18/08/2017 3:20 PM IST | Updated 18/08/2017 3:42 PM IST

The Gorakhpur Deaths Prove Political Convenience Trumps Governance For Politicians Looking To Shift Blame

While politicians are quick to point fingers, they hardly ever take responsibility.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In polarized times every tragedy is fodder for 'gotcha politics'. That is only to be expected.

Thus no prizes for guessing the political leanings of those who are virtuously shaking their fingers at those who see the failure of Yogi Adityanath's government in the BRD Hospital in Gorakhpur. Also rest assured that had this happened in Bengal, the same people who are exhorting us to not politicise a human tragedy, would be pointing fingers at the Trinamool government and demanding that Mamata Banerjee be held accountable.

The tragedy of the horror of Gorakhpur is not politicians trying to score political points off it. The real tragedy is that 70 years after Independence, Gorakhpur still happens. And that when it happens, our political leaders spend most of their effort in passing the buck, ducking accountability.

This is not about BJP vs Congress vs anyone else. No one really believes that had Gorakhpur happened in another state ruled by a different party, the response would have been radically different from the ruling political class there.

We would have heard the same parade of excuses.

As many, if not more children died under a previous administration. What about that? In such a big country tragedies have happened before and have happened during Congress rule as well.

Many children die in August from encephalitis. This is being blown out of proportion.

This is a time for compassion, not politics.

This was a conspiracy to malign the government.

This was one incident. The government's intention to serve the poor must not be doubted based on one incident.

The first step towards addressing the issue is to take personal responsibility for it because you are the chief minister, or the health minister, and this happens on your watch

The media is sensationalising one story. This is fake news. They are not writing about dengue preparedness in other states.

The relevant minister just did not know. He was just never informed until it was too late.

Mistakes have been made. Note the passive voice.

Yogi Adityanath went to Gorakhpur and reminded us he has been fighting against encephalitis since 1996. He promised the guilty will not be spared. He turned emotional because in politics these days tough guys do cry.

What was missing however was the simple act of taking responsibility.

Political opponents have pointed out that Lal Bahadur Shastri once tendered his resignation as railways minister after the Ariyalur train accident while his grandson Siddharth Nath Singh still remains health minister in UP.

But resignation is not the point, responsibility is. The first step towards addressing the issue is to take personal responsibility for it because you are the chief minister, or the health minister, and this happens on your watch, whether or not you were personally responsible for that oxygen supply. Without that act of taking responsibility there can be no institutional accountability. All we have is a conveyer belt of assigning blame that just keeps moving.

In 1956, after Shastri offered his resignation, Jawaharlal Nehru said, "in a matter of this kind, no excuse is good enough and the thing that has moved all of us is that the same type of disaster should occur, broadly speaking, in the same area or nearby twice within a short period and three times in the course of a year or two. All of us are very unhappy over the tragedy but I am sure - in fact I know it - that probably the unhappiest among all of us is the Railway Minister."

One could accuse of Nehru of not living up to his own high-minded words in many cases but that sense of taking moral responsibility is something that has steadily been whittled out of public service.

What matters is that 70 years after Independence we have enshrined taking offence as a fundamental right.

Yogi Adityanath said this would never happen again, that a probe had been ordered, that this is something he has been drawing attention to for years, that he would make sure the guilty got "standard setting" punishment. Everything was in that speech except for taking moral responsibility.

At the same time as Gorakhpur was on the front pages, writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was also in the news. The 2015 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Purashkar winner has been the target of online abuse for his book The Adivasi Will Not Dance. He has been burned in effigy for portraying his community in a "bad light". Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das who belongs to the BJP asked the state's chief secretary to seize all copies of the book and initiate legal proceedings. Opposition MLA Sita Soren, of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, said the book was derogatory to Santhal women. Hemant Soren, leader of the opposition demanded a ban on the book. Soon the writer, a doctor, was suspended from government service for not taking permission to write the book.

Liberals pointed out that this was indeed 'acche din' for book banning and intolerance. But of course the fact of the matter is the opposition Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was arm-in-arm with the BJP government on this issue. It does not matter which political party is up in arms this time. What matters is that 70 years after Independence we have enshrined taking offence as a fundamental right. We are not just thin-skinned. We have understood that being thin-skinned is a potent weapon for political mobilisation.

In that all political parties are equal opportunity offenders. If the Congress bowed to pressure from some Muslims groups on The Satanic Verses, and the CPI(M) in Bengal did the same to Taslima Nasreen, today the BJP and the JMM decided to take offence on behalf of Santhals. Each time this happens another group, whether big or small, understands the real power of taking offence.

In 1861, Michael Madhusudan Dutt wrote an epic poem Meghnad Badh Kavya imagining the Ramayana story from the point of view of Meghnad, the son of Ravana, portrayed here as tragic. It's a famous poem, praised by Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and part of the syllabus in Bengal. In a new Bengali movie, Meghnad Badh Rohosyo, a character wonders if that book would even be permissible today. It's a valid point. The even more valid point being made in a #StandWithSowvendra campaign viz "How can a story – fiction – shame a community more than the realities of poverty and dispossession that the story seeks to highlight?"

Seventy years after Independence, that's something to think about. It's a strange and bleak coincidence that both events happened around this time. Both in the end are stories about a society cutting off its own oxygen supply, in one case figuratively and in one case literally.

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