It is indeed a Government missing in action

PM Indira Gandhi was in Nellie (Assam) hugging survivors. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao hit the streets after Bombay riots. Dr Manmohan Singh pulled officers out of retirement to cope with the Tsunami

Bodies floating in river Ganga  (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Bodies floating in river Ganga (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Sujata Anandan

Nearly four decades ago, as a rookie journalist, my first assignment of consequence was to report on the conflict in Assam. I was already in Gauhati when we heard of bodies floating in the Brahmaputra.

A couple of senior journalists and I started walking in that general direction – it took us hours in the absence of vehicles which were all requisitioned by the government. This incident set me off on my career path of reporting conflicts and disasters throughout the country and some parts of the world. And from being traumatised after seeing my first bodies at Nellie, over the years I became a hardened cynic. From being unable to hop out of bed the day after Nellie, there were situations when blood and bodies did not even register on my psyche. By the time I ceased to be a disaster reporter and took to sitting in an airconditioned office, I thought I had seen it all, done it all.

But one lives and learns. I was not standing on the banks of the Brahmaputra any longer watching officials fish bodies stuck with spears and daos out of the river. Nor was I standing in a morgue at the hospital in Bombay counting the bloodied bodies brought in after the 1992-93 riots. Nor indeed, like my colleague, was I chased into a hospital after catching police shoot worshippers exiting a mosque in Gujarat and had to hide under a bed in a strange building until the personal danger had passed. I am no longer a field reporter but in the era of social media and lightning communication, I could not escape the trauma of seeing the images of hundreds of bodies dumped in the Ganga and the Yamuna and washing up downstream.

In Assam, the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was in Nellie within hours of the authorities informing her of the massacres. She was hugging survivors to her bosom and promising them succour and support, issuing stern instructions to state authorities to take action. In Mumbai, even the aging and doddering prime minister PV Naraimha Rao hit the streets talking about identifying the brains that caused the bloodshed apart from punishing the hands that executed the task.

In Latur in 1993, then chief minister Sharad Pawar slept in a bullock cart all night to be close at hand to boost the morale of his officers pressed into earthquake relief. In Tamil Nadu in 2004, prime minister Manmohan Singh had pulled the best bureaucrats out of retirement and pressed them to bring relief to the people after the tsunami, reporting to a special cell in his office. This is the kind of Indian government I reported on over the years, even if tottering in parts, every leader and every bureaucrat fiercely determined to lessen the pain of the people.

It is only now that I find the current dispensation abdicating its responsibility and missing in action. Neither the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, nor the prime minister or the home minister of the nation have been seen anywhere near hospitals or the shores of the Ganga and Yamuna as bodies washed up on land.

There has been only bungling with regard to India's vaccination programme and when it becomes apparent that it is only the opposition, more particularly the Congressmen which are saving lives, with even prominent Modi bhakts sending SOSs to Congress leaders for oxygen and lifesaving drugs, what does this government do? Far from applauding them for their life saving efforts, they throw the authorities at those leaders and harass them, they threaten doctors for complaining about lack of oxygen supply to their hospitals, for lamenting the deaths of patients due to that lack, they lodge an FIR against a humble ambulance driver for saving the lives of people by providing them with oxygen.

It is unbelievable that one is living in a country, where doing good is deemed a punishable offence, where saving lives is frowned upon. Even banana republics of Latin America or Africa at the worst of times have not been so despicable. And we have got here in just seven years – I cannot even fool myself by romanticising the chaos as akin to the Wild, West of the United States or the lawless Chicago of the 1930s because at the end of all that chaos and lawlessness there were strong federal governments in the US which soon made short shrift of the gangsters and righted the nation, setting it back on its feet. Now we have a clueless dispensation to whom nothing matters but the comforts and continuing prosperity of themselves and their closest friends, even if the rest of the nation is gasping for breath and dying.

Now there is more evidence of not just the abdication of responsibility but also gross dishonesty on part of the government. And when this has to do with people dying or dead, it can only give one goose bumps all over at the complete callousness of the authorities. We always knew that states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have been fudging their Covid data. But when one discovers that the dead with death certificates are more than ten times that are officially acknowledged and those without even those certificates have not just washed ashore the Ganga and Yamuna but have been exposed in the soil on the river bank by unseasonal rains, I don't just get goose bumps, I don’t just fear my limbs will freeze and I will not be able to get out of bed tomorrow morning as happened to me in Assam. I fear it is the end of government and civilisation as we have known it all these years and at least I will never be able to sleep, let alone hop out of bed the next morning.

Earlier, India was another name for hope, now it is only despair. My India was a rising star, now it is a sinking ship. My leaders were able administrators and public intellectuals worth idolising, now they are mere political opportunists. I was proud of my India. Today it only makes me hang my head in shame.

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