WE NEED TO BREATHE!
It was a scene which will forever be etched in the memory of millions the world over: on May 25 2020, on a street in Minneapolis, US- a white police officer Derek Chauvin, had his knee pressed down on the neck of a black American George Floyd. This continued for more than nine minutes. An excruciating bystander video(which immediately went viral the world over)shows Floyd gasping and repeatedly begging, “I can’t breathe” and onlookers yelling at Chauvin to stop; the officer did not relent till Floyd slowly went silent and limp. The widely watched footage sparked worldwide protests :of anger, anguish and agony. People from all walks of life came out ( including some Indian celebrities),social media went berserk; there was just one spontaneous, unanimous and loud cry, “get off our necks, we want to breath!”. On 20 April this year, Chauvin was found guilty of murder ( and is likely to face a long prison sentence) in a verdict which brought a sigh of relief to many!
The ‘George Floyd’ tragedy is painfully unfolding in India today. Not one George, but millions of Indians, who today are deep in anguish, gripped in agony and seething with anger. The vast majority of them are ordinary citizens – many of them from poor and vulnerable sections of society. They are crying about a system that has completely broken down: of those who are affected by the pandemic : thousands are dying, many in major cities throughout the country have no access to a hospital bed, oxygen or a ventilator; necessary medication, oximetres and even vaccines are scarce. Ambulances are not available; there are heart-rending scenes of serpentine queues outside crematoria of those waiting to cremate their loved ones; burial grounds are becoming ‘houseful’. Private hospitals charge exorbitant amounts – corruption(thanks to a heartless regime) is mainstreamed: be it in the selling of essential medicines in the black-market or in the manufacture of fake imitation drugs. The Public Health System has just collapsed : doctors, nurses, hospital support staff and other caregivers who have been working round the clock and are simply exhausted. The Government has failed on all fronts; it has not only proved to the world that it cannot govern, it has conveniently abdicated their responsibility. It has never been so bad. The cry of the people of India today is, “get off our necks, we need to breathe!”
For the last few days an online petition on ‘change.org’ has been going viral, with an all-time high popularity rating. It demands the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. The originator of the petition Mrunal Mathuria, a concerned citizen, says “the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic caught India totally off-guard. As I write this, many are losing their lives, countless are struggling for beds in hospitals, myriads struggling for oxygen and there are untold stories of the deceased not finding a place in the crematoria. The collapsed healthcare system of the country is brutally exposed at the cost of millions of innocent lives”. He goes on to add, “This is the time when any person in the position of power should take responsibility for the mess that has been created under his supervision and resign but our power-hungry Prime Minister won’t resign by himself and it is of utmost importance that we citizens come together and demand his resignation at the earliest and at any lives”. He also highlights ten “heinous acts committed by our Prime Minister in the past one year.”
Mathuria voices the concerns and demands of millions of Indians. The #ResignModi hashtag has been one of the top trending on Twitter for the past several days- particularly, since the Bengal Election results were announced. At one time, Facebook too had many such posts but it soon blocked posts tagged #ResignModi; however these posts were restored hours later, as a controversy erupted whether it was the government’s demand to remove social media content critical of the way the Covid crisis is being handled.
The petition is fast racing to the 100,000 mark – a goal which Mathuria has given himself; there is no doubt that he will achieve it. Writing in Bloomberg/ Quint Priya Ramani says, “The support for Mathuria’s petition is the cry of a nation breathless from the lack of oxygen, one that is in the midst of a ‘viral apocalypse’. It’s a timely outlet for the rage and despair of citizens who have been forced to consider what our lives are worth to this government we twice-elected.”. Strong words indeed, but authentically voicing the sentiments of a nation which feels breathless, brutalized and even murdered by a regime which is totally callous and has neither the ability nor the desire to govern wisely.
The Election Commission(EC) blatantly worked as a side- kick of the Government. In a scathing oral order on 26 April, the Madras High Court said that the EC was the ‘only institution’ responsible for the deadly COVID-19 second wave India is seeing today. In March, the EC announced elections in four States and one union territory which would begin on 27 March with the counting of votes scheduled for 2 May. The second wave of the pandemic, had already begun tightening its grip on the nation by then. Hearing a petition on whether there were adequate COVID-19 safety procedures in place during vote counting, a bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthil Kumar Ramamoorthy said, “you [the EC] are the only institution that is responsible for the situation today. No action against political parties taking rallies despite every order of the Court. Your election commission should be put up on murder charges probably!”
In the context of the Madras High Court observations, the EC also wanted the media to be restrained and not to publish any oral observations; to this the Supreme Court told the EC that it would neither restrain the media from reporting oral observations made during proceedings in public interest nor demoralize high courts since both are ‘vital pillars of democracy’. It termed as “too far -fetched’ the poll panel’s plea of restraining media from reporting remarks made in court proceedings. In the written judgement on 6 May , Justice Chandrachud said, “The discussions that take place are of importance and are in public interest. It’s not a monologue that one person will speak and then judges will speak.” .
The court said that dialogues and reporting of such dialogues by the media create accountability and underscored that anything to the contrary could be seen as affecting independence of High Courts. “We have to protect the judicial sanctity of the process. We have to make sure that High Court judges and Chief Justices are independent to make views. We have to make sure that the media reports everything that happens in court so that we judges conduct proceedings with dignity,” Adding, “Courts are entrusted to perform crucial functions under the law. Their work has a direct impact, not only on the rights of citizens, but also the extent to which the citizens can exact accountability from the executive. Citizens are entitled to ensure that courts remain true to their remit to be a check on arbitrary exercises of power”.
Ironically enough, ( after the previous CJI almost completely destroyed its credibility and objectivity) there is some kind of light coming from the Supreme Court ( some of the High Courts have been passing several orders and strictures on their State Governments) . In a landmark order on 8 May which is bound to have repercussions ,the Supreme Court constituted a twelve – member national task force of distinguished health experts to distribute oxygen, essential drugs in a fair and equitable manner because of the total breakdown of distribution leading to tragic deaths in various parts of the country. All of them are eminent health experts. This is an unprecedented step in the annals of judicial activism which has virtually taken on an executive role but was necessary in this desperate situation. When the Government has ceased to exercise its basic responsibilities the judiciary has stepped in to take up cudgels on behalf of the hapless citizens of the country.
The situation in all the BJP -run states is disastrous. The worst is perhaps Uttar Pradesh. Even a young boy who is desperate for an oxygen cylinder and makes a request on social media for it is hauled up by the police! A BBC report says that ‘The region around Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world for Hindus, is among the worst affected by the second wave of coronavirus sweeping India’. Adding, “Many angry citizens of the region, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, are now asking where their MP, Narendra Modi – India’s prime minister – is in their hour of need. India’s devastating second wave has pushed the country’s total number of infections to 20 million and the death toll to more than 220,000. In Varanasi, with the health infrastructure swamped, patients can no longer find hospital beds, oxygen, or ambulances, and getting a Covid test can take up to a week. In the past 10 days, most pharmacies have run out of basic medicines like vitamins, zinc and paracetamol. “We are inundated with calls saying help us get a bed or oxygen,” said a local medical professional, who did not want to be named. “With the most basic medicines in short supply, people are even taking expired drugs,” he said”
UP, Gujarat , Karnataka and others also like to play the reality down. In Government Hospitals in Ahmedabad- informed sources (who wish to remain anonymous) say that the daily ‘official’ figures are at least ten times less than the actuals. On the ghats of the River Ganges the funeral pyres are burning non-stop: an estimated 300-400 cremations daily to the normal ‘peak’ of just about eighty. In order to defocus from the complete mismanagement and corruption of his own Government both at the Centre and in Karnataka , BJP MP from Bangalore South, Tejasvi Surya gave names of 17 Muslim staffers in a hospital while making allegations about ‘bed blocking scam’. His unwarranted, unauthenticated and communal allegations have raised a hue and cry from all sections of society.
In fact the latest in this ‘bed scam’ points to a BJP MLA and an aide!Those living in remote rural areas and in the slums; the poor and the vulnerable are in a pathetic state .No one talks about them : they are sick and dying -they are not even numbers! On April 30, the UP State Primary Teachers Association President said that at least 706 teachers died due to Covid-19 after continued duty at the panchayat polls in Uttar Pradesh. Foreign Governments ( from the US to Saudi Arabia) have rushed tonnes of necessary medical equipment and other emergency aid to India: at this moment, according to newspaper reports, this aid has still to be assigned to specific destinations and are lying undistributed! .
Meantime, the callous, corrupt and communal regime continues with its grandiose Central Vista project at an exorbitant mind-boggling cost to the tax-payers. If this is not a fit case to book all those involved in this heinous crime, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act( UAPA) and even under the sedition one – then what is? The Courts have to act decisively and promptly. The Government in insidious ways continues to destroy the environment; they flaunt regressive anti -people anti -democratic policies ; they have flagrantly denigrated the role and responsibility of all Constitutional and independent bodies . The regime has looted the country in every possible way -particularly through demonetisation. An explosive lead story in the latest issue of ‘The Caravan’ ( 8 May 2021) reveals how the former chief minister of Uttarakhand Trivendra Singh Rawat was fired overnight in March 2021 for insisting that Mahakumbh should be restricted. The Kumbh Mela was held right through April – with thousands participating :did not the Government ( State and National) have the powers to stop this ‘super spreader’ event? In Ahmedabad there were the cricket matches earlier with thousands at the Stadium named after the ‘big man’ – the dynastic son as the Cricket boss of India was milking the moolah – really not bothered about how many would die later on. Petrol prices are on a steep rise – in the midst of escalating costs!
Mainstream media in India, continues to be throttled and ‘godified’ – fortunately, there is a slight change of late, with reports and even articles lambasting the Government. Social media is full of memes, cartoons about the pathetic situation. Even loyal ‘bhakts’ have started using expletives! World media continue to highlight the abysmal state of affairs in India and the totally irresponsible attitude of the Government! India’s foreign minister has ordered Indian Missions abroad to counter the bad media it is receiving from the foreign press. A few days ago, after a scathing piece on the Indian government by the Australian press, the Indian High Commission in that country published what it called a “rejoinder.” But far from addressing any of the criticism in the report, the letter read more like a rant from a party propaganda department, calling the media report “motivated and malicious.”
‘The Lancet’ the world’s best-known medical journal in its latest issue (Vol 397 May 8, 2021) says in a scathing editorial, “At times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government has seemed more intent on removing criticism on Twitter than trying to control the pandemic. Despite warnings about the risks of super spreader events, the government allowed religious festivals to go ahead, drawing millions of people from around the country, along with huge political rallies—conspicuous for their lack of COVID-19 mitigation measures…. 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 by Aug 1. If that outcome were to happen, Modi’s Government would be responsible for presiding over a self-inflicted national catastrophe.” Any thinking citizen of India would hang his/her head down in shame and demand that this Government resigns immediately.
On 4 May celebrated writer and activist Arundhati Roy wrote a direct but powerful appeal to the Prime Minister saying, “We need a government. Desperately. And we don’t have one. We are running out of air. We are dying. We don’t have systems in place to know what to do with help. What can be done? Right here, right now? We cannot wait till 2024. Never would people like myself have imagined the day would come when we would find ourselves appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for anything. Personally, I would rather have gone to prison than do that. But today, as we die in our homes, on the streets, in hospital car parks, in big cities, in small towns, in villages and forests and fields – I, an ordinary private citizen, am swallowing my pride to join millions of my fellow citizens in saying please sir, please, step aside. At least for now. I beseech you, step down”. She ends the letter saying, “So please go. It is the most responsible thing for you to do. You have forfeited the moral right to be our prime minister”.
On 9 May 1945, the Nazis surrendered; the day is observed as ‘Victory Day’ . The people of India today live in a failed state and demand their own ‘victory day’! It is time to rise and hold the regime responsible for crimes against humanity. We, the people of India refuse to be throttled any longer: we need to breathe!
The Author, Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.