Home >Opinion >Columns >Time has come to bring in necessary reforms in our social behaviour

When I switched on my television on Wednesday morning with much trepidation, what I saw was horrifying. There was footage of women traditionally dressed up for kalash yatra to perform Jalabhishek at Navapura village in Gujarat’s Sanand. It was followed by more horrifying news: Covid-19 had infected 380,000 more Indians in the previous 24 hours. On Saturday I was stunned again to see another footage from Kutch where thousands had gathered to pay homage to a Muslim preacher, without wearing masks or maintaining any social distancing. The number of covid victims had crossed over 400,000 a day by then.

When I dug deeper, I found that Jalabhishek was organized as a vote of thanks since there were no new covid cases in the village in the previous fortnight, with a belief that pouring water over the idol at the temple of Baliya Dev will further protect the village. The police took ‘strict action’ after the footage went viral, booking many organizers and jailing them. It was not known by the time of writing this column if police had taken any action over the Kutch episode. I have no problems with the faith of those people and I may also praise the police action, but if they had acted a little earlier, that procession probably would not have happened. Such processions are dangerous even for those who organize and make them successful.

One may ask why I am praising the police. Just a few days ago, we saw the Mahakumbh organized in Haridwar under police protection. Almost all Indian medical experts had expressed their concerns over it. They were not wrong. Examination of some of the people in Madhya Pradesh who had returned from Kumbh found that 99% were covid-positive. When did they get infected? And how many others would have fallen prey to this deadly disease, just because of them? It is difficult to answer these questions, but if we do not listen to the warnings of scientists, then we will see new cremation grounds, cemeteries, hospitals refusing to admit patients, and people dying without oxygen. The time has come when we should think of necessary reforms in our social behaviour. We Indians have done this before also, which I will discuss a little later.

Perhaps you will remember that last year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had told his countrymen that covid-19 was a terrible disease, and many more families were going to lose loved ones. The devastation in the UK is now a thing of the past, but today, our country is going through the same misery. In India, no leader has the moral courage to warn the country like how Johnson did. For this, large public gatherings for elections would have had to be cancelled. In the areas where the votes were sought, covid is spreading now.

From Bihar to Bengal, where the fiercest elections were fought, health was not an issue anywhere. The blame for spreading infection has even taken a political turn, but the truth is that no one did anything to make things better. Covid has ripped off the masks on politics. However, politicians will have to change response, sooner or later. Covid has exposed politics to the public, and all the political parties have been found responding similarly, and to blame any particular leader would be turning away from the truth.

The biggest reason behind my optimism is that democracy flows with the blood in the arteries of us Indians. It has happened many times, when Tantra (system) ignored Lok (masses), Lok changed the faces of its operators. Remember Indira Gandhi of 1977. Emergency put immense power in her hands, but even she could not realize when the system slipped out of her hands.

The Nasbandi (sterilization) drive and police excesses during Emergency brought Indira Gandhi down in elections that followed. Matters did not end here. When the leaders of the Janata Party strayed off course, they were thrown out as well.

Today’s India is quite different. There are regional parties of satraps like Mamata Banerjee, Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, Jaganmohan Reddy, M.K. Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, Chautala brothers, and Akalis, while many new satraps have also emerged in national parties. What would one say about Marxist leader and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan? He may have crushed dissent within his party but has also created history by resurrecting the party in his own way. Congress chief minister Amarinder Singh is also a similar politician in Punjab. Despite being in Congress, he has a different personality. That is why despite all the encouragement, new leaders like Navjot Singh Sidhu were forced to leave the cabinet. Karnataka’s B.S. Yeddyurappa is one such chief minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party, who can talk on his own terms while remaining in the party.

When regional voices are strong, it strengthens federalism. Today, when voices are being raised about the uneven distribution of oxygen, covid vaccines, life-saving drugs, etc., it has become necessary to change the modalities of the system, which will take some shape tomorrow, if not today. Compare today’s situation with last year’s. In March 2020, the central government itself implemented a lockdown. This time around, New Delhi has no option but to allow the states to implement it as per their requirements.

Let us return to social ills. We Indians have been able to overcome them on our own. Sati and untouchability did not become the bane of the past just because of the law. Disagreements against them already existed. Timely measures accelerated this change. There are more such examples, so I am sure that even in these depressing days, we will be able to open some such paths which were unknown till now.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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