Pragya Singh Thakur, the Lok Sabha Member of Parliament from Bhopal, would never have imagined that the leading Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar would mark her return to her constituency after a 70-day gap with a sarcastic article published on its front page. The headline read, “He Digvijayi Sadhvi Pragya! Shukriya, Aap Ko Bhopal ki Yaad to Aayi—O World Conqueror, Many Thanks, You Remembered Bhopal at Last.”
The daily was giving vent to the feelings of the lakhs of citizens of the capital of Madhya Pradesh. Some had even organised a social media campaign revolving around their “missing” MP.
The last time Thakur was in the city was 2 March, to participate in a condolence meeting for a BJP leader. Thereafter, she was away from the city. The intervening period had proved extremely harsh for residents due to the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already claimed hundreds of lives.
The anger of citizens was palpable. That is why the daily asked her, “When Bhopal was sick and desperate for help, you were not to be seen. When the city needed oxygen and Remdesivir, you were still not here.”
The absence of an elected leader belonging to the ruling dispensation when people need her the most raises a pertinent question. Was this an exception? Forget the fact that the BJP-Sangh Parivar repeatedly claim they are “disciplined soldiers”, a number of those associated with right-wing organisations have gone missing in action.
Some time ago, they were out on the streets, visiting houses and scanning mohallas for a massive nationwide fund-collection drive for their cherished Ram temple project in Ayodhya. Reportedly, by 15 March, the drive, which lasted until 28 February, had collected more than Rs. 3,000 crores. More was expected to be accounted for. And yet, once deadly Covid-19 struck India hard, these footsoldiers and their leaders became invisible.
Surely not every single of those thousands of activists and sympathisers to the temple cause turned Covid positive in the very first week of March? Surely not all of them are in a months-long quarantine?
Covid-19 patients have been gasping for breath for well over a month. Their close families are running from hospital to hospital, scrambling for beds, medicines, oxygen cylinders, ICU care. Thousands are looking for hospital beds with ventilators even today. And hundreds, if not thousands, are waiting for hours at crematoriums or burial grounds to find space for the deceased. State agencies were clueless for weeks together. People had nobody to help them.
Individual good samaritans, leftist political formations and Congress party workers are offering help while the government is still grappling with the crisis. For example, Aqeel Mansoori from Udaipur in Rajasthan broke his fast to donate plasma to two Covid-19 patients, Alka and Nirmala. Vicky Agrahari, an ordinary man from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, paid for oxygen cylinders for the sick who were waiting outside the district hospital because they did not get a bed inside. The police booked him for breaking Covid-19 protocol.
Numerous appeals for help are being forwarded on social media by leading authors, journalists and media celebrities, and they have also received spontaneous responses.
A new type of solidarity seems to have emerged among people, and a bunch of new heroes too, a Jitendra Singh Shunty here, a BV Srinivas there, and so on. People are right to wonder: if gurudwaras can arrange “oxygen langars” and give the sick a healing touch, or if a Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal can mobilise volunteers for giving Covid-19 victims a dignified farewell, and if United Sikhs can send teams to homes to carry away the Covid-dead, what stops these footsoldiers?
The footsoldiers and their leaders were on the same page when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. It has not dawned on them that their massive collections from people for the temple or the money their fraternal organisations get from charities abroad could save lives here. They are simply not actively providing help during this pandemic. The mainstream media is giving space to groups and individuals assisting the needy. Therefore, the footsoldiers cannot say nobody noticed their efforts.
How does one explain this inaction of the Hindutva supremacists when their regime faces the worst crisis in its seven years in power? Forget the severe lashing it got in the international press. A crisis of confidence is visible even among its middle and upper-middle-class supporters.
Even the first proposer for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the noted classical musician from the Kirana Gharana, Chhanu Lal Mishra, lost his wife and daughter for want of medical care despite calls to the PMO. Noted Hindustani singer Rajan Mishra died because he did not get ventilator support on time, again despite seeking assistance from the PMO. Mukesh Khanna—of Shaktimaan fame—is considered close to the PM and his party. He, too, lost his sister for want of quality medical care in time.
So the right-wing and its army of footsoldiers found themselves wanting on this occasion. But why? The first possible reason is that the die-hard followers, pejoratively called bhakts, refused to believe the situation on the ground was dire and preferred to consider it was all part of a “western conspiracy”. They felt that since the Supreme Leader is in command, the crisis will blow over in a short time. There are other occasions when their blind belief has proved costly, for example, the Agra resident who had “devoted his life” to Modi and was supposedly “followed by the PM”, also did not get the medical aid he needed and died.
A second reason could be that the more articulate among the footsoldiers predicted that if they involved themselves or their associates in actual relief work, it would run counter to the official narrative that there is no scarcity of any kind and that the “situation is under full control”. Did not Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, declare that those who talk of the scarcity of beds or oxygen cylinders would be sternly dealt with for spreading rumours and have their property confiscated?
Nevertheless, an insider to the ruling dispensation has admitted—though without coming out in the open—to a publication that “...their volunteers were not visible helping people as it would seem like the government channels were not doing enough.”
Three, the footsoldiers know very well that helping the needy carries the risk of getting infected—not an attractive proposition. Four, this kind of work is very different from the vigilante-style activities they normally do. It is easy to land up at Akhlaq’s house in Dadri en masse to search for “beef” or organise cow protection squads to intimidate livestock traders or organise rallies to collect funds when there is a friendly regime. For example, through their rallies, Hindutva footsoldiers have been said to instigate communal violence in Madhya Pradesh.
Five, while they are largely absent in relief work during the pandemic, they have actively engaged on WhatsApp groups and other social media channels, with a new avatar. Gone are the days when the ‘Other’ was bashed up on any ruse or pretext. Gone is the period when the first prime minister—dead for around sixty years—was roasted for any problem the present regime faces. Now, the hatemongers have metamorphosed themselves into agents of positivity.
They are now attempting to build a narrative that the situation is ‘not that grim’. In fact, that it is improving.
People are being told they should think about “positive” things, not discuss how thousands are dying but talk about how many are going home, fully recovered. Perhaps they feel a pep talk will make people forget scores have died in leading hospitals of the Capital for want of oxygen. That new crematoriums are being carved out wherever possible because the numbers of the dead have reached frightening proportions. The freshly-minted messengers of positivity are keen to deflect attention from the omissions and commissions of the present regime that have led us to this catastrophic situation by peddling fabricated stories about a Chinese conspiracy and other fictions.
Six, their positivity sermons are conscious, albeit subtle, attempts to discredit people. This includes journalists who are revealing the on-ground situation or people raising questions about a callous regime that is keener to burnish its image than save lives.
These messengers of positivity are so desperate to paint a rosy picture and save themselves from penetrating questions about their non-involvement in actual relief work, that they have no qualms in peddling stories of a “sacrifice” by an old Covid-positive RSS worker who abandoned his bed for a younger patient. The story was published by mainstream publications and went viral. But this operation was a terrible blunder, for the story has turned out to be more imaginary than true. A journalist learned from the administration of the hospital mentioned in the right-wing propaganda that there was no case of anybody abandoning a bed for another patient. Besides, the hospital had a few vacant beds that day.
Mission positivity, however, is still on, and ideologues want to convince us lesser mortals that positivity is the real satya, while the pandemic (and associated deaths) are mythya. Sangh Supremo Mohan Bhagwat delivered this message in his ‘Positivity Unlimited Lecture Series’ speech. He had no qualms telling people, many who have lost their near and dear ones because of criminal negligence by their rulers, that death is akin to changing clothes. He said, “The way we change old, soiled clothes, the same way, humans leave the old, unusable body and attain a new body to move on.”
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal