Even though you don saffron colours with pride and I would clothe myself in any colour but that, our political differences have never hindered us from sharing a meal or working together before. Despite voting for different parties, we have mutually respected each other and given each other space for being ourselves. You have shown concern for my well-being; I too am worried for your and your family’s health. India has recorded more than 25 million coronavirus cases during the ongoing second wave. The official number of deaths nears 290,000 but everyone knows that is grossly underreported. News reports are filled with horrible images and descriptions of inundated crematoriums and hospitals. Never before in our country’s history have we seen such a terrible loss of lives.
But, how did we get here? We have a government that has the strongest possible mandate and exercises immense power. But, at this stage, you and I are equally ridden with fear and anger. The virus does not attack people based on their political opinions. It, like death, is a great leveller. One might even say, that it is truly democratic – it knocks on everyone’s door with equal virulence. Still, privilege allows for many to access better healthcare than others.
We had more than a year to prepare for this tragedy. I thought we were protected, if not completely safe. The prime minister declared so himself to the world at Davos that India “has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively”.
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I might have not voted for him but I admit that he is India’s prime minister. But you have reposed unwavering faith in him so ask him about his plan to guide us out of this catastrophe. He will certainly listen to you more. This is a democratically elected government and you have the right to ask questions. Your questions would not make you less loyal but they would make those in power more accountable.
This is not an attack on you. If it was someone else at the Centre, I would have asked them the same questions as I am asking the current regime. This is as much a defense of you and your loved ones, as it is of mine. As citizens, our loyalties lie with India, not any political party. They too need to be loyal to “the people” i.e. all Indians. When Joe Biden became the president of the US, he declared that he would be a president for all Americans and asked Democrats and Republicans to cooperate. Our prime minister could be a rallying force too to muster all his energy and political apparatus to save the country he swore to protect.
We need the political regime to care for the sick and the poor we see all around us. Let us force the government to protect our lives, not just its image. Demand an apology for inflicting this tragedy on our families and our country. Our political leaders need to be answerable no matter their ideology. They won’t listen until we ask them these questions together.
You and I cannot heal from this tragedy without standing side-by-side. And that would require upholding our democratic institutions. According to The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world, more than 1 million lives will be lost by the end of July if we do not restructure our crisis response. We need more data transparency. Unless we know the extent of the problem, we will never look for a cure. Ask the health minister to stop underreporting the fatality rate. We are all aware that the lives of the indigent and migrants have not always been valued by the system. Let us try to make sure that their deaths matter by reporting the actual numbers. It is only human to make mistakes, but it is inhuman to blatantly deny them – especially when the consequences have been so calamitous.
Millions among the disadvantaged sections of our country face the threat not only of disease but starvation. A study by Pew Research Center showed that more than 75 million people fell into poverty because of the pandemic-induced recession in 2020; this second wave would make the situation far worse. More than 12,000 farmers were committing suicide each year even in times of economic growth according to official government reports. Can we even imagine the extent of their suffering now?
Join me in asking the leaders to be more humane and responsible. Several political prisoners like Sudha Bhardwaj and Devangana Kalita are languishing pitilessly in prisons during this time. Offer your compassion to them by asking the government to release them. These people never hurt anyone; their crime was peaceful dissent and the Indian courts agree. Now that we have suffered the pain and anxiety of losing our family and friends, the government could for once be gracious towards theirs during this monumental health crisis.
Let us call upon our political leadership not to focus on banning tweets from social media but rather on providing more oxygen to hospitals in all states, not just the ones controlled by the majority party. Let us hold a ceasefire on all apathy and antagonism. We all could do better with some kindness. I am counting on you to lead the way and I will be there with you, six feet apart.
Nitin Luthra is an Assistant Professor at Deen Dayal Upadhyaya College at University of Delhi. He is currently on a sabbatical to pursue his doctoral research at Duke University.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty