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View: When history is written, it will be the story of our marching millions

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Eid Mubarak! This has got to be the most unique Eid in recent history. It is likely to be a different Diwali as well. As for Mumbai’s favourite Ganesh Utsav, dare we even dream about it, at a time when the numbers in Mumbai are like a ticking bomb and still rising? ‘Covid’ itself has become a bad word — a ‘gaali’, a curse. At the moment, all festivals and festivities of any kind are on hold. Which is a strange feeling, almost eerie.

India is a land of non-stop festivals. This is how it has always been through the ages. All of a sudden, India has pressed the pause button, and we aren’t used to pausing our raucous and joyful band baaja baraat way of life. Stillness and restraint are alien emotions. We love our exaggerated notions of abandonment and mazaa — all we need is an excuse. Fortunately, given India’s rich diversity and multicultural traditions, not a week goes by without the neighbourhood stringing up lights and organising a feast. To have to put a tight lid on our inborn exuberance is to kill our very spirit — the all- important joie de vivre that keeps us afloat through countless calamities and tragedies. Nobody in our blessed country likes a reality check. Which is a good thing. Or, by now, while confronting the prospect of Lockdown 5.0, we would have been out on the streets, rebelling and protesting with all our might. Why aren’t we?

The fact of the matter is, we have messed up. We have gone hopelessly wrong with our handling of the pandemic. The most insensitive decisions were unilaterally taken and bluntly announced to a stunned nation of 1.3 billion citizens. We were given four short hours to turn our lives upside down and keep mum. We did as told. We obeyed. Because at that point we didn’t know any better. We were too dazed and stunned to question or react. But hey — two months have gone by since that dramatic announcement. A lot has changed all across the world. We are armed with more knowledge. We are better informed. And most importantly — we are broke! The economy is in tatters. The vexing ‘migrants’ issue’ (as it is has been dubbed, as if our millions of workers fall under some sort of a sub-species) remains unresolved. The second wave of transmission is staring us in the face, as the virus travels recklessly from village to village, causing death and mayhem, as we struggle to contain its murderous path.

When history gets written about this very challenging period, it will be the story of our marching millions — those workers who left with nothing but faith in their hearts, to reunite with their families back home — no matter what the cost. So many have already paid with their lives. But we have still not woken up. This is not just a long walk home — let’s see it as a silent satyagraha, a powerful protest. No human being undertakes such a hazardous journey, walking upwards of a thousand kilometres, with no money in the pocket, and often on an empty stomach, unless there are compelling reasons. We are refusing to recognise those reasons because they make us uncomfortable.

I squirmed when I read an impassioned account of a Dilliwalla former fauji, who ‘did his bit’ by walking around distributing Rs 500 to migrant workers on NH-48 and recounting their cringe-making responses in a long post, which was widely shared by ‘PLU’. The good Samaritan made several references to the fleeing workers touching the sahib’s feet in gratitude and calling him a ‘Bhagwan’. Gratuitous? I think so. Why advertise your ‘good deeds’ during such tragic times?

Yashwant Sinha has articulated the thoughts of millions of citizens when he challenged the finance minister’s ‘stimulus package’ and described it as a “fraud package not just a flawed package”. We are still scratching our heads and wondering, “What the hell was that about? A Rs 20-lakh-crore joke on us?” Despite its lack of transparency and authenticity, hardly anybody spoke up. When it was suggested that the Army could have efficiently tackled the mass exodus of migrant workers from our cities by transporting them safely to their hometowns and making sure they had food supplies, we should have raised our voices in a loud chorus and demanded just that. But we kept silent. The extra strict and unrealistic lockdown rules have been thrown out of the window by frustrated and enraged citizens in many places. How many will the authorities arrest? We are at the crucial crossroads today — which way will India go? Who will call the emperor naked? This monumental failure will haunt not just us who are living through this nightmare, but the next generation as well. One can sometimes overlook and make excuses for the genuine errors of judgement by the powers that be. What one cannot forgive is heartlessness.

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