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“Yes, Pity The Nation!”

“Yes, Pity The Nation!”

The famed political cartoonist Manjul has a very powerful cartoon in his Mumbai Meri Jaan , series, in a recent issue of ‘ 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 perhaps, 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 who are affected. In India, there are around 8500 positive cases and the death toll (as of today) touching 273. 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 needed sense of urgency and professionalism

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. As is done in most countries, throughout the world, those in  Government  and in authority, officials have still not held a Media Conference on the pandemic, which is open, transparent and subject to questioning!

On the day of ‘voluntary curfew’ (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 during the  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, can be categorized as acts of idiosyncrasy, sycophancy and ludicrousness! Of a behavior highly irresponsible in these serious times. Besides, these “calls” by the Prime Minister to the people, were by no means creative or original acts; they were copycat ‘acts’; people all over the world come out spontaneously with acts like these: either in times of triumph or in times of crisis. We have seen it happening in several places in the past, be it in Italy or in Brazil and very recently in the United Kingdom post-Boris Johnson’s recovery. The sadly ‘unique’ aspect of the Indian ‘tamashas’ is that the call is given by the head of Government. In no way can this be acceptable! Cartoonist Manjul hits the nail on the head!

The irony of these irresponsible acts, were that whilst there seemed to be all-round cheering and adulation (thanks to the blatantly partisan ‘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. Cheering for the doctors, nurses and caregivers??? This is indeed a sad joke; their demands are different, they need facilities, they need safety, they need independence!!

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“

Yes, Pity the nation! Voltaire, the French philosopher, who took on the Church of his times,  puts it succinctly yet powerfully, “it is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere”; but Manjul’s cartoon, in a creative best, says it all! Are we listening? Are we learning?

*( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 13th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 16)