Maithili Sharan Gupt’s immortal lines hum kaun thae, kya ho gaye hain, aur kya honge abhi, aao vichare aaj mil kar yeh samasyaen sabhi (Who were we? Who have we become? And what more shall we be? Come, let us together meditate on all these conundrums), seem the right exhortation on India’s 70th Independence Day. It seems necessary since the virtues Gupt extolled in the imaginary universe of his poem — knowledge, self-knowledge, independence, detachment, piety, free-spiritedness and, above all, compassion (“by the suffering of others, we were with tenderness moved”) — seem all but eclipsed from our scale of values.
But more crushingly, the unimaginably horrible deaths of more than 60 children in BRD hospital Gorakhpur have probably become a more accurate mirror of what we have indeed become: A nation without common decency, common practicality and basic compassion.
There are proximate political and administrative failures leading to children being denied oxygen. Individual responsibility will have to be assigned. But this horrific episode is also a rebuke to our independence, what we have done with it, the kind of community we have become, and the scale of values we measure ourselves by. The numbness the episode produces is in part because it reminds us that in our republic poor children are fated to die in part because of what we choose to be.
The children are fated to die because in this republic our priorities have gone awry. The crisis in India’s health system is not the biggest secret in the world. Yet this crisis does not precipitate the slightest public anger, does not engage our collective intelligence, or move our conscience.
The children are fated to die because even in tragedy we will find an excuse to once again replay mock battles. In India, there is no space for mourning, only for recrimination. There is no space for truly valuing what was lost, even a moment of pause where we confront the gaping void these deaths leave behind. Instead, that void will be filled very quickly by the same politics of recrimination, divisiveness and distraction that produced this outcome in the first place.
The children in India are fated to die because settling medieval scores, living out accumulated resentments, depletes our social, political and emotional resources. The real individuality of our citizens, children with a future, parents with hope, is rendered invisible by more abstract and murderous battles of clan and community. The dead weight of a politics trapped in the past renders invisible the sufferings of the present.
The children are fated to die because our structures of representing reality are now irrevocably broken. Rather than allowing us to access the totality of our circumstances, they consistently throw a veil over reality. They satiate our appetite for mock battles of great sound and fury, whose only consequence is greater estrangement of citizens from one another.
The children are fated to die because in India evil remains structural. It does not come announcing its intent. But it is so deeply inscribed in the structure of privilege, so marginalises the poor and renders them so invisible, that we can comfortably go on living with our sense of innocence. The devastating hand of economic violence still makes a mockery of all our constitutional bromides about liberty and equality.
The children are fated to die because India is superb at the grammar of protest and episodic intervention. In mission mode, under a special dispensation, we can achieve anything. But India is terrible at institutionalising quotidian routine functions in the state. It is terrible at small forms of cooperation. There is a banality to evil in India, in a different sense. What makes evil sticky in India is that it is the outcome of accumulated small dysfunctions.
The children are fated to die because the politics of symbolism and prestige will outweigh any sense of facticity and science. The answer to the question of what will it take to make Gorakhpur encephalitis-free will probably be yet another dysfunctional research institute, not a deployment of knowledge available.
The children are fated to die because there is no community, just an endless series of contractors, bureaucrats, and technicians trying to intervene in contexts where there is no local community; no sense of Gorakhpur as a shared space, a community with some modicum of collective self-control over destiny. In a way, independence has condemned us not to freedom but an even more overpowering fatality, all the more insidious because it has a veneer of democratic legitimacy to it.
Maithili Sharan Gupt’s ancient India may be a figment of his imagination. But at least the mythology he constructed peddled some of the right virtues. But in our scale of values, knowledge gives way to denial, self-knowledge to a self-forgetting piety and arrogance, detachment to veniality, free-spiritedness to conformity, and above all, compassion to contempt. If we look in the mirror of Gorakhpur and ask who we have become, the picture is not pretty.
But even if we let the past be the past and ask what we shall become in the future, the answer is not comforting. It is very likely in the next few months, the political and judicial groundwork for building a Ram temple will intensify. It is unlikely it will be a monument to karuna (compassion). It will instead be a monument to our collective narcissism, an itch to fight and divide. It is a forlorn hope, but it would be so extraordinary if in the aftermath of Gorakhpur, what we build in Ayodhya is a hospital not a temple. It is a forlorn hope that it can become a symbol for overcoming all that keeps us back: A politics of distraction, divisiveness and dissimulation that comes in the way of a politics of dignity.
India is 70; young among nations. But time is of the essence before it ages rapidly. There is a real danger that India will be “too late.” Martin Luther King once wrote, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilisations are written the pathetic words ‘too late.’” The question after Gorakhpur is: Is India at 70 too late, too late not for false glory, but to recover its own humanity?