Polling officials check polling materials at a booth on the eve of the fourth phase of gram panchayat elections, in UP’s Mathura on April 28. (File photo) PREMIUM
Polling officials check polling materials at a booth on the eve of the fourth phase of gram panchayat elections, in UP’s Mathura on April 28. (File photo)

From UP, a tale of the failure of the Indian state

Sending teachers to death on forced election duty, even as the second wave of the pandemic was engulfing the country, represents outright criminality
UPDATED ON MAY 14, 2021 05:44 PM IST

You’ve lost your father to Covid too,” Vashvi Shukla, a 15-year-old school student said to me quietly. “You know exactly how I am feeling — like I have no security, no one to watch over me.” As she spoke to me, from Uttar Pradesh (UP), she consoled her desolate mother, Savita, whose husband, Abhishekh, a schoolteacher, died from Covid-19 on April 21.

Except, Vashi’s father, all of 42-years-old, unlike mine, was quite literally sent to certain death, along with at least 706 other schoolteachers (teachers’ unions in UP say the fatalities stand at 1,000 and counting; the government has disputed the numbers), in an egregious, unforgivable, criminal decision to force them on election duty at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Could the elections not have been held online or not held at all?” Vashvi asks me, “Or is it that their dirty politics means that they have no value for human life? In fact, they have no humanity at all.”

The abdication by the Indian State, at multiple levels, through the pandemic’s second wave — variously incompetent, ignorant and insensitive — has led to a massive man-made calamity. We are still reeling from the galling, inexplicable, unscientific and immoral decision to have persisted with mass political gatherings and electoral activity through the pandemic.

Whether it was the eastern state of Bengal, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi only suspended his own physical election campaign in the third week of April or elections for local bodies in UP, as citizens, we have still not called out the Indian State for consciously endangering the lives of its people.

The murderous scandal in UP has received some muted public and media attention but hardly commensurate with the wilful manner in which it robbed thousands of citizens of free will and choice and consigned them to their deaths. The Yogi Adityanath government has argued that the decision to hold panchayat elections was forced on it by the courts.

Also Read | Uttar Pradesh reports 15,747 new Covid-19 cases, tally goes past 1.59 million

But families left bereft by sudden death — and almost each death was preceded by a desperate hunt for hospitals, oxygen and treatment — tell me the state authorities threatened them with police cases, criminal action and even losing their jobs if their family members did not turn up for poll duty.

Among those who died was Kalyani, eight months pregnant. Her husband, Deepak, told me being a teacher meant everything to his wife and she was fearful of losing her job if she didn’t show up for poll duty. With Deepak unemployed himself, the family could not afford the economic risk.

Disturbing accounts of threats have come from literally every family I have spoken to over the last week. Entire families have been wiped out in some districts. Aniket and his sister Preeti lost their parents, Lallan and Meena, both teachers, both deputed on election duty.

Aniket told me that as his father lay battling for his life in the intensive care unit, he received a call from an administration official “demanding a written explanation, with the warning of possible criminal action”. His sister, Preeti, also a school teacher forced into poll duty, was unequivocal: “My parents have been murdered. The state killed them.”

Worse, families that were able to access medical intervention during the dying hours of their relatives, drew from their meagre life savings to pay exorbitant fees at private hospitals. Not only were they consigned to death; they were made to pay the bill for it.

Santosh Pandey, whose brother Ramanujan died in his early 40s, says it was as like being told, “Dhakel Diya, Jaao Maro (Here, we are pushing you over the cliff, go die).” As the underbelly of a callous, dysfunctional Indian officialdom stands exposed, different institutions are passing the blame around from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party state government to the state election commission to the courts. “The entire system stands exposed,” says Pandey, asking the imperative question; “If we had to be sent on election duty, could we not have at least been vaccinated before being deployed?”

Also Read | All in a day: 58,000 book slots,10,000 skip jabs in Uttar Pradesh

“My son sacrificed his life for democracy,” argues the ageing mother of Ashwini Tiwari, another government teacher who died from Covid-19 after being assigned poll duty. “I just want his contribution to be recognised.”

The truth is the precise opposite. Elections at the peak of the pandemic did not uphold democracy; they twisted and subverted its very spirit. A brutal Indian State and all of its instruments were turned on the very people it is meant to protect. The same court that declined to postpone the elections has now stepped in instructing monetary compensation to the families of those who have died.

“We are not people for them,” says Vashvi through tears. “We are just numbers”.

If ever there was a microcosm of the failed Indian state’s response to the Covid-19 calamity, it is to be found in the deliberate carnage inflicted on the homes of the unsuspecting community of teachers of Uttar Pradesh.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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