Right To Grieve

Of ‘Burning Pyres and Mass Graves’

Joydip Ghosal

In’ Burning Pyres, Mass Graves And A State That Failed It’s People, India’s Covid Tragedy’ (Publisher–Speaking Tiger) eminent scholar and social activist Harsh Mander attempted a concurrent comprehensive history of experience in India of the gravest health emergency in a century. This book is on the colossal tragedy and horrors of second wave. In the introduction part of the book he affirmed that this book is an act of remembering of the lives that were lost. Simultaneously it pays tribute to those valiant unsung heroes who laid down their lives to save others. In an interview with ChittajitMitra published in The Hindu he told that he wrote to rescue collective experience of the pandemic from collective amnesia. He also wrote to find hope between grief and rage. Hope because ordinary people rose to the occasion. They helped each other when the establishment failed spectacularly. According to him people treated them as utilities, not in their full autonomous humanity.

The burning Pyres on city sidewalks, the mass graves, the floating bodies in the rivers indicated the vulnerable state of affairs and cataclysmic failures of the state. This book brings to the fore the gravity of the culpability of the state which failed abysmally its citizens “when they needed it the most.” This book was interspersed with a feeling of rage and grief as one reads the account of tumult of death and sickness. The author aptly said that at that horrific time people were ordained to grapple with regrets, to nurture memories and to chart life anew in a world which was devoid of loved ones. Harsh Mander in this book mentioned a write-up by Anna Kurien where she poignantly asked if the life lost during the second wave were grievable! She quoted Judith Butler who wrote in Precarious Life how an obituary marked out a life that was grievable. According to Kurien more people had fell into the category of non- grievable lives. The pandemic swelled the number of those whose life was not worth-valuing. According to Kurien it was tantamount to the death of those in Bhopal Gas tragedy or in Partition. It is nothing but ‘erasure of millions.’ Harsh Mander unequivocally stressed that one cannot permit the state to drown people into constructed amnesia. He upheld the right to grieve to underline that every life lost was of value.

In order to buttress his argument Harsh Mander cited numerous statistics .Oxfam reported that daily wage labourers topped the number of people who committed suicides in 2020.Oxfam India’s 2023 Inequality report titled’ Survival of the Richest’ displayed that the chasm between two classes was widening further. One comes to know from this book the humanitarian crisis offered an opportunity to the super rich of this country to multiply their wealth at a mind-boggling, dizzying rate. In no uncertain terms the author pointed out the astronomical increase of wealth of Adani group. Quite obviously the reference of development economist Jean Dreze came in this book who calculated that it would take a million years for 100 workers with statutory minimum wages to earn the wealth that Adani had amassed through pandemic years.

Amplified hysterical media reports, flames of hate aided by trolls pervaded the country at that time. Fake videos depicted the minorities in poor lights. In the chapter titled ‘Did the corona virus turn Muslim?’ Harsh Mander cited the case study of two researchers SoundaryaIyer and ShoibalChakravarty. They found 11,074 stories published from 271 media sources with the term TablighiJamat from 20 March to 20 April. ‘Violating’, ‘terrorist’, ‘spitting ', ' Jihad’ frequently cropped up in those stories . According to the researchers these stories fed into the Islamophobic fake stories masquerading as news and hate speech. During the food distribution services the author came across many stories of these vilification campaigns. Muslim truck drivers were roughed up in Arunachal Pradesh. In Dhankot village in Haryana unknown men fired at local mosque. In Mahoba district in UP two vegetable vendors were beaten up by mob who castigated them of being Tablighis and for spreading corona virus.

Some Muslim volunteers who worked for Karwan –e- Mohabbat in the countrywide feeding campaign reported that they were gruffly turned away from Hindu settlements when they went there to distribute dry rations.

In this book Harsh Mander deftly combined hard data with ground reports and fast hand knowledge. From the fringe of the city, highways, overcrowded quarantine centres he brought out the stories of migrant workers. He traced the causes of oxygen shortage to the dismal state of public health in India. He categorically pointed out that it was the consequence of the public policy choice made by central government. He made an interesting observation that health inequalities were even more skewed in India because of the historically embedded social inequalities. Citing the observation of The Wire he showed that massive accessibility difference between rich and poor ran much deeper than that created by digital divide. This book showed that traumatic months of the lethal pandemic laid bare India’s broken society. According to the author the near complete estrangement of privileged people from the working class people was clearly evident. This book chronicled the horror and colossal apathy of the state. In order to understand the socio-political aspects of the pandemic this book is an essential read.

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Vol 56, No. 30, Jan 21 - 27, 2024