There is an interesting novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. It is a highly acclaimed work of fiction. It beautifully captures the milieu of a community of Delhi which existed in the city a century ago. Though it is a work of fiction, it is more in the nature of a historical narrative.

In a fictional manner, it tells us true stories of people of a bygone time. Towards the end of the novel, there was a description of killer influenza which spread in India in 1918. I quote: “The summer of 1918 was more terrible than the summers of previous years. —The dogs moaned and wept at night as if afraid of death, and the cats whose numbers had surprisingly decreased, were quiet and subdued. —

“Influenza broke out in epidemic form, and from the houses in the mohallah all around, heart-rending cries of lamentation and weeping began to rend the air. There was hardly any house where death did not take place. — Men carried dead bodies on their shoulders by the score. There was not a single hour of the day when a few dead bodies were not carried outside the city to be buried. Soon the graveyards became full, and it was difficult to find even three yards of ground to put a person in his final resting place. In life, they had had no peace, and even in death, there seemed no hope of rest.

“A cemetery was made outside the city where people buried relations by the score. The Hindus were lucky that way. They just went to the bank of the sacred Jamuna, cremated the dead, and threw away the ashes and unburned bones in the water. Many were thrown away without a shroud of cremation. They were mostly the poor. Yet in death, it was immaterial whether you were naked or clothed or burnt or thrown away to be devoured by vultures and jackals.”

Now let us take a deep breath and look around and think! What is happening in our country after hundred years? Have you seen the floating corpses in the Ganges? Are we cremating all our dead now? Do we have enough cremation grounds? Have we been able to show the dead our last respect?  And how many people we have lost to Coronavirus in India already?  What figure the New York Times has reported a few days ago?

The NYT has a message for us. What is the message? I am sorry again I have to burden the reader with a quote from a book called How to Read Amarty by Lawrence Hamilton. In his preface to the book, Hamilton says: Sen is rightly famous for his explanation for why famines do not occur in democracies. Even though only a minority in the population may actually face the deprivation of a famine, a listening majority, informed by public discussion and a free press, can make the government responsive. More pertinently for India, following political independence, famines, despite threatening on a number of occasions were firmly kept at bay due to this vital practical benefit provided by democracy. By contrast, famines were a common occurrence under authoritarian British rule.”

Here the author speaks about famine. But if you replace the word famine with pandemic and think about the present Indian situation what comes to your mind? What the UP government under Yogi Adityanath was doing till the other day? The hospitals reporting paucity of oxygen were threatened with punishment.  Again, anybody complaining about lack of oxygen was threatened with punishment. The same is the case with the Union government about sharing information about the coronavirus. And what is the role of the press? Is the press free in India now? Why are they not reporting the things and giving us a true picture? We are supposed to be a free country and a constitutional democracy.

Alas, our constitutional democracy has degraded so much lately that its citizens are feeling as if they are not the citizens of a free country. The government’s dealing with the pandemic is showing in the degradation of our democracy. Had the government consulted the opposition and experts and heeded their suggestions and criticism, the pandemic could not have caused such havoc in the country.

Without realizing the severity of the pandemic, last year itself our Prime Minister declared that India had won the war against Covid-19. Then, throwing the Covid protocol to the winds, India was holding Assembly elections in a number of states. And what has happened in its aftermath?

The virus spread out like a wildfire and affected lakhs of people which is being universally condemned and the government of India was censured for its wrong handling of the pandemic world over. There was a time when there was no hospital bed, no ventilation, and no oxygen for the patients. And there was no space in the crematoriums for the burial of the dead.

But, the sad thing is even now the priorities of the government are misplaced. When the entire country is reeling under Covid-19, the government of India is engaged and busy with the central vista project. The opposition political parties and the citizens of the country cannot remain as mute spectators to the degradation of our democracy. They have to fight for its recovery together. Here, the results of the recent assembly elections bring us some hope.

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Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: