 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 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 danger having passed. I grant that ordinary citizens of this country 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 the PM and the Home Minister participating in these 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 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 pour 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 ongoing state elections. There is more whataboutery — why is the infection spreading in states that are not having the polls? Because this virus is blind to political boundaries, because millions of people are criss-crossing state borders daily, 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 to reduce, if not eliminate, the danger that we face?

We had the extraordinary spectacle of thousands upon thousands of people gathering on the banks of the Ganga at Hardwar 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 super-spreader event with a vengeance. Why was it allowed? Why was the leader of the state inviting pilgrims to come to Hardwar, 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? The PM, 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 complete lack of responsibility, for wilfully endangering the lives of people? The state should suspend the Char Dham yatra this summer, just as J&K should abandon plans for the Amarnath and Vaishno Devi pilgrimage. The gods will understand.

The most uplifting part of this crisis has been the manner in which ordinary citizens, local communities and NGOs have come together to help their fellow human beings. Even in the locality where I live, a medical camp is functioning, 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 are adding insult to injury. The scale of the tragedy 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 a congenial day.

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