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'You can't blame the people of India!

Last updated on: June 26, 2021 09:00 IST

'What was the message that was going to them?'
'The message was, we are a great country and we have beaten Covid!'
'No one talked about the precautions to be taken.'

Caution: Graphic content. Viewer discretion advised.

IMAGE: Family members perform the last rites of a COVID-19 victim at the Ulubari cremation ground in Guwahati, June 12, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

Four years ago, in June 2017, disturbed by events in the country, a group of retired bureaucrats formed a group and wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi expressing their concern.

They have written many letters since.

A recent letter spoke about how pained they were about the way the government handled the second wave of coronavirus cases. This was followed by a letter on the 'disturbing developments' in Lakshadweep.

One of the signatories of the letter was the 1964 batch Indian Foreign Service officer, Deb Mukharji who served as India's ambassador and high commissioner to Nigeria, Bangladesh and Nepal.

In the first part of this exclusive interview with's Shobha Warrier, Ambassador Mukharji talks about why this distinguished group of civil servants and diplomats are writing to the prime minister of India.


The recent open letter to the PM said that the way the second wave was handled by the government pained all of you.
Was it a failure on the part of the political leadership or the bureaucracy?

Let me say first that neither the people nor the government can be blamed for the pandemic itself from wherever it may have come.

Our objection was the manner in which it was handled, or not handled, so that the effects of the pandemic became far more severe for the people of India.

I won't go into details of how the pandemic was not dealt with when it first appeared until certain local political issues were resolved.

Delaying action until the government in MP was removed was a shameful episode.

But the approach of the government at the highest level was deeply unsatisfactory, particularly that of Prime Minister Modi.

You must understand that Mr Modi is a great communicator.

What he says carries great weight with the people of India. They believe what he says.

As enjoined by him people across India came out on their balconies and on streets on March 22nd last year to blow conch shells and clash cymbals to express solidarity with the health workers, even as the first phase of COVID-19 spread its tentacles.

The prime need to wear masks and for maintaining social distancing was lost in this festive narrative.

When Mr Modi drew a parallel with the Mahabharata war and declared that that war was won in eighteen days and this would be won in twenty one, people believed him. Perhaps he did so himself.

What happened later was much worse.

Throughout last year, the doctors, the scientists and many other experts, at home and abroad, had cautioned the government that there might be a second wave and so the government had to be on guard.

IMAGE: The body of a COVID-19 victim at a crematorium in Agra, April 19, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

By then, the second wave had already arrived in the UK and Europe...

Yes, it had happened in the UK and Europe. The example was before us.

In fact, our own parliamentary panel said that we must ramp up hospital beds and oxygen supply. But nothing was done.

Instead they kept on boasting that we had beaten the pandemic, we were the world leaders in vaccine production and the world could learn from what we had done, etc.

We thumped our chests and apparently started believing our own loud words.

You feel people got the wrong message that we had indeed defeated the virus and became complacent?

Oh, absolutely. Modi sent the message to the people that everything was fine, the situation was under control, and that India was swabhiman, India was taking care and so on...

While the rest of the world anticipated how much vaccination they would need and ordered enough vaccine as early as last July itself, we waited till this year before we woke up to the reality!

Then, we never seemed to have made any calculation on how many doses we would need to vaccinate the 1.36 billion people. This is criminal negligence.

That is also one of the criticisms against the government; that in the name of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, the government chose to depend on just two vaccines which resulted in a huge vaccine shortage now...

You mention our own two vaccine manufacturers. Even they were not encouraged, or money put in for them to ramp up production.

And the leading manufacturer had to flee India as he was receiving death threats.

It is unbelievable that the government did not foresee the situation we would be in, including the vaccine shortage.

In addition to this is the Kumbh Mela which could have been postponed by a year to the original date.

IMAGE: Bodies lined up for cremation at the Hindon river crematorium in Ghaziabad, April 20, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

Do you feel the second wave exploded to this magnitude because of the elections and also the Kumbh Mela where lakhs of people had assembled?

Undoubtedly. A wise chief minister who wanted the Kumbh Mela to be observed under restrictions, was summoned to Delhi and summarily dismissed.

His replacement removed all restrictions and declared that no devotee need fear Covid in the lap of Ma Ganga.

The shahi snans went with tens of thousands participating with no restraints. It is perhaps the bodies of many of those floating down the Ganga in UP.

I see that Bihar has just admitted that Covid deaths are twice what had been announced earlier.

There are credible reports that doctors in some states were advised not to acknowledge deaths as Covid related.

Unfortunately, there is no accountability for the criminal negligence which has caused this tragic chain of events and loss of human lives.

You mention elections. Yes, of course. Even accepting the elections had to proceed, the Election Commission showed complete unawareness of the Covid raging in the country.

The Madras high court has criticised the EC for not taking note of contraventions of the Covid code during elections.

The eight phase polls in West Bengal making possible a huge number of rallies with tens of thousands of people to listen to the prime minister and the home minister contributed to the spread of the disease, even as the prime minister revelled at the turnouts.

Who according to you is responsible for the death of so many people? Reports say that more than 2 lakh people died in the second wave...

Since the prime minister claims to be in charge in all matters, he has to accept the prime responsibility.

As I mentioned earlier, the Election Commission has to be held accountable for the manner in which the Bengal polls were conducted.

You can't blame the people of India! What was the message that was going to them? The message was, we are a great country and we have beaten Covid! No one talked about the precautions to be taken.

Yes, we can't blame all the deaths on the government, but there is no denying their ineptitude and inefficiency in taking steps to prevent a disaster of this magnitude when they had the whole of last year to prepare themselves and the country.

How do you see the Aatmanirbhar narrative which prevented the government from procuring more vaccines but resulted in accepting aid from the rest of the world, ranging from medicines to oxygen during the peak of the second wave?

At one level, giving pride and confidence to the people is a good thing.

But this becomes quite complicated and not a good thing when Aatmanirbharta is interpreted to assist some of our business houses so that they face no competition from the world.

Aatmanirbharta is simply a hollow word which is now coming to haunt us, when you are out there with a begging bowl.

You talk about the image of India, but you can't have an image that is different from the reality of corpses floating in the river or of the burning crematoriums.

That is the reality of India.

If you worry about the image of India, you should be concerned about the people of India who were choking to death due to lack of medical facilities.

IMAGE: Beneficiaries wait to receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose at a vaccination centre in Gurugram, June 12, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

When they are so concerned about the image of the country, why this persecution complex, saying the whole world is out to defame India?

This is nothing new. When governments get into trouble, they always try to find the foreign hand.

This was done by Indira Gandhi in the seventies too; they saw the hands of the CIA everywhere.

But let us also realise one fundamental difference between the past and now.

The negative projection of India abroad today is simply because the reality is so awful.

Hundreds of thousands of people are dying without medical care, their bodies consigned to rivers as there is no wood to cremate them.

Vaccination schedules are announced with fanfare - and then withdrawn because there are no vaccines.

While dealing with foreign criticism, you should realise that you cannot hide things today.

It is we who have let our people down and shamed ourselves in the eyes of the world with claims of great success followed by seeking global assistance.

Never in the past seventy years has India been so embarrassed internationally.

Those so concerned with the image of India abroad might spare a thought for our own people choking in the streets for lack of vaccination or oxygen.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/