Rabindranath Tagore
Rabindranath Tagore
Eugene Eric Kim

Where the mind is full of fear and the head hangs low in shame;

Where knowledge is locked up;

Where the world has broken up into fragments by narrow political walls;

Where words come out from the ocean of untruth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perversion;

Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;               

Where the mind is driven into oblivion by the devils into ever-receding thought and action

In that hell of unfreedom, my Father, my country slumbers.

Workers left to starve to death, while air force jets generously spray hospitals with rose petals from the air. (Oil prices have clearly crashed, with much else). A friend shared that a doctor known to him, once a senior medical official in public service, felt that by undertaking such a patriotic adventure, the Government of India was laying a wreath of homage on the coffins of those dying from hunger or the virus. If ever the ruling definition of patriotism was an obvious crime, this was it.

May 7 and 8 are holidays in West Bengal to mark Buddha Purnima and the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore respectively. If he was alive, would Gurudeb himself have stood up for the national anthem in such a time? Had the present never come to pass, none of us would have found it easy to believe that what is happening - and not just since the ‘Covidisation’ of the world - could ever actually happen. Yet, here it is, with not only no end in sight but a predictable precipice ahead of a vast civilisation slipping down the treacherous slope of global modernity. Lockdown 3.0 has just taken effect, almost with an audible roar of totalitarian relish from those well-masked men in office.

As the 2016 demonetisation begins to appear like a preparatory preview in retrospect, about 18 million traders have expressed public anxiety over the near certainty of the termination of their livelihood. Roughly the same number of the salaried classes are no longer drawing a regular income. This follows the abandonment of tens of millions of workers during March and April. Well over a quarter of those who were earning an income at the end of February are no longer employed, according to data gathered by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy. It means that around 100 million workers and their families are at risk of starvation. All the gains in poverty reduction since the advent of the Reform Era are likely to be neutralised within this calendar year unless a miracle rescues the vulnerable from the brink. The government is already out of funds - and, need one add, ideas.

If your home was invaded by malarial mosquitoes, would you bring a crowbar to break down the walls of your house? And would you have ignored, prior to this panicky, disproportionate move, the warnings over at least seven weeks of the onset of the infestation, by engaging in extravagant parties for overseas guests, burning the homes of innocent neighbours, and turning the tables on your rivals at your workplace? Yet, this is just what the ruling party was busy with till mid-March, cavalierly dismissing what the WHO had just described as a ‘global pandemic’ by claiming that this was not a “public health emergency.” As government inertia somersaulted into a galloping panic, a cumulative tragedy of blunders has ensued, with countless more to follow. Never has it been truer that a stitch in time saves ninety-nine.  

Where in our ancient scriptures might the ruling marketing agents of Hinduism find religious or intellectual justification for a ‘lockdown’? The Italians imported the idea of a lockdown from Wuhan and Hubei. The British carted it over the Alps and the Americans hauled it over the Atlantic. Our government imported it from there. The panic in the Anglo-American portals by mid-March made our own anxiously enslaved government do a thoughtless volte-face – stay-at-home, no notice, no care for those who don’t have a home or away from what passes off as a home. 

I remember as a child that my grandmother would sometimes thread the border of the kitchen in our ancestral home in Sagar with rice and wheat flour, the idea being to feed the ants who would otherwise invade the kitchen, their own more primitive, older roots in the soil disturbed by human construction. Here, in retrospect, was Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) in the practice of everyday life.

But such ancient wisdom is lost on our ‘Hindu’ rulers, blinded and charmed as they are by the habit of looking to the flailing West for every major challenge the country now faces. They would have done better by looking to the Far East, where Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have shown the best record in the world of containing the damage from the virus. From Dronacharya to drones: this is the treacherous trajectory of this polity now. We have now reached the stage when our lives are going to be run more and more by drones, being used not only for spraying deadly chemicals on working people, but also for the surveillance of metropolitan neighbourhoods, and who knows what else.  

The cultural colonisation of this country’s political elite has never been greater. Where in our scriptures will we find a justification for such criminal follies as we have now come to expect routinely from this government?  

As this ancient civilisation tempts the Goddess to perform Her dance of death, Rabindranath’s foreboding and warnings from a century ago come chillingly back to mind. When starting Vishwa-Bharati University in 1920, he expressed his lurking dread, something the educational enterprise he was asking for people to embark upon was meant to stem: 

“before Asia is in a position to co-operate with the culture of Europe, she must base her own structure on a synthesis of all the different cultures which she has. When, taking her stand on such a culture, she turns toward the West, she will take, with a confident sense of mental freedom, her own view of truth, from her own vantage-ground, and open a new vista of thought to the world. Otherwise, she will allow her priceless inheritance to crumble into dust, and, trying to replace it clumsily with feeble imitations of the West, make herself superfluous, cheap and ludicrous. If she thus loses her individuality and her specific power to exist, will it in the least help the rest of the world? Will not her terrible bankruptcy involve also the Western mind? If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an illimitable parody of the modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity.”  

As he enters his 160th year, it is still not too late to renew in our souls Rabindranath’s dream for the land he loved.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;               

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

The writer is the author, with Ashish Kothari, of ‘Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India’. He teaches Ecosophy at Ashoka University. Syndicate: The Billion Press

Views expressed are personal

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