Updated: May 31, 2020 10:05:16 am
This week I write as a ‘prophet of doom.’ This is what the Solicitor General of India calls those who draw attention to the worst humanitarian disaster India has seen in a long, long time. When the Supreme Court finally took notice last week of the awful plight of our migrant workers, this is what Tushar Mehta said on behalf of his client, the Prime Minister: “But we have something called prophets of doom who only spread negativity, negativity, and negativity. All these people writing on social media, giving interviews, cannot even acknowledge what is being done…they are not showing any courtesy to the nation.”
It is a statement that has done the Prime Minister more harm than anything said by us ‘prophets of doom.’ This is because Mr Mehta showed arrogant contempt for those who have suffered. They have suffered due to criminal negligence on the part of our officials. Not Covid-19. Last week, TV reporters interviewed those who still queue for hours and days outside railway and bus stations in Delhi and Mumbai. And, the hungry, thirsty, angry people in these queues said that if they had been given more than four hours’ notice before the first lockdown, they would have found their own way home. True. They would still find their own way home if they had not run out of their meagre savings, lost their jobs and been thrown out of the hovels they rent in the slums of our cities. So, the Supreme Court is right when it says that it is now the responsibility of the Central and state governments to help these desperate people get home.
Whenever I have written about their plight in this column, and as a ‘prophet of doom’ I have done this often, I have been attacked by BJP supporters. Virulently on Twitter. And, more gently in private conversations. In one of these private conversations, a friend who has been a longtime supporter of Modi had this to say: “If Modi had not been prime minister people would have died like flies, the dead would have been lying in heaps. It is because of the total lockdown that our deaths have been so low and the virus has spread more slowly.”
Deaths have, mercifully, been low and this is something for medical professionals and virologists to analyse. But, the virus is now spreading fast. If the urgency with which the Prime Minister ordered the first total lockdown was intended to prevent migrant workers from traveling out of the cities, then this objective failed. Now that they have been confined for weeks in living quarters so cramped that social distancing was impossible, they are more likely to carry the virus back to their villages. Covid-19 is so evil a virus that it has proved in country after country that it can make a mockery of the most careful planning.
In India we have not seen careful planning. We have seen careless planning and needless brutality, and the combination of these two things have created a manmade disaster that has caused more suffering than the pandemic. A heartbreaking video of a little boy lifting his dead mother’s shroud to try and wake her went viral last week. There are probably many other untold stories like this from which the lesson that our heartless officials should learn is that these people are the real strength of India. Life for them even in normal times is so hard that they have learned real resilience. It is their blood, sweat and tears that pulses through the veins of the ‘nation’. It is they who constitute the nation. So, if the Solicitor General exceeded his brief in his statement in the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister should sack him.
Narendra Modi has always prided himself on being a man of the people. One reason why he was able to win the trust of those millions of Indians who voted to give him a second term is because he was seen as someone who cared for ordinary people. And, not as someone who belonged to the privileged elite cocooned in that enclave of political power reviled by Modi’s supporters as ‘Lootyens Delhi.’ But, ever since this pandemic, it has become more and more evident that the men who constitute the political elite in his ‘new’ India are as drunk with power as the old elite once was.
There can be no other explanation for why the Solicitor General of India believes that those who have tried to draw attention to the terrible suffering that our migrant workers have endured are not showing “courtesy to the nation”. If he believes that his client, the Government of India, is the nation, then he needs to have his head examined. For my part, I will continue to spread ‘negativity, negativity, negativity’ because I believe that this is the only way to show a modicum of ‘courtesy’ to the people without whose grit and hard work there would be no nation.
It is their sons who die on our borders, their sons who toil daily to produce the food that we eat and their sons and daughters who endure hardship, adversity and the brutal contempt of our officials to keep the engines of our cities running. If saying this means that I am a prophet of doom, then it is a badge I wear with honour.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 31 under the title “Negativity is good”.
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