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India’s great silence is the loudest sound

Ghosts of the Spanish flu (1918-1920), the four great recessions of 1958, 1966, 1973, 1980, and the Sino-Indian conflict (1962) have come together as one torment to plague India.

And no one really knows how to handle this multi-headed sprite.

In fact no one really knows quite what it really is.

No reasoned explanation

We have no one in public office telling us what-is-what, convincingly, authoritatively on the epidemic. We know that India has, as virologist T. Jacob John tells us, ‘surpassed Brazil and the United States to earn the sad distinction of having the fastest-growing novel coronavirus caseload in the world.’ And that India has broken world records in the daily new case totals. But there is so much we need to know about the details, and to know about them authoritatively from official, government sources.

Is community transmission happening? If it is, then is the nation to expect testings, beds and ventilators to match the need or are we going to be asked to self-diagnose, treat and deal with the virus from our homes? Is the virus now migrating from the smitten cities to our villages? If yes, does rural India know what is going to descend on it? Are India’s villages prepared, even remotely prepared, in terms of health centres, equipment to meet the challenge? What is the thinking — there has to be one — behind un-locking at the height of the rising curve of infections? There has to be a reasoned explanation.

More searching questions

Likewise, we do not know, authoritatively, the scale of the impact of our crippling contraction on salaried jobs and non-salaried livelihoods. We do not know what farmers and agricultural labour are going to do with what has been harvested if the country’s purchasing power has dwindled, and its exports have been hit. Will we see the cruel irony of our godowns being full and stomachs empty? Our cities and towns are getting our milk supplies alright, but do we know if the dairy provider is getting paid fairly? There is no financial mastermind in government to educate us, credibly, about this.

But way more important, while there are many commentators, there is no social philosopher of pre-eminence among us, the people of India, to connect the dots of this medico-economic-ecological crisis and help us look behind it to see its global causes. There is no one to tell us with the voice of thunder as the late Anil Agarwal would have, that it is the loot of both natural and human resources for the rank profit of monopolies that has wrought and is deepening this pandemic.

The crisis has hit everyone, the government included, from the blue. And everyone, the government more than anyone else, is learning and un-learning lessons by the day. But the knowledge deficit around is hollowing us out. Very curiously, there are numerous theories on when the vaccine will come. I have heard “six to twelve months”. The latest is “five years to cover 1.3 billion”. The new CE — Corona Era — has become the era of guesses.

Eppo varuvaro! (When, o when, will the saviour, if ever, appear!) , the opening phrase of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Tamil song, captures this feeling of being un-guided. But it does no credit to either human intelligence or to human self-respect to wait, prayerfully, for the materialisation of such a saviour. In the grip of an epidemic, a recession, a muting of questioning voices, and a possible war-like situation, what is it that needs to be done by us, regular folk?

Pillars of the state

To know is to be able to control. We must unceasingly demand that we be enabled to know the facts of the situation. China is criticised for having kept the truth of the virus and its fallout concealed. We do not have to invite the same charge.

Of the three pillars of the state, knowledge-sharing has to be the executive’s duty, privilege. We need to know all that needs to be understood about the epidemic, the economic contraction and the situation on our borders with China. This is ineluctable.

Is the nation ready, or has it been prepared for the cost of a not-to-be-ruled-out virus plus war challenge?

The agreement reached on September 11 between our External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is a heartening step and may well have brought the countries back from the brink. But should the Moscow consensus fail to last, ballistics could well boom across the border. War and viruses make a deathly cocktail. World War I, we may remind ourselves, coincided with the 1918-1920 pandemic. Infected Indian troops returning from the front carried deep into towns and villages in India the flu that ended up killing 14 to 17 million Indians.

We need to know, and the Executive needs to tell us, details of the likely cost in terms of public health, public finance of such a war. The situation on the India-China border needs today not the dangerous diversions of jingoism but pragmatic, diplomatic engagement with the country being taken into confidence about it.

In Parliament

And this where the second pillar — the legislature comes in. In a salutary half-step forward, our Parliament is currently meeting, physically, for a fortnight. This amounts to half the duration of the normal session. Still, given our virus concerns, this move is gratifying. But sessions of the House are one thing; the spirit of the House another. The doing away, in our Parliament, of Question Hour, an MP’s greatest chance to elicit information, is a matter of great regret. But other, worse fates can befall Parliament. There was no legislature worth the name during the British Raj. And yet such of it as there was — the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi — did grave disservice to vox populi. The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act passed by that Council on March 18, 1919, was ostensibly to subserve the war effort, but in effect curbed individual liberties, notably those relating to freedom of assembly and speech.

The national emergency 1975-1977, we will recall, got the approval of the Parliament of the day. The greatest vigilance and prudence is required of Parliament today. Rowlatt-like ideas can occur at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented epidemic, a worse-than-ever economic contraction and the growlings of war.

Hush over institutions

This is where the third pillar, the judiciary, comes in. Vital matters before it such as Article 370 of the Constitution, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the habeas corpus petitions in the Jammu & Kashmir High Court give it the chance to show its autonomous mind, its independence and, in short, to speak up. Few words are needed to say what needs to be heard, like Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s when he said, memorably, “Dissent is a safety-valve of democracy”.

A viral stillness hovers eerily over the institutions of state.

It threatens to smother their breath and, by so doing, ours as well.

With the Fourth Estate leading we, the people of India, need to become our freedom’s life-support.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

 

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 12:01:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indias-great-silence-is-the-loudest-sound/article32604122.ece

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