In early-1972, I and another school-friend decided — on a total impulse — to travel to the newly-liberated Bangladesh from Kolkata. For both, it was our first ‘foreign’ visit and we didn’t even have passports — just a piece of paper allowing travel to Bangladesh. The week-long visit to Dhaka (or Dacca as it was then spelt) was memorable, exciting and instructive to our teenage imaginations. A narration of that visit should await our memoirs, if either or both of us should care to write one.
In these lockdown days what suddenly came to mind was the experience of a medical student who was also an activist of the National Awami Party led by Maulana Bhashani in East Pakistan. Although distinct from Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League, the NAP was also deemed subversive by the Pakistani authorities. After the Pakistani army crackdown of March 25, 1971, the student simply went ‘underground.’ By that, he simply stayed at home and remained cooped up in his room. He made no attempts to resume his political activities, nor did he contact anyone but his closest friends. Having escaped the Pakistani army’s radar in the early days, he simply disappeared from view and remained that way till the Pakistani army surrendered to the Indian army on December 16, 1971.
Cutting himself totally off from society and making himself invisible probably saved his life. All it needed was one ‘informer’ or a ‘collaborator’ — and there were enough of them hanging about Dhaka — to whisper his whereabouts to the army or the Razakars for a student activist to come to a sticky end. By his own admission, he was bored stiff with this long period of isolation. But he kept his nerve, exercised patience and lived to enjoy a happy and successful life thereafter.
For many of us, the ongoing lockdown which may extend till May 16 — if not longer — there is a feeling of restlessness, even exasperation. We may not be stranded in some unfamiliar place, unable to return home, but the sense of anxiety is all too evident. The initial novelty of enforced rest has given way to edginess — and for some, anger. A lady known for her acerbic social media posts critical of Narendra Modi was angry that Delhi was still in the Red Zone. “Will I be able to buy alcohol after May 3?” she asked. My cousin, a pensioner, asked how much longer he would have to pay the salaries of domestic staff who were absent. Another small businessman, always cautious with his money, wondered how much longer he could afford to dip into his savings.
The examples can be multiplied but it points to one thing: the prolonged lockdown is beginning to affect everyone in different ways — financially and emotionally. The concern is all the more because there is no end in sight. No one really knows whether things will improve in mid-May and no one can tell us if there is going to be a cure found at the end of the day.
It is in this context that I read an article in The Times (London) on April 27 by Max Hastings, a reputed military historian and a former newspaper editor. Entitled ‘We need to toughen up for the pain ahead’, Hastings argued that the world is overwhelmed by “sentimentality, blame-gaming and poor risk assessment”: “We are slowly recognising realities about COVID-19. There will be no tidy, early ending: it will ebb and flow, with resurgences and possible heavier death counts, for months and perhaps years. Yet the chances that it will kill a healthy, youngish person are less than those of their being eaten by a great white shark.” He went on to argue that the “national lockdown is essential, but the economic and social consequences of sustaining it until we can all be labelled ‘safe’ would be generationally catastrophic.”
Comparing the present situation to a war, Hastings has stressed the need to opt for “the least bad from a range of unwelcome options, accepting the need to pay a price in lost lives in the greater interest of the nation.”
This was also the theme of an intervention by N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys and an entrepreneur who has often donned himself in a saintly garb. “What is important…is that India cannot continue in this situation for too long”, he is said to have told a web seminar, “because at some point of time, deaths due to hunger will far outweigh deaths due to coronavirus.”
Hunger, it seems, was just a convenient piece of sentimentality that Murthy used to press his real argument: “When you look at nine million people dying naturally, and when you compare it with the death of 1,000 people in past two months, obviously it is not as much of a panic we think it is.”
If Murthy had been a politician, he would probably have been drummed out of active politics. In effect he was asserting two things. First, that in the list of national priorities, the GDP was paramount; and secondly, that a section of the population, particularly the aged — who die the most from COVID-19 — is dispensable.
I don’t believe there is a single responsible politician who would agree with either Hastings or Murthy. Had India pursued the Swedish model of life-as-usual, the number of deaths would have been socially and politically unacceptable. People care about material possessions but, principally, they care about the well-being of themselves, their family, their community and their country. Once these are safeguarded, they care about the GDP.
In a war involving a visible enemy, the priorities would have been rejigged somewhat. But even in times of conventional war, the GDP would have been subsumed by the integrity of the nation and the safety of the people. It would have been a different matter if India had the same political system as China.
The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.