*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
Cover photo: A massive fire broke out on Sunday after a flying lantern fell on a hut in Jaipur's Vaishali Nagar in Rajasthan after the people of the country switched off their lights for 9 minutes at 9 pm to show their support to the frontline workers amid the coronavirus pandemic, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal..The incident happened in Vaishali Nagar, Jaipur. (Photo: India Today)
The famed political cartoonist Manjul has a very powerful cartoon in his Mumbai Meri Jaan, series in today’s (6th April 2020) ‘Mid-Day’. There are two frames. In the first frame there is the idiot box (TV) blaring “Friends! I’m here to ask for something!” There are four respondents: one apparently the hoi-polloi (the daily wage earner, the migrant, the unemployed???) who says “ask for me life”; the second, obviously a ‘bhakt’ replies with an unthinking “sure”; the third, with his hands folded, all dressed up but with a cricket bat under his arm (a celebrity??) says “please do”; and the fourth without doubt belonging to the corporate sector saying, “why not”. Moving on to the second frame the idiot box booms “ Stop applying your brains till further orders” and pat comes the four responses “ never had it” ; “of course” ; “already did!!” and “ masterstroke”. In typical brilliance, Manjul’s cartoon says it all! It sums up the state of the nation today, in the wake of the terrible pandemic COVID-19!
The pandemic has already taken the lives of thousands all over the globe, with many more times that number of persons who are affected. In India, there are already four thousand three hundred positive cases and the death toll (as of today) touching 111. Medical experts expect that over the next few days the cases and the deaths, in India will be exponential. The first case in the country, of this corona virus was reported as early 30 January. There were global alarms and fears that this virus would reach pandemic proportions even as it kept galloping through nation after nation. However, the Government of India and their cronies, continued to be absorbed in its own agenda: spewing hate speeches, engineering riots, toppling Governments, organizing jamborees and the like. They showed an absolutely callous approach in responding to this terrible calamity with the sense of urgency and professionalism the gravity of the situation demanded.
Finally, only around the middle of March, the Government ‘woke’ up: first calling for a voluntary curfew on 22 March which ended in many road shows in several parts of the country. Then, on the 24 March, with just about a four hours’ notice, the Prime Minister announced a ‘lockdown’ of the whole country of 1.3 billion people for a twenty-one-day period, which is scheduled to end on 14 April. The abrupt announcement of the ‘lockdown’ has had a severe impact on millions of the poor and marginalized sections of society and particularly on the daily-wage earners, the migrants and the unemployed. The sudden suspension of all public transportation, particularly the trains and buses meant that large groups of them had to walk hundreds of miles to return to their native places. Many of them even died on the way. In some places they were stopped by the ‘authorities’ and remanded to detention centres and at least in one place, ‘disinfectant’ was sprayed on them.
The sad and cruel fact remains that India, as of today, does not have the wherewithal to counter this pandemic. The WHO prescribed Personal Protective Equipment(PPE) , the N95 masks so essential for doctors, nurses and other caregivers are virtually non-existent; there is a criminal shortage of ventilators, sanitizers, testing centres/ kits, hospital beds, isolation wards, intensive care units and other necessary medical equipment, if this pandemic accelerates in the next few days and weeks. Strangely enough India was exporting, till a 24 March ban, some of these essentials. Government officials have still not held a Media Conference on the pandemic till today!
On the ‘voluntary curfew day’ (22 March) the PM had suggested that the people end the curfew with clapping etc. Once again for 5 April he suggested that candles and diyas and flashlights are lit, whilst all other lights are switched off. Both the ‘dramas’ were obviously ‘populist acts’ and given the frenzy in certain areas, would have certainly earned him some ‘brownie points’ , sadly these are not the gimmicks which are expected from the leader of a nation in this time of crisis. On both days, there were huge crowds everywhere, serenading as though they were victory processions; on the first day, it was beating steel plates and drums, whistling and shouting; on the second day, besides the lights, there was a huge display of fireworks everywhere; almost a Diwali celebration. A BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh, Manju Tiwari, decided to be different. In a video that has been widely shared, the BJP leader is seen firing a shot in the air to the sound of cheering. In a place in Rajasthan, a house caught fire because of the carelessness of others. The responses by and large could be categorized as acts of idiosyncrasy, sycophancy and ludicrousness! Of a behaviour highly irresponsible in these serious times.
The irony of these acts were that whilst there was seemingly all-round adulation (thanks to the ‘godified’ media we have in the country today) the stark reality remains that millions of our fellow country women and men have to eke out a survival; given the situation today, they really don’t know from where their next meal will come. The ‘celebrations’ (without social distancing), the loud clapping, the fireworks were certainly not sensitive acts to the plight of a sizeable section who are suffering. One cannot deny the fact that this is the way that fascism works, this is how it spreads its devious tentacles. Fortunately, there are still a fairly large group of thinking citizens in the country: who among other engagements, write, sketch, compose, sing and are also active on social media. There are several who are unable to accept the nonsense that has gripped the nation.
More than twelve years ago, the well-known American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote an incisive poem (based on a similar work written earlier by the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran) ‘Pity the Nation’. It is so apt for us in India today! The poem runs thus:
"Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
With force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
Who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
my country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty“
Voltaire, the French philosopher puts it succinctly, “it is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere”; but Manjul’s cartoon says it all! Yes! Pity the Nation of Idiots!
*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)