How many more fellow Indian lives will be lost until the government takes responsibility?

Tarini Tiwari 6 May 2021


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Trinity Care Foundation on Flickr

‘How is your family?’

‘I hear the situation there is so crazy.’

‘It was bound to happen, wasn’t it?’

As the UK returns to a relative sense of normality, as the golden liquid filling pint glasses breathes life back into the hearts of the British populace, I am faced with statements such as these; all conversations make their way back to the terrifying COVID-19 outbreak in India, my native country.

I am Indian. Jai Hind, Bharat Mata ki Jai – Praise India, Praise Mother India. I rise for the national anthem when it plays before movies in Mumbai cinemas, the animated flag on screen billowing dramatically. I present my Indian passport to Immigration at London Heathrow airport and face the discerning scowl of the officer behind the desk, confident in my right to be there and yet somehow made to feel apologetic for not being British.

I feel pride in where I come from. I am a patriot; I’ve studied my country’s history and culture, I am well-versed in the mythology and teachings of my religion, and while my Hindi is sub-par, I will forever work towards speaking it in a way that will do it justice. However, I don’t feel pride in the India I see now.

India, until very recently, appeared to have effectively beaten the virus. Following a peak last summer of just under 100,000 cases a day (roughly 1 in 10 positive test results), the country slowly and tentatively reopened, life resuming in a new normal. There were multiple reports investigating how this happened. Splainer (where I used to work, so I am somewhat biased) did a fantastic breakdown of the theories behind this steady decline in case numbers. As they pointed out, ‘In most parts of the country, people are out and about—and daily life has returned to near normalcy for most Indians. So we’re not staying safe at home either—even if travel etc. remain below pre-pandemic levels.’

I boasted about this to people in the UK. As we found ourselves in a third lockdown with cases soaring, as a quarter of Britain’s total deaths occurred in one month alone, I said ‘India got it right.’ I have never been a fan of the right-wing government, but I gave credit where it was due. India was on the mend.

It felt like the case surge was almost overnight in some parts of the nation. In my native Mumbai, my parents saw restrictions tightening slowly, from a nighttime curfew to a shutdown of restaurants, and finally a full lockdown implemented statewide.

India keeps breaking its own records. The country has recorded 412,262 daily cases. The current death toll is 230,168 deaths. I find it impossible to process these numbers. As my mum said on the phone to me the other day, it’s so hard to imagine these numbers as people. At the current rate, we hit 1,000,000 new cases every three days or so, that we are even aware of. Even for a country of 1.3 billion people, this is staggering.

Photos are emerging that present the shocking reality of death that we are facing. I will not force anyone to look at these, but should you choose to this Guardian photo essay provides a glimpse into what is happening. I read today about a woman who took an auto-rickshaw to various hospitals with her son crumpled at her feet, struggling to stay alive. None of the hospitals could offer him any level of care, and he eventually died at her feet, suffocated on the narrow floor of an auto-rickshaw. I’ve ridden in these around New Delhi as a kid, zipping through the wide avenues with the wind rushing through my hair. I will never look at an auto-rickshaw the same way again.

'They talk of worshipping the medical fraternity but they have left us to die.’

This quote from a nurse at the state-run Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation Hospital, she herself recovering from COVID-19, articulates the key issue with the second wave seen in India. The public healthcare system has been given no money. The Modi government has not equipped its hospitals to deal with any level of national health crisis, as is evidenced by the rampant deaths. What’s horrible to acknowledge is that many COVID-19 patients aren’t dying solely because of the virus: India is facing a terrible oxygen shortage. Patients are suffocating before they’re even given a chance to be treated. At one hospital, 25 patients died because of a lack of oxygen cylinders, and there was only enough oxygen left to treat the remaining patients for another two hours. Imagine a loved one getting into a car accident, and the doctor telling you they can’t keep them on life support because there isn’t enough electricity. This is the tragic reality we face.

Amidst this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a rally with 10,000 attendees ahead of elections in West Bengal. ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai!’ (‘Praise Mother India!’) The man on the megaphone can be heard saying in this video documenting the crowds, followed by chants of ‘Modi, Modi!’ To praise Mother India and then the Prime Minister is to connect them, to imply that Modi is India.

The son of a tea stall owner, Narendra Modi left home at 17 to take part in politics. He has been an active member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is a Hindu-nationalist paramilitary group. To give you a sense of Modi’s politics, this is the RSS’s mission statement:

‘The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture. If the Hindu culture perishes in Hindusthan itself, and if the Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan. Mere geographical lumps do not make a nation. The entire society should be in such a vigilant and organized condition that no one would dare to cast an evil eye on any of our points of honour.

‘Strength, it should be remembered, comes only through organization. It is therefore the duty of every Hindu to do his best to consolidate the Hindu society. The Sangh is just carrying out this supreme task. The present fate of the country cannot be changed unless lakhs of young men dedicate their entire life to that cause. To mould the minds of our youth towards that end is the supreme aim of the Sangh.’

The RSS believes in a Hindu nation, their Hindu nationalism meaning that they believe one must be Hindu to be truly Indian, and vice versa, and therefore are inherently against other religions. The 2002 Gujurat riots saw the deaths of over 1,000 Muslims under a Modi state government, and yet he was still re-elected. He campaigned as a man of the people, an honest Hindu man with a desire to bring prosperity back to the country. For a man of the people, he certainly hasn’t cared about them much.

What I find so tragic about his handling of the second wave and the pandemic as a whole is that the working classes have borne the brunt of the crisis and will continue to deal with the aftershocks, but Modi will do nothing to help them. My parents and grandparents all have the privilege to stay home and order groceries, never leaving the house. The people who work as security, as shopkeepers, as drivers, as maids, as labourers, as healthcare workers and so many more are the ones who have been left to die, without the option of furlough to be able to stay home or even have access to decent healthcare in the inevitability that they get infected at work.

Eventually, the pandemic will be over. Who knows how many Indians we’ll have lost by then? Who knows if this will be enough to remove Modi from power? On Twitter, I see people praising him for protecting them because he offered his prayers to end the pandemic. All I know is that I have never seen the level of outright hatred for this government that I do now. And as I continue to share resources online for how to access a hospital bed in the nation’s financial capital (frustratingly this is all I can do from the UK), I know that through its despair my country will continue to fight, leaderless, helpless, unwaveringly towards an end that continues to evade its reach.