In early May, Baljeet Asthana was recording a video message -- an open letter in audio-visual format -- standing outside the upscale Fortis Hospital, where her 82-year-old mother was slowly dying. Because there was no intensive care unit bed available in the hospital, in fact in no hospital in Delhi.
After briefly narrating her family's ordeal, Asthana addressed PM Modi and CM Kejriwal. She asked them for advice on where she should take her dying mother. "If you cannot advise me, sir,” she said calmly, “I would request you to legalize mercy killing in India, because you have no idea what the common citizen of India is going through at the moment. We are struggling to get basic things like oxygen, medicines, hospitals. Sir, it’s my request: please, please legalize mercy killing in India."
"Let us die with dignity," she says at the end, "Thank you very much. Jai Hind. Long live India”.
The tragic and highly atrocious incident reminds us of the sad demise of former ambassador Ashok Amrohi barely ten days ago. He breathed his last while waiting in his car for five long hours outside Gurgaon's Medanta Hospital. If this could happen to a person living in the National Capital Region and having all resources and connections, it is easy to figure out what could be the plight of commoners across the country -- especially poor people with no income during the lockdown and living on the other side of the digital divide. Their endless sufferings in life and death remain documented in thousands of photographs and videos depicting rows of burning pyres in and outside crematoriums, of dead bodies floating in rivers and buried in sand on the banks, of old graves being dug up to accommodate new bodies, and of course in various art forms (think Shav Vahini Ganga) as well as in incisive reports, articles and talks on media platforms, webinars and so on.
But the story does not end here. It takes a new turn. If the Delta and Delta+ strains of the Coronavirus and the government's gross mishandling of the pandemic have brought in its trail untold suffering, death and economic ruin in an already ravished India, the resultant social turbulence has also set in motion a much-needed sensitization or mass awakening about a more dangerous enemy of the people. Yes, you got it right. We are a alluding to a man-made virus. The Modivirus, carefully engineered as a bioweapon in the RSS laboratory (there is absolutely no scope for dispute about the origin of this virus).
To be sure, the process of awakening had been facilitated also by several other horrific experiences such as endless atrocities on minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, the CAA-NRC-NPR project, the carefully planned Delhi riots, the arbitrary imposition of farm laws and labour codes, etc. These factors, however, had substantial impacts mainly on particular targeted sections, not so much on the whole population. This time around, while the marginalized and the underprivileged remain the worst sufferers, the devastating pandemic and its gross mismanagement has engulfed the entire nation ---cutting across class and creed, regions and demographic groups. Nobody is spared, everybody is angry. One can actually feel the public mood in everyday talks with friends and relatives, one can see it in satires and outbursts on the social media, very often directed against the superboss, the Fuhrer himself. For the first time in seven years, the Regime is facing a total crisis of credibility, a serious challenge to its power and authority.
With Modi-Shah’s home state shamelessly competing with Yogi’s fiefdom in the nasty game of hiding the COVID-19 death numbers, dailies like Sandesh and Divya Bhaskar carried extensive reports to show the real situation. The latter reported that as many as one lakh twenty thousand death certificates were issued in 71 days (March 1 to May 10) this year, compared to just about 58 thousand deaths in exactly the same 71 days last year. But the government, curiously enough, registered only 4,218 COVID-19 deaths during this period. So how did the remaining one lakh nineteen thousand deaths occur? A survey conducted by this popular daily, based on interviews of relatives of the deceased, revealed that hospitals have been denying them medical reports that give details of the cause of death and the line of treatment.
Similar stories were published in other newspapers, including the normally submissive ones.
The newspapers also published reports about black marketing of life-saving medicines and medical Oxygen cylinders by people having links with the ruling party. State BJP chief C R Patil’s gimmick of distributing 5,000 vials of Remdesivir injection from the party office in Surat was sharply denounced, with some commentators demanding his imprisonment for this illegal and immoral act. Maybe prompted by the large-scale outburst, the Gujarat High Court initiated a suo motu PIL on the handling of the pandemic and criticised the state government for fudging the number of tests, availability of medicines, hospital beds and for red-tapism in admitting critical patients.
“Prime Minister’s Sun is Setting” -- proclaimed the headline to an editorial in the largest circulating, multi-edition Gujarati daily, Gujarat Samachar. It was strongly suggested that Modi’s image had been considerably dented in Gujarat, on the national plane and also internationally.
A very successful Social boycott of BJP leaders in Punjab by angry farmers, which resulted in a dismal performance by the BJP and its estranged ally SAD in civic body polls in February, has cast a dark spell on the party’s prospects in upcoming assembly elections. Sensing the heat, some senior leaders and former BJP ministers like Anil Joshi and Mohan Lal are now openly speaking out in favour of agitating farmers and against the farm laws.
In neighbouring Haryana, the situation is hardly any different. Here also, leaders of the ruling BJP and JJP often find it very difficult to move around without being heckled. In many cases they have been forced to withdraw FIRs filed against protesters, and even tender public apologies. To take just one example, Jind MLA Krishan Midha, accused of passing “objectionable remarks” against farmers when they protested over CM Khattar’s visit in his constituency, was reprimanded by the local Khap and he had to apologize publicly. There are instances where protesters were arrested but had to be either bailed out or simply released from the police station itself under public pressure (in one case, hundreds of protesting farmers actually moved into a PS with their cows).
In Western UP, the BJP's major headache is that the communal division (pitting the Jats against the Muslims for example) it thrived on since the Muzaffarnagar riots has largely been overcome in course of the united farmers' movement. The Bajna mahapanchayat and several local Panchayats, held to extend support to the farmers’ agitation at Delhi borders, drew large crowds and voiced indignation at the way the central government was ignoring the demand for repeal of firm laws.
Since the drubbing in assembly elections, the entire BJP organisation in Bengal is in a state of shock, despair and passivity. On June 4, state president Dilip Ghosh went to Chunchura in Hooghly district to attend the party’s organisational meeting. While the meeting was underway, local workers agitated before the party office and raised slogans against Ghosh and other party leaders. Three days later, party workers in Asansol staged protests when Ghosh arrived for an organisational meeting and even locked the leaders inside the room for a while. Their main grievance was that leaders remained aloof from workers during the post-poll violence.
The party faced an embarrassing exodus back to the TMC, culminating in Mukul Roy’s ‘ghar-wapsi’ along with his son Shubhrangshu, further encouraging the exodus. The two BJP MPs who won assembly elections have chosen to resign from the MLA posts rather than helping with ground-level work in their home state. The leadership has indicated that they will now try and revamp the organisation with cadres from Bengal, rather than depending on party leaders visiting from the cow belt and careerists lured from other parties. However, everybody knows that this is easier said than done.
Bengal apart, in many other states too the BJP organisation is rattled by chronic squabbles.
In Karnataka Chief Minister Yediyurappa is having to bear with open attacks by his own MLAs. Senior MLA Basanagouda Yatnal has long been blaming the CM for his alleged corruption. In an unprecedented move a couple of months ago, rural development minister K S Eshwarappa wrote to the governor alleging that the chief minister was interfering in the work of his ministry. Apprehensive of a large-scale rebellion against him, the CM really looks like a modern Damocles, with a sword constantly hanging over his head.
Even the don of Gorakhpur is not at all comfortable in his chair. Recently the BJP suffered major reverses in the panchayat polls in UP, which reflects widespread resentment -- among Hindus as well as Muslims -- about the highly repressive but totally ineffective handling of the pandemic. The simmering discontent in the party has grown stronger, with some MLAs sharpening their criticism of the CM, often in the open.
Extremely worried over such developments, both the BJP and RSS leaderships have been weighing various options to intervene and improve the party's prospects in next year's assembly elections. Following an "extensive feedback exercise" -- as it was called in party circles -- by a central team and a series of high level meetings in the state and national capitals, A K Sharma, a former IAS officer and one of Modi's closest aides, was made the party's vice president in UP. The high command reportedly sought to make Sharma, already an MLC, a member in the Yogi cabinet but had to make some adjustments in the face of strong objection from the regional satrap. But the million-dollar question is: will such central interventions actually deliver at the hustings?
From India's largest state let us now turn our attention to the smallest union territory. What is happening now in Lakshadweep may be of little importance in terms of national politics, but it is significant insofar as it offers us a candid view of how the majoritarian state imposes its corporate - communal agenda on a peace - loving indigenous community living in a small, tranquil, crime-free archipelago with distinctive geographical and demographic features and cultural ethos. And how the 'strong' Centre begins to treat the Periphery as an internal colony -- as a mini-Kashmir, so to say -- that is expected to develop as a lucrative global tourism hub and maybe even a naval base, in the process alienating the beautiful people from the national mainstream.
To serve this nefarious agenda, Praful Patel -- a former minister of Gujarat in Modi's cabinet -- was appointed as the 35th administrator of Lakshadweep in December last year . He is the first political appointee in this position, his predecessors having been IAS officers. He promptly got down to the dual tasks assigned to him. To make the territory more attractive to tourists, he did away with Corona protocols like mandatory quarantine for visitors, lifted restrictions on alcohol and ordered demolition of fishermen's costal Shades. To promote the Hindutva agenda, he banned beef -- a staple for the poor, as in Kerala -- removed meat from the MDM scheme for schools and ordered that dairy farms in the islands must be closed down and dairy products must be imported from Amul in Gujarat.
Even as protests erupted in the islands and also in Kerala, the very first COVID-19 case was recorded in the territory on the 18th of January and by the end of May total cases reached 7300 - - a big number for a population of some 64000. The lone MP from Lakshadweep, Mohammed Faizal P. P. of NCP, correctly attributed the sudden spike in COVID-19 numbers to the easing of travel restrictions. Filmmaker Ayesha Sultana, a resident of Lakshadweep, said the same thing in a more elegant way, calling Patel and his policies a bioweapon. An FIR was immediately registered against her with charges of sedition and hate speech.
|“There are two immediate bottlenecks to overcome: increasing vaccine supply (some of which should come from abroad) and setting up a distribution campaign that can cover not just urban but also rural and poorer citizens,
who constitute more than 65% of the population (over 800 million people) but face a desperate scarcity of public health and primary care facilities. The government must work with local and primary health-care centres that know their communities and create an equitable distribution system for the vaccine.
Second, India must reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission as much as possible while the vaccine is rolled out. As cases continue to mount, the government must publish accurate data in a timely manner, and forthrightly explain to the public what is happening and what is needed to bend the epidemic curve, including the possibility of a new federal lockdown. Genome sequencing needs to be expanded to better track, understand, and control emerging and more transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants. Local governments have begun taking disease-containment measures, but the federal government has an essential role in explaining to the public the necessity of masking, social distancing, halting mass gatherings, voluntary quarantine, and testing. Modi’s actions in attempting to stifle criticism and open discussion during the crisis are inexcusable.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that India will see a staggering 1 million deaths from COVID-19-19 by Aug 1. If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s Government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe. India squandered its early successes in controlling COVID-19-19. Until April, the government’s COVID-19-19 taskforce had not met in months. The consequences of that decision are clear before us, and India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages. The success of that effort will depend on the government owning up to its mistakes, providing responsible leadership and transparency, and implementing a public health response that has science at its heart.”
Some fifteen BJP leaders and workers criticised the FIR as “false and unjustified” and submitted their resignations in protest. The signatories include BJP state secretary Abdul Hameed Mullipuzha and prominent members of the Wakf Board and the Khadi board, among others. The rebellion of BJP cadres is completely in tune with angry protests by political parties, civil society groups and ordinary citizens in Lakshadweep and Kerala. Sultana filed an anticipatory bail plea at the Kerala High Court, which granted her interim protection from arrest for a week and reserved the judgement.
The Center’s dogged refusal to take necessary steps for countering the inevitable second wave, in spite of a series of warnings form Indian and international authorities as well as a parliamentary panel, have come in for trenchant criticism by the media, public intellectuals (including retired judges) and think tanks in India and abroad.
Amartya Sen was spot on when he said, while speaking at an event organised by the Rashtra Seva Dal on 4 June, India's "confused" government focused on taking credit for its actions, rather than working to restrict the spread of COVID-19, resulting in schizophrenia that led to massive troubles.
The Guardian wrote editorially on 23 April: ‘The Indian prime minister’s overconfidence lies behind the country’s disastrous COVID-19 response’ adding that ‘Mr Modi’s brand of Indian exceptionalism bred complacency.’ It went on to say:
‘Political hubris met pandemic reality in India this week. At the beginning of March, the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi claimed the country was in COVID-19’s “endgame”. India is now in a living hell.’
“... disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means".
-SC in the landmark Kedar Nath verdict
The very next week, author-activist Arundhati Roy wrote in the same magazine, “What we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but a crime against humanity.” The Hashtag #ModiMustResign was already trending on the social media, and Roy dashed an open letter to the PM, saying, “…please, sir, please, step aside. …This is a crisis of your making. You cannot solve it. You can only make it worse. … Hundreds of thousands of us will die, unnecessarily, if you don’t go. So, go now. Jhola utha ke.”
The Lancet, arguably the world’s most authoritative and trustworthy medical journal, came up with a sharply-worded constructive criticism in its editorial on May 8 this year (see box for excerpts).
In a related welcome development, the Supreme Court also seems to be overcoming the spell of lethargy and abdication of its constitutionally mandated duty -- the spell under which it had fallen under the stewardship of Misra, Gogoi and Bobde -- even while the High Courts, in most cases, had been continuing with their upright judgements and observations. This relatively proactive role of the higher judiciary has manifested itself essentially two ways. First, in many instances the courts have stalled the government’s authoritarian moves to curb individual liberty, freedom of speech and other fundamental rights. Second, on the crucial question of what all need to be done during the pandemic, in many cases (not all -- for example, the SC refused to order even a temporary halt to the Central Vista project for the period of rising COVID-19 numbers in Delhi) they forced the Regime to eat humble pie and to make at least a partial course correction.
In January, three sedition cases were filed across three BJP-ruled states against Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, senior journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath Vinod K. Jose, and one unnamed person who shared “unverified” news during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26. Their arrests were later stayed by the Supreme Court.
On May 31, the Supreme Court stayed coercive action against two Telugu-language news channels who were charged for sedition over the airing of a statement by rebel YSRCP MP, K R Krishnam Raju. In this connection the Court observed that there was need to define the scope of offences under Section 124A (sedition) and Section 153A (promotion of communal hatred) of the Indian Penal Code, “especially in the context of media freedom” and “particularly on the issue of the rights of press and free speech”.
Then on 3 June the apex court quashed sedition and other charges against journalist Vinod Dua for making comments critical of the Prime Minister. The court said, “Every journalist is entitled to the protection under the Kedar Nath Singh case (which defined the ambit of offence of sedition under Section 124A IPC).” In Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), five judges of the Supreme Court ruled that “allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder'”.
More recently, we celebrated the Delhi High Court’s historic bail orders in favour of the brave trio Natasha, Devangana and Asif, although we found it very agonizing that a SC bench prevenred these orders from serving as precedent in other UAPA cases. However, taken together the recent judicial interventions are proving to be so many thorns in the flesh of the Modi government and a major boost to the ongoing people’s struggle to save democracy and reclaim the Republic.
Centre's Policy “Arbitrary and Irrational”, Must be Changed: SC
When with the onset of the devastating second wave, daily infection numbers and the death toll reached alarming proportions, when the executive was miserably failing to provide succour to the suffering millions and the legislature had been consigned to a long hibernation so that the executive could bypass its accountability to elected people’s representatives, it was the higher Judiciary that took upon itself the responsibility to protect the people's right to life and good health. Since then several High Courts and the Supreme Court have been examining -- and issuing guidelines on -- different aspects of pandemic response including availability of hospital beds, medical Oxygen and vaccines. Mention can be made, for example, of the Allahabad HC's order to the UP government to respond to the allegations of mismanagement in availability of oxygen, bed and medicines; the Delhi HC's directive to the Delhi government (that the latter cannot "turn a blind eye" to overcharging of COVID-19 patients by private hospitals in the city "merely because there were no complaints") and to the union government (that not supplying Oxygen to hospitals is an act no less than genocide); the Karnataka HC’s directive to the centre (for the supply of 1200 MT of oxygen daily to the state during the peak of the COVID-19 spike, against which the centre rushed to the top court, but in vain) and so on.
The most important among all these pandemic-related cases is an ongoing suo moto writ petition taken up by the SC in the context of the huge build-up of adverse public opinion against the “Liberalised Vaccination Policy” the PM announced on April 19, evidently to deflect public anger resulting from vaccine shortages by blaming state governments for their ‘failure’ to procure vaccines. CJI Ramana, who took office on 24 April, constituted a three-judge bench headed by Justice Chandrachud to hear this case.
Following a suggestion from the union government, the bench in early May set up a 12- member National Task Force for the effective and transparent allocation of medical oxygen to the states and union territories. However, on later occasions the government - - as is its wont - - would plead that courts should keep away from executive decisions. And the Court’s response would be that the constitution does not envisage courts to be silent spectators when constitutional rights of citizens are violated because of executive policy. As Justice Chandrachud told Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta: “We are not framing policy. … You will be flexible. You can’t just say that you’re the Centre and you know what’s right. We have a strong arm to come down on this.”
In course of the hearing, some very interesting comments were made by the judges. “You keep on saying digital India, digital India but the situation is actually different in rural areas. How will an illiterate labourer from Jharkhand get registered in Rajasthan? Tell us how you will address this digital divide,” the bench asked the SG. “You must smell the coffee and see what is happening across the country”, it added, “You must know the ground situation and change the policy accordingly.”
Finally, on June 2 it asked the government to review the policy framework and to submit a fresh affidavit outlining an equitable and reasonable vaccination plan. Five days later, Modi was forced to make a partial course correction and announce a new vaccination policy under pressure of robust judicial monitoring, growing popular anger and universal condemnation.
Modi is -- and will be -- trying to wriggle out of the difficult situation with a three-pronged stratagem. He is smart enough to beat a partial retreat when that becomes absolutely necessary (as in the case of vaccination policy) and wait/work for a favourable turn in the situation to resume the offensive, meanwhile engaging some of his adversaries with gestures of accommodation (e. g., proposals for a meeting with Kashmiri leaders and reopening dialogue with farmer leaders). At the same time, he must continue with the core agenda of Corporate Hindutva (think Lakshadweep) and suppression of free thought and free speech (look at the new policy of pre-censoring books, articles etc. by former bureaucrats). And definitely he is working on new divisive and diversionary gameplans, which are yet to unfold - - maybe something like a J&K style division of West Bengal or division of UP and/or Maharashtra -- or something else.
As we watch out for any such tricks, manoeuvres and anti-people designs, we the people of India must explore and utilise the full potential of the present moment - - when the enemy finds itself in an unprecedented crisis made worse by the huge economic cost of the pandemic mismanagement - - to ramp up our struggle against the double mutant Modivirus or Modi 2.0.
This is a moment when Modi's partners in "crime against humanity" are finding the going very very tough. Trump has been forced out of power. Bolsonaro is facing a Senate investigation into his highly irresponsible response to the pandemic and slow vaccine rollout as well as huge mass protests in big cities of Brazil calling for his impeachment. In Peru, leftist village school teacher and TU leader Pedro Castillo has won the recently held Presidential election but the far-right outgoing president Keiko Fujimori is refusing to accept the results, just as Donald Trump did. Here too, Fuzimori's defeat (still not declared officially) has much to do with her bad pandemic response. We in India also must rise to the occasion, turn our grief into strength, and fight harder to oust Modi and save India. This June we are holding the campaign “Count every death -- Remember all who died -- Share every sorrow”; on the forthcoming 15th of August let us take the pledge of freeing ourselves from the most oppressive regime in independent India.