The other virus that has infected India, writes Karan Thapar
They say a crisis can bring out the best in us. Alas, it can also do the opposite. I can think of a couple of areas where, sadly, that’s proven true. So this Sunday — as we await tomorrow’s partial relaxation of the lockdown even as it extends further — is perhaps an opportunity to reflect on the darker side of ourselves. If things get better — and I hope they will — we’ll soon forget how horrid we can be. But, today, that’s precisely what I want to write about. I know many of you will disagree and quite a few could be offended. So be it. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. I hope you will continue reading, but if you don’t I accept it’s your right not to.
I’m deeply dismayed, actually disturbed and demoralised, by the shameless exhibition of anti-Muslim sentiment we’ve seen. I had not realised this prejudice lay just skin-deep in so many of us, and how easily it can surface. But when it exploded, there was no hiding or disguising it. We targeted and demonised Muslim vegetable vendors and milk sellers, vented our rage on Muslim patients in hospitals in Meerut and Ahmedabad, and even ranted at the majority population in the Gulf, forgetting we are guests in their countries. In normal times, people hide their dislikes. They’re even embarrassed to admit them. But over the last 40 days, we brazenly displayed ours. Consequently, we made tens of millions of our fellow citizens feel hated and unwanted, just because they are Muslim.
I don’t want to name names or point fingers because we all know who are among the guilty. It includes many who are powerful, several who are rich, a large number whose values or intelligence I once admired and, yes, a few who are dear to me. This hateful prejudice has cut across class, caste, creed, region and language. It’s a bit like the virus in that respect. It infected many of us and we did not resist. While we fought the coronavirus disease valiantly, we allowed vile prejudice to vanquish us.
I blame the media for fanning this fire and I accuse the government of letting the flames burn. For the last 40 days, we were scared, and fear can make people behave erratically, even irresponsibly. That’s why the media has a duty to be wise and balanced. It wasn’t. Instead, it scratched our scars and made stories of the bleeding. A few of our television anchors even made us feel our prejudice was justified. As far as I’m concerned, they can never redeem themselves.
However, it’s the government I feel most let down by. In a crisis, you look to it for leadership. That’s why in wars or pandemics, we automatically rally around the flag. In return, we expect guidance. That’s not only what to do but, equally important, what must never be done. This is where our government failed us. It merely hinted. It did not advise and it certainly did not admonish. It let us behave abominably and gave me, at least, the impression it had no problem with that.
The other example of our wretchedness is the way we’ve treated doctors, nurses, and health workers. Frankly, this is inexplicable. They are the only people who can keep us safe and well, and yet, we turned on them like ungrateful curs because we feared they might infect us. Honestly, I don’t know of any other country where the hand that keeps us alive has been bitten by the very people who might need it the most.
At least in this instance, our government did act, forcefully and with alacrity. But that only raises the disturbing question: Why did it choose not to similarly confront the anti-Muslim sentiment raging in our midst for weeks. Weeks, did I say? Months. You and I know that’s the truth. And it only makes the question more pressing. It also makes the answer more necessary.