‘Man na rangaae, rangaae jogi kapda.’ The cosmetic yogi doesn’t colour his soul, and dyes in piety his saffron robe. Kabir, the 15th-century mystic poet, may have anticipated the revivalist BJP in his caustic way, particularly its chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, the saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath, the viciously sectarian face from the Hindutva stable. Intolerant of criticism in keeping with Hindutva’s current doctrine, he was at it again as the pandemic took its toll, the graph rising vertically.
Anyone spreading rumours about shortage of oxygen in hospitals would be arrested under a draconian law and their properties confiscated, the leader fumed. The warning came as people died in droves across the country, gasping on the streets, suffocating in overworked ambulances and in hospitals that had run out of oxygen. There was never any shortage of oxygen, only its hoarding, the yogi scolded his critics as though the explanation would stall the run on overflowing crematoriums and graveyards.
This was not Adityanath’s first brush with criticism over the appalling state of affairs under his watch. At the start of his innings following the 2017 BJP sweep in the state polls, he ordered the arrest of a Muslim doctor who took the initiative to procure small, desperate quantities of oxygen to save hundreds of infants from dying at a government hospital in Gorakhpur, the chief minister’s home base. When 63 children succumbed for want of oxygen, and the massacre by negligence made the headlines, Adityanath took it out on Dr Kafeel Khan who, however, has remained undeterred.
“You have to remember that eastern Uttar Pradesh is a very backward area,” Dr Khan told the scroll.in portal after his release from eight months in prison. “You have only one medical college, the Baba Raghav Das Medical College and Hospital, to cater to a population of two crore [20 million]. That includes half of Bihar, half of Nepal and half of eastern Uttar Pradesh.”
The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of devotees being encouraged to gather for a holy dip in the Ganga has been noted by a worried world.
Infants suffering from low body temperature were crammed in a single body warmer. “These warmers have sensors that control the ambient temperature depending on the body temperature of the infant. But when you put four or five babies in there, the sensors cannot function correctly. But we had to because that is the infrastructure we have,” Dr Khan said.
As for the government’s denial of its culpability then and now, a grim chapter from history bears resemblance. The 1943 Bengal famine saw the death toll cross 2m. The British government pressured the media to shun reporting the data and to avoid the use of the term ‘famine’. The Statesman, run by an Englishman, courageously published graphic accounts of the tragedy with heartrending pictures. The press shamed rulers and extracted a grudging admission of the crime. Prof Amartya Sen would later laud the role of free media in preventing famines in democratic societies.
Regardless of Adityanath’s vehement denials of the raging crisis, the fact remains that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the setting up of 551 oxygen plants spread across India. Apart from seeing the crisis ahead, the move is also an admission of ill-preparedness though the government had more than a year’s lead time to fix things up. Communist-ruled Kerala meanwhile doubled its oxygen production in the same period and now shares critical medical oxygen with other neighbouring states.
What accounts for the government’s arrogance and the vicious response to criticism? Does it see the holy grail of a Hindu rashtra slipping from its hands? A video shows a federal minister — a minister for culture, in fact — threatening to slap a man who was pleading with him for an oxygen cylinder for his gasping mother. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, meanwhile, has advocated the reading of the Ramayana as a way to defeat the virus. It would be an understatement to say he is not alone in distancing himself from science when it is most needed.
The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of devotees being allowed, nay, encouraged, to gather for a holy dip in the Ganga in Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela has been noted by a very worried world.
Luckily for India, even as the corrosion of democratic institutions continues, several high courts have stepped up to stave off total surrender. The Delhi Court told the government to beg, borrow or steal if necessary, but get the oxygen to the hospitals without delay. The Allahabad High Court (of Uttar Pradesh) ordered the state government to impose a lockdown fearing the surge from the Kumbh Mela. The supreme court, which hasn’t shown any inclination to deal with issues ranging from the annexation of Kashmir to the disputed citizenship laws, promptly applied the brakes on the Allahabad High Court’s orders. It has moved to take over all Covid-related cases under its wings. But it hasn’t yet cancelled all the orders.
Easily the angriest censure came from the Madras High Court, which gave an earful to India’s election commission. The BJP opposed opposition demands to club the last four stages of the eight-leg West Bengal elections to reduce exposure to Covid-19. The election commission, accused of playing to the government’s tune, refused the demand citing security concerns. Yet, the 1984 national elections were conducted in just three days despite the crisis in Punjab and Assam following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the lynching of thousands of Sikhs. Elections in Punjab and Assam were conducted a few months later. Opposition groups claim the eight-stage polls only helped the BJP to move the RSS cadres around and had little to do with security.
“The Election Commission is singularly responsible for the second wave of Covid and should probably be booked for murder,” the Madras High Court observed on Monday. The court will stop the counting of votes on Sunday if a ‘blueprint’ wasn’t there to show Covid compliance in the counting rooms. The virus would not have mutated perhaps had we changed for the better first.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2021