On an early morning in 1964, a tall and handsome twenty-three-year-old American, Robert (Bob) Thurman hurriedly walked past groups of pilgrims, prayer flags, bicycles, ramshackle homes, and barking dogs. It was a haphazard path framed by the snow-capped Himalayas and unevenly lit by the sun. That day he had an important appointment in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan exile community. He was scheduled to meet with His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
Three years earlier, in late spring of 1961, Thurman was changing a flat tyre of his racing car. All of a sudden the jack snapped striking his face and he lost his left eye. It was to be the turning point in his life and since then he had an unblinking glass eye. After the accident, he had an intense desire to go on a pilgrimage ‘from me to meaning’. The young westerner was born in New York City and raised on the Upper East Side. His mother Elizabeth Dean Farrar acted in the theatre and his father Beverly Reid Thurman, Jr. worked as an editor at the Associated Press. Even as a schoolboy at Exeter the elite New Hampshire boarding school he had displayed a clear-cut philosophical bent. Now he abandoned the exhausted culture of the west and made a plan to head east. He dropped out of Harvard, divorced his rich wife Christophe de Menil, the heiress to the Schlumberger fortune and wandered through Turkey, Iran, and finally reached India in November 1962. This was a time when India was filled with western romantics in search of otherworldliness. Barely able to take care of himself, wearing baggy Afghani trousers, leather sandals, and draped in a white shawl he was hired to teach English to young reincarnated Tibetan lamas in Dalhousie. At this stage, after having consumed Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger at Harvard he became a student of a sixty-one-year-old Mongolian monk, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. For the American yearning to escape a noisy and conflicted world of guns, tanks, aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons it was an intuitive experience. Thurman later explained, “It was like meeting a superior civilization, a civilisation that did not believe that human nature was inherently violent”. In the next ten weeks, Thurman mastered the Tibetan language and could translate classic Buddhist texts. Provoked by his teacher’s silent intensity he decided to live the life of a monk for the rest of his time on Earth. Geshe Wangyal was not convinced yet he grudgingly offered to introduce his student to His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. Soon after amid the prayer Om mani padme hum (Hail, the jewel in the lotus) and the sound of the revolving prayer wheels in nearby homes, Thurman got an audience with His Holiness. Thurman was just twenty-three and the Dalai Lama was twenty-nine.
Over two and a half decades before this meeting the Dalai Lama was a small boy who was born in a cowshed in a tiny farming community in northeast Tibet. A group of wise monks sent from Lhasa following the clues left by the previous Dalai Lama had arrived in his village. The search party sought the reincarnation of the Dalai (oceanwide) Lama (priest of Tibetan Buddhism). Following a prophecy they searched for a boy with tiger-striped legs, big, shell-like ears, and the imprint of a conch shell on the palm of his hand. They located Lhamo Dhondup, a two-year-old farmer’s son at his mud-and-stone house and subjected him to various mystical tests. He was asked to pick objects belonging to the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and he chose them correctly. That recognition brought a new title and way of life. Swiftly he was flung into a world he didn’t quite understand as he lived in the spectacular thousand room Potala Palace in Lhasa with its vast libraries. Compelled to suppress his mischievous personality he endured an exhausting education for nearly twenty years in Tibetan Buddhism. He eventually secured a Geshe degree (roughly equivalent to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy). Renamed Tenzin Gyatso, he blessed visitors to the secretive kingdom by offering white khata scarves. Suddenly one day that magical lifestyle came to an end. On 31 March 1959, the Dalai Lama dressed in a drab soldier’s uniform, a type of clothing he had never worn, his shaved head covered with a woolen cap and carrying a German Luger stood meters from India’s border post at Chuthangmu. He looked back fondly at his homeland bearing no ill will to his oppressors and knew India was his only hope. He then took a step that altered the direction of his life. Subsequently, on 3 April 1959, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gently rose in the Indian Parliament to confirm that the Dalai Lama had crossed into the Indian territory and had been granted political asylum by the Government of India. Members of Parliament welcomed the PM’s announcement with thunderous applause. The governments of the United Kingdom and America expressed pleasure in hearing the Indian PM’s statement. In the following years, the Dalai Lama was permitted to set up a government-in-exile in Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Five years later in 1964, His Holiness sat in his chapel across from the eager student of Buddhism, Robert Thurman. Dressed in a simple russet gown the Dalai Lama wore a saintly smile and his eyes were bright and warm behind his large glasses. In broken English, the sophisticated thinker, consummate scholar armed with wisdom beyond his age, invited the westerner to study Tibetan medicine, astronomy, and Buddhism. Years later His Holiness remembered, “Thurman first came to Dharamsala in 1964… He was dressed as a monk and had only one eye like Nagarjuna’s disciple Aryadeva…”. Thurman in a talk confessed, “I wasn’t that into Tibet per se. I was really into India. But the thing is that the Indian Buddhist great revolution in the world, great manifestation in the world, is preserved in Tibet very powerfully and lost in India. So that was, I think, why I was so captivated by the Tibetans, not to mention the Dalai Lama’s personality…” In those grueling months of learning, Thurman regularly woke up every day at three in the morning to meditate and study scriptures. Raring to absorb as much as he could he spent time with the Dalai Lama who in turn interrogated him about Plato, Jefferson, Freud, the American Constitution, World War Two and widened his grasp of western civilization. The following year, Thurman was ordained by His Holiness himself, taking 252 vows that focused on a philosophy of nonviolence, compassion, and selflessness, making him the first Tibetan Buddhist monk born in the West. This was also the first time an American had been so honored. Thus began the remarkable friendship between a simple Buddhist monk and his American disciple that prospers till today. His Holiness in an interview remarked, “I feel that Americans are interested (in Buddhism) because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are. Open-minded people tend to be interested in Buddhism because Buddha urged people to investigate things–he didn’t just command them to believe. Also, your education tends to develop the brain while it neglects the heart, so you have a longing for teachings that develop and strengthen the good heart.”
Thurman dressed in a maroon robe and with a shaved head returned to New York in 1966 when America was at the height of the cultural revolution. He found himself ill-equipped for the monastic life and after one and half years dramatically renounced his vows though he did not quit the rigorous Buddhist practices. Instead, he returned to the American equivalent of the monastery: the university and went back to Harvard to complete his unfinished degree. At a party at the Hitchcock Estate in New York, he met the former famous model Nena von Schlebrugge. Soon the stunning ex-model and the striking ex-monk were married. In 1971 Thurman was awarded a Ph.D. in philosophy, based on his dissertation on the esoteric Buddhist doctrine of ‘Sunyata’ (voidness). Thereafter he embarked upon academic life at the Amherst College. Later he was appointed the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He was acclaimed as a riveting lecturer who covered the sweep of history, the subtleties of the inner science of the psyche as well as the wonders of the life of the heart. In time he gained respect as the rock star professor of religious studies. Students called his classes “life changing”. Thurman in a media interview expounded, “There’s a stereotype that Buddhism is quietistic: leave the world, drop out…. drop dead basically…”. He reasoned that meditation can also release enormous amounts of energy.
Captivated by the middle path of the Buddha, Thurman created the field of Buddhology and as one of America’s most famous Buddhists heightened the awareness of mind science all over the country. After writing substantial scholarly works, he authored best sellers and lectured in the public intellectual tradition. His belief in the Three Precious Jewels of Tibetan Buddhism: the Buddha, the Doctrine, and the Community and with remarkable insight into eastern spirituality, attracted a global audience. With his swatch of thick hair perched above his glasses in his booming voice, the brilliant populariser of the Buddha’s teachings declared, “I invite you to embrace a new reality. I invite you to awaken to the infinite life you already have, no matter what your worldview. I invite you to take up responsibility for your own destiny. I invite you to take advantage of your priceless humanness to make a definitive turn towards ultimate security, complete freedom, and unbounded happiness. Thanks to the Tibetan people, especially their living saviour, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his various emanations, I have found basic sanity in my lifelong quest.” The Dalai Lama appreciated his disciple’s lasting allegiance to Buddhism stating, “He became a professor and has dedicated his academic career to elucidating Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings and aspects of the Gelugpa tradition… Je Tsongkhapa wrote about the great Indian texts and Thurman has taken special interest in that body of work. I’d like to acknowledge that here and thank him.” As part of Thurman’s long-term commitment to the renaissance of Tibetan civilization at the request of his teacher, he co-founded Tibet House in 1987 initially with Tenzin Tethong, Richard Gere, and Philip Glass. Since then Thurman’s daughter Uma, a film star has served on the Board. Feted by Washington, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the academic elite, Time chose Thurman as one of its twenty-five most influential Americans in 1997, describing him as a “larger than life scholar-activist destined to convey the Dharma, the precious teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, from Asia to America.” The New York Times wrote Thurman “is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” And in 2020, the Government of India bestowed a Padma Shri to Thurman.
Earlier in 1995, Thurman did the fifty-two kilometres circumambulation of Mount Kailash, the pilgrimage site in western Tibet considered the sacred axis mundi of Central Asian cosmology. Out of the blue, Thurman became aware of the presence of two other people inside his head. They seemed like great scholars – one from the twentieth century and the other, a Mongolian, from another time. It was his realization of his earlier lives on Earth. Thurman later claimed, “After forty years of involvement with Buddhism I consider reincarnation the most scientifically and empirically validate-able, relational description of the life process and how life and death work… I refute the materialist idea that the mind is the epiphenomenon of the brain. And it’s become a matter of conviction…” Addressing death, Thurman insists that he is “unintimidated by death. It’s liberation, transformation. The awareness of death is the door for us to be alive.”
Now at seventy-nine, Thurman living the life of the mind refuses to slow down. Active on social media he is tireless in his efforts to awaken others to the teachings of the Buddha. Along with his wife Nena, he has founded the Menla Mountain Retreat, a Tibet-inspired spa and wellness facility in the Catskill Mountains of New York that has been blessed by the Dalai Lama. Here using his powerful lectures, the charismatic teacher invites the audience to turn toward the East and to contemplate with all the capabilities of the Western mind the attractions of the Eastern spirit as represented in Buddhism. Thurman, the proponent of an inner revolution within each one of us believes, “To finish building the free society dreamed of by Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, we must draw upon the resources of the enlightened imagination, which can be systematically developed by the spiritual sciences of India and Tibet. We have not yet tamed our own demons of racism, nationalism, sexism and materialism… none of us can be really free until all of us are”.
That for Bob Thurman is a path for a peaceful future for all humankind and our planet.
Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal’. He is currently writing ‘The Path of Gautam Buddha’. The views expressed are personal.
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HOW SHALL NIGHT CURFEW CURTAIL COVID CASES WHEN DAY NORMS ARE FLOUTED?
The Delhi government as well as several other political dispensations around the country have imposed night curfew, supposedly to check the surge in Covid cases. While the declaration appeals to a number of people, the logic behind this exercise is unexplainable. There are a very few citizens who are on the road between 10 pm and 5 am as compared to the remaining period during which so much activity is witnessed both in public spaces and also in offices and other establishments. The curfew suggests that the Covid pandemic is transmitted mostly at night and hence it was paramount to somehow discourage any kind of movement in this period. The better thing would be that the corona norms should be observed and enforced during the day time when there is a tendency on part of many people to flout the rules and regulations. Any visit to the crowded markets of Sarojini Nagar and Karol Bagh would prove that by and large. The citizens have apparently thrown caution to the winds and been violating even the basics. In the walled city, there are very few people who can be seen wearing masks or observing social distancing. All these precautions are a must since the vaccines are no guarantee that the ailment would not afflict even those who had been vaccinated. A huge controversy over a certain type of vaccine has broken out in Europe and the UK where cases of blood clotting have been reported.
Back in India, Maharashtra has seen the maximum spike and even Delhi is not far behind. Politics over the availability of the vaccine has come into play with state governments accusing the Centre of not sending sufficient supplies. The Union government is also being attacked for sending vaccines to other countries when the domestic needs have not been met. The Health Ministers of several states have locked horns with Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan over the issue. This is really unfortunate since there should be no politics over the pandemic and all concerned whether in states or at the Centre must work unitedly to provide as much relief as possible to people. Fortunately, in India, the spread of the virus was not as pronounced in the first phase as compared to many other countries. This may have been due to a better immunity system but all the same, it does not mean that precautions should not be taken. A person has no business to put someone else’s life at a risk and must cooperate with the authorities fully. The state governments also must take pragmatic steps instead of putting various businesses and vocations in difficulty of some kind.
The economy has suffered drastically since the demonetisation took place and the prolonged lockdown has made things worse. People have to both survive and fend for their families. Therefore, any step which deprives someone of livelihood should not be taken unless it is an urgent requirement to preserve the life of a greater number of people. The night curfew announcement has surprised many since there are restrictions in Delhi, Noida and Ghaziabad but none in Gurgaon and Faridabad. Surely, the virus is not region specific. People must cooperate and make this fight against the pandemic a success.
What ‘emancipation’ is China celebrating today?
Even after the bloody events of 1959, which saw the massacre of Tibetans, led to the flight of the Dalai Lama and established the Communist Party’s chokehold on Tibet, how can the Chinese administration and media celebrate the region’s ‘emancipation’ and ‘peaceful liberation’?
During the recent US-China Summit, Yang Jiechi, member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party and senior-most Chinese diplomat, bluntly told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “The Chinese people are wholly rallying around the Communist Party of China. Our values are the same as the common values of humanity. Those are: peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom and democracy.” He continued for several minutes criticizing the US for its human rights record, “We do not believe in invading through the use of force, or to topple other regimes through various means, or to massacre the people of other countries, because all of those would only cause turmoil and instability in this world.”
India has recently had a different experience with China in Ladakh. However, there is an abyss between the Chinese leader’s words and what is happening in the Middle Kingdom. One typical example is the grand celebrations of the so-called Serf Emancipation Day on March 28. It is the greatest lie ever told concerning Tibet.
What is this ‘emancipation’? March 28, 1959, marks the end of the massacre of the Tibetan population in Lhasa and the placing of tight control over the Tibetan capital by Beijing. The Dalai Lama was sacked as chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), was replaced by a more pliant Panchen Lama and had just fled the Roof of the World to take refuge in India.
The Communist Party, which has forgotten the 40 or 50 million deaths during the Great Leap Forward, the 10 million or so Chinese who perished during the cruel Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or closer to our times, the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, still ‘celebrates’ the Emancipation of the Tibetans.
Several non-Tibetan accounts of the events of March 1959, including the popular uprising, the flight of the Dalai Lama, the massacre of the Tibetan population and finally the so-called ‘emancipation’—all this in less than three weeks—are today in the public domain. In his ‘Report for the months of March, April and May 1959’ sent to the Ministry of External Affairs, Maj S.L. Chibber, the Indian Consul General in Lhasa said, “In the history of movement for free Tibet, the month of March, 1959, will be most historic… during this month Tibetans high and low, in Lhasa, capital of Tibet, openly challenged the Chinese rule… the might of [the] PLA, who on March 20, 1959, started an all-out offensive against the ill-organised, ill-equipped and untrained Tibetans with artillery, mortars, machine guns and all types of automatic weapons, was short-lived.” Chibber continued, “On March 28, 1959, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China dissolved the local Tibet Government and transferred all its functions and powers to the Preparatory Committee for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).”
R.S. Kapur, another Indian official posted as Indian Trade Agent in Gyantse, wrote in his Annual Report for the year 1959, “The year 1959 will go down as the most important year in the history of Tibet. It marked an end to the way of life of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama, who felt that he could no longer function effectively, left his country in March. …With Opposition out of the country, Chinese got a free hand and they went all out to subjugate the country. People have been deprived of their movable and immovable property.” He further asserted, “While the heart of Tibet was bleeding, the free world only made speeches. With the end of the debate on Tibet in the United Nations, Tibetans lost all hopes of their survival, stared at the sky with blank eyes and asked: Where is God? Where is Buddha?”
Another publication, The 1959 Tibetan Uprising Documents: The Chinese Army Documents, released a few years ago, used documents from the PLA’s Military Intelligence, which corroborated Chibber’s version of the bloody events of 1959.
But sixty-two years later, the Chinese media is full of the ‘liberation and emancipation’ of the serfs in 1959. A number of interviews have been published by Xinhua and its affiliates; one mentions a place called Khesum, “the name of a manor in Tibet, and also the name of a living hell for 302 serfs there.” The actual fact is that it was the ordinary people, the ‘masses’ in Communist jargon, who revolted against the occupiers in 1959. The Chinese propaganda wants us to believe that “the misery and serfdom that defined the Khesum of old are [today] nothing more than a distant memory.” Everything is fine in Tibet, according to Beijing.
Another article in China Daily notes, “This year marks not only the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC, but also the 70th anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet… Seventy years ago, under the guidance of the CPC, Tibetan people started to enter a new era of progress, prosperity and openness.” Quoting a puppet legislator, it continues in the same vein: “Over the past 70 years, Tibet has stepped out of the primitive society of agriculture and animal husbandry, and transformed into a society of industrialization and information.”
Xinhua quotes a former ‘serf’ Pasang, born in 1934 in a village near Shigatse, “In the old times, the family of Pasang had to pay various taxes to serf owners, under whom the family led a miserable life. The taxes imposed were more numerous than ripples in the water and stars in the sky.”
Today all over the Land of Snows, the Tibetans have to take oath and swear by the Party. Take the case of Nyalam, close to the Tibet-Nepal border, where there has been “an upsurge of learning and propagating the Communist Party history” says China Tibet Network. The people in Nyalam are actively promoting the study of the Party’s history; “Learn Party History, Increase your Confidence [in the Party], Inherit the Red Gene,” is the motto.
Everyone has to learn from the Party’s history, “so that everyone deeply can feel the Chinese Communists’ hard work, perseverance, and wholeheartedly seeking happiness for the people.”
Even the PLA is not exempted: “Events marking the Party’s centenary will include theoretical seminars and themed forums, as well as a massive exhibition at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution. All activities will display the military’s love of the Party, the nation and the people” notes a PLA communiqué.
Referring to Xi Jinping’s leadership: “Every soldier should be loyal to the core, uphold the core, follow the core”. The objective is to make soldiers “appreciate the glorious truth about Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The American society (like the Western) might not be perfect, but can a totalitarian regime, like the present one in China, lecture others about ‘emancipation’ or ‘liberation’? The fact is that Tibetans, like the Uyghurs, have been enslaved by the Communist Party.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.
R.S. Kapur, an Indian official posted as Indian Trade Agent in Gyantse, wrote in his Annual Report for the year 1959, “The year 1959 will go down as the most important year in the history of Tibet. It marked an end to the way of life of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama, who felt that he could no longer function effectively, left his country in March.”
THE INTRIGUING DEBATE OF NEO-GENDER EQUALITY
The recent case of a Zomato delivery boy allegedly punching a social media ‘influencer’ he was delivering food to has brought to the fore a grotesque but rather imperative debate. While at the surface, the case is swinging between assault on a woman and a woman making false accusations—a classic case of ‘he said, she said’—recent developments have also brought out a class issue.
Whilst our law is supposed to provide for both a fair trial and presumption of innocence until proven guilty, do we really see that happen? Especially when the victim is a woman? Even the ones with memory like a sieve may recall a few of the countless number of such cases—at least the case in Rohtak where two sisters beat up three men in a bus, alleging that they were being ‘harassed’. They were quickly praised and nicknamed ‘bravehearts’ by the media, but as it turned out, the fight was over a seat dispute. The sisters subsequently failed a polygraph test while the ‘accused’ passed it and all charges were dropped eventually. But they haven’t been able to find employment due to the label and stigma attached to the case. In fact, a media report on the charges being dropped against them had the word ‘molesters’ as the first word in its headline. So much for objectivity.
In the ongoing Zomato controversy, ‘Instagram influencer’ Hitesha shared a horrendous video on her social media claiming that a Zomato delivery boy assaulted her after she tried to cancel her food order as he arrived 59 minutes late. As claimed, she suffered a nasal bone fracture during the scuffle. From the public to the media, everyone took her side and the Zomato boy, Kamaraj, was swiftly booked by the Bangalore Police. Later, Kamaraj busted Hitesha’s allegations and said that it was she who berated and abused him in filthy language and hurled slippers at him. When he tried to defend himself, the ring on her own finger hit her nose, added Kamaraj. The ‘victim’ fled the city out of the jurisdiction of the Bengaluru City Police after a counter FIR was lodged based on the complaint of Kamaraj. The police learnt of her disappearance after they tried to contact her for questioning following Kamaraj’s complaint. On the same day, she got support from an unexpected source—Bollywood.
Now common logic dictates that whenever Bollywood comes out in support of something or someone, it warrants some due diligence. Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta, who had dropped off the radar several years ago, resurfaced to support the influencer, calling everyone who supported the delivery agent “adumbass” and reiterated that an “educated urban woman ordered food” and that “since she ended up with a bleeding nose, there wasn’t supposed to be another side to it.” Note Dutta’s choice of words here—educated, urban and woman. Not only is this a case of “he said, she said” but also one of “she’s educated and urban, she can’t be wrong”: A clear-cut case of class issues.
As in every case, the principles of natural justice have been thrown out of the window and the ensuing media and the social media trials have ensured that Kamaraj is labelled for life. As I write this, Hitesha’s original video on Instagram has amassed nearly 2.5 crore views and her follower toll has reached lakhs. A cursory Google search for ‘Zomato Kamaraj and Hitesha’ will bring forth numerous reports from her side of the story. But when was the last time we heard from him?
There are three main takeaways from this case, up from the usual two that invariably arises out of such cases. The first is that of media trials and declaring one party guilty even before the facts are known. In many cases, the man is automatically deemed to be guilty, and in this case, the class difference is being used to add fuel to the fire.
The second and more important takeaway is the law itself. Our laws, in the matter of sexual assault and similar crimes, explicitly describe the victim as a woman and the perpetrator as a man. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, passed in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 only protects women from sexual assault, voyeurism, stalking and disrobing. Prior to the act becoming a law, it was a gender-neutral ordinance which attracted heavy flak from feminists and activists, resulting in the government retaining only acid attacks and attempted acid attacks as gender-neutral crimes.
The third takeaway from this case is a new one—the actual influence of “influencers” on social media. Hitesha’s case became viral only because she has nearly one lakh followers on Instagram. Influencers are to social media what film stars and celebrities were to traditional media. Social media users need to be made aware and should question what they see. After all, if influencers can ask their followers to question the government, why can’t normal users ask people to question influencers as well?
PM Modi’s war against Covid-19 and Opposition’s vaccine politics
India has surpassed the US to become the country with the fastest vaccination rate globally, with the number of people vaccinated on a single day, 5 April, 2021, exceeding 4.3 million people, vindicating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s measured and calibrated approach on this front.
Overall, till date, since the vaccination program started in India on 16 January 2021, over 91 million or 9.1 crore people have got the jab, 2.4 crore vaccine dosages are in stock and we have another 1.9 crore in the pipeline. India has vaccinated the third highest number of people globally. Humanitarianism has been amplified by the generous outreach of the Modi government, which has exported well over 60 million or over 6 crore Covid vaccines to over 76 nations under the WHO-monitored vaccine sharing initiative, COVAX. Naysayers who allege that India should not have sent vaccines to other countries conveniently forget that exporting vaccines is not merely about “vaccine maitri” or vaccine diplomacy. Coronavirus is the worst global pandemic to hit mankind in 102 years. International diplomacy apart, even from a humanitarian standpoint, India, given its status as a rising economic superpower, is obligated to assist and support those who are less fortunate. Don’t countries help each other when there are earthquakes, cyclones or catastrophic floods? So why should helping other nations during a debilitating pandemic be viewed any differently? Clearly, Prime Minister Modi’s war against the Wuhan virus has been guided by the abiding principles of “India First” and “Neighbourhood First”.
Experts opine that India should scale up the vaccination drive to stem the recent spike in cases by ramping up the inoculation drive in areas of high transmission to prevent the virus from spreading. What experts need to also understand is that it would be chaotic to simply make the jab a “free for all” kind of an exercise where anyone who wants the jab gets it. The issue at this stage is not a supply-side one to start with. Eight out of the ten high-risk zones reporting the highest number of daily cases are from the state of Maharashtra alone, which has the unique distinction of wasting 5 lakh vaccine dosages. Effectively, what this means is that states like Maharashtra need to reduce vaccine wastage and inoculate on a war footing. Despite availability, Maharashtra has had an average weekly positivity rate of 23.2%. To conveniently blame the Central Government for inadequate supplies, when the problem is actually that of inadequate and incompetent management by the utterly apathetic Shiv Sena-led MVA alliance, reeks of a poor attitude. Another example of gross mismanagement is Congress-ruled Punjab. On February 3, 2021, Punjab had only 2,122 active cases. Two months later, the number became 24,458, with cases rising exponentially in places like SAS Nagar, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana and Patiala.
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan summed up Maharashtra’s criminal lethargy succinctly when he said, “When states ask to open up vaccine supplies to everyone over 18, we must presume that they have done saturation coverage of healthcare workers, frontline workers and senior citizens. But the facts are altogether different. Maharashtra has vaccinated just 41% of healthcare workers with the second dose. Equivalent numbers for Delhi and Punjab are 41% and 27%. There are 12 Indian states/UTs that have done more than 60%. When it comes to senior citizens, Maharashtra has vaccinated just 25%, Delhi has vaccinated 30% and Punjab has vaccinated only 13%. There are four States/UTs that have already vaccinated more than 50%.” Maharashtra, Delhi or Punjab, all three are non-BJP ruled. In fact, with a weekly positivity rate of 13.8%, Chandigarh, like Maharashtra, is a textbook case of how shoddy governance can cause irreparable damage. Captain Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, is clearly overrated, given his absolutely dismal track record, be it in tackling farm issues or Covid, with Punjab reporting a high active caseload.
Dr Harsh Vardhan, elaborating on Maharashtra and Punjab further, said, “Doesn’t it seem evident that these states are trying to divert attention from their poor vaccination efforts by just continuously shifting the goalposts? Politicising such a public health issue is a damning indictment of certain political leaders who should know better. I have seen statements made by public representatives in Maharashtra about a shortage of vaccines. This is nothing but an attempt to divert attention from the Maharashtra government’s repeated failures to control the spread of the pandemic. The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis and state governments are being apprised regularly about it. Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless. It is shocking to see how the state government is putting Maharashtrians in danger by letting people escape the institutional quarantine mandate for the sake of their personal vasooli. Overall, as the state has lurched from one crisis to another, it seems as if the state leadership is happily sleeping at the wheel.”
The Union Health Minister also exposed the Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, and rightfully so. “Similarly, we have seen regular comments by leaders from Chhattisgarh that are intended to spread misinformation and panic on vaccination. I would like to humbly state that it would be better if the state government focusses its energies on ramping up their health infrastructure rather than on petty politicking,” said Dr Harsh Vardhan. The Chhattisgarh government, in fact, refused to use Covaxin despite it being given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Drug Controller General of India. Not only this, by its actions, Bhupesh Baghel’s government has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the only government in the world to have incited vaccine hesitancy.
Maharashtra, with only 8% of India’s population, has recorded the highest number of Covid deaths in India, accounting for 34% of the total country-wide deaths, in a classic case of embarrassing misgovernance under the MVA alliance. Again, Maharashtra, accounting for 60% of India’s active caseload, is currently a non-BJP-ruled state and led by a Congress-centric alliance. It is, in fact, one of the worst performing states, having reported almost 57,000 fatalities, with the corrupt MVA netas busy trying to ward off allegations of vasooli (extortion), rather than caring for the citizens of the state. In sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh, a BJP-ruled state, which has a massive population of over 200 million people and is almost the same size as Brazil, has reported less than 9,000 deaths. Brazil, in the meanwhile, has reported over 3.41 lakh mortalities.
On 16 January 2021, India, the world’s largest democracy with a population of 1.38 billion people, kickstarted the world’s largest Covid vaccination drive, with 2.07 lakh people vaccinated in a single day, across 3,351 sessions, involving 16,755 vaccinators. What makes India’s vaccination drive against Covid unique is its sheer size, scale and meticulous planning, guided by the humanitarian concept of “Jan Bhagidari”, or peoples’ participation. The plan is to inoculate 300 million or 30 crore “priority population” in the first two phases by July-August 2021, including 3 crore healthcare and frontline Covid workers. From March 1, 2021, the eligibility criterion was expanded to include people over 60 years of age and those between 45 and 59 with comorbidities. The third phase of the vaccination drive aimed at everyone above the age of 45 was launched on 1 April.
The calibrated approach of the Modi government is both practical and the need of the hour. A vaccine is not some kind of a “life jacket” that can prevent a person from getting infected, but it certainly reduces the severity of the infection and helps in breaking the transmission chain. It is important to inoculate vulnerable age groups first and therefore prioritising some demographic age brackets over others, which is exactly what the Modi government is doing. Those who allege that India should start vaccinating everyone above 18 fail to realise that the vaccine has to be given at this stage to those who need it, not necessarily to all those who want it. Not everyone who wants the vaccine needs it! The Central Government is spending around $5 billion on free doses at state-run clinics, public health centres and hospitals.
Inoculating 300 million people within six to seven months is akin to vaccinating almost the whole of the US or equal to vaccinating the combined populations of Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France, and in record time! India has a national recovery rate of over 92.48% and the case fatality rate (CFR) of just 1.3%, the lowest globally. India’s cumulative positivity rate too is hardly 5.07%, which is commendable given that many states in the US like Florida and Connecticut, till recently, were reporting daily and weekly positivity rates in the higher double digits. It is indeed noteworthy that despite having a population density of 455 per square kilometre, amongst the highest in the world, India, which has tested over 250 million people, has done an unprecedented job of reining in the total number of cases at barely 13 million. In sharp contrast, the US with a population density of just 36 per square kilometre, has reported a staggering 31 million coronavirus cases and over 5.59 lakh deaths.
The Modi government has built a war kitty of 2,360 master trainers, 61,000 programme managers, over 2 lakh vaccinators and over 3.7 lakh vaccination team members so far. Serum Institute of India’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, which it has developed with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), are homegrown vaccines that vindicate PM Modi’s clarion call of “vocal for local” and are reflective of the country’s innovative and scientific temper. Both the vaccines have been approved by the DCGI.
In effect, India’s vaccine roll-out is not only the largest in the world, but also the most affordable, with no compromises whatsoever on any standard operating procedures (SoPs). The PM-Cares fund will bear the entire cost of the first phase, which will innoculate 30 million or 3 crore frontline Covid workers. Earlier, in June 2020, over Rs 2000 crore was allocated from the PM-Cares fund for the supply of 50,000 ‘Made-in-India’ ventilators to government-run Covid hospitals in all states and UTs. Out of the 50,000, 30,000 ventilators were manufactured by Bharat Electronics Limited, yet again showcasing India’s indigenous manufacturing prowess. While a jaded, directionless and clueless Rahul Gandhi keeps taking needless jibes at the Modi government, the fact of the matter is that for over six decades, India just had 47,000 ventilators. However, in one go in June 2020, the Modi government made available 50,000 ventilators to ensure that no life is lost for want of life-saving equipment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s food security scheme for the needy, called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKAY), provided free ration to 81 crore or 810 million people every single month, for nine months in a row, during the pandemic. Effectively speaking, this means that a population 2.5 times the size of the US was fed, showcasing the Modi government’s generous, welfarist and people-centric approach.
Contrast this with the policy of obfuscation and apathy followed by China, with the probity and transparency shown by India, in taking Covid head-on. Be it building over 116 million toilets under the “Clean India” or “Swachh Bharat” mission, making India’s 5.5 lakh villages open defecation-free (ODF), giving free health insurance to 50 crore Indians under the “Ayushman Bharat” scheme, producing over 60 million PPE kits and 150 million N95 masks between April and October 2020, bringing home over 3.9 million stranded Indians from different parts of the globe via the “Vande Bharat Mission”, or extending medical and humanitarian assistance to over 150 countries in the fight against the pandemic, the Modi government’s fight against the Wuhan virus was made easier by the fact that a huge amount of effort went into ramping up India’s health infrastructure and making cleanliness a way of life in the last 6.5 years. What is worth mentioning here is that, during the initial days of the Covid outbreak, there was only one lab in the country that could undertake testing for the infection. But today there are over 2,000 testing laboratories.
A key concern now is vaccine wastage. What is vaccine wastage? While wastage cannot be fully eradicated, it has to be within recommended limits. In general, high vaccine wastage inflates vaccine demand and increases unnecessary vaccine procurement and supply chain costs. Vaccine wastage is directly linked to vaccine usage, which is the proportion of vaccines administered against vaccines issued to a vaccination site. What is causing the wastage? For instance, each Covishield vial has 10 doses in total, while a Covaxin vial contains 20 doses—each dose being 0.5 ml (for one person). Once opened, all doses have to be administered within four hours, otherwise it goes to waste and the remaining doses have to be destroyed. The vaccine wastage in India can be largely be attributed to low turnout of beneficiaries, which is due to inadequate planning of sessions by a few states. For instance, if a vial contains doses for ten people and only six turn up, four doses would go waste. In a few Opposition-ruled states, opening vials, despite an inability to mobilise a critical mass of people, has led to vaccine wastage. Till date, around 6.5% of Covid vaccines have gone to waste nationally, according to Central health officials. Over 23 lakh vaccine doses have been wasted, translating into a wastage rate of 6.5% nationally, with the wastage rate being as high as 18% and 12% in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, respectively.
The second reason accounting for vaccine wastage, identified by the Centre, is inadequate training. Officials said some vaccinators are drawing only nine doses against ten doses. “We are seeing that trained vaccinators know how to draw a vaccine. These trained vaccinators will tell you that even in a vial of ten doses, you can actually take out 11. This is a crucial aspect to reduce vaccine wastage,” the official said. Also, open vial policy guidelines have to be strictly followed to minimise vaccine wastage. In the Covid-19 vaccination drive, the Health Ministry factsheet sent to the states mandates that both Covishield and Covaxin have to be discarded after four hours of opening.
The Modi government’s CoWIN (Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network) app, owned by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, was earlier the platform used for conducting Pulse Polio and other crucial and highly successful immunisation programmes across the country. The same platform has been expanded for doling out Covid-19 vaccines and the Ministry of Electronics and IT along with the National Informatics Centre are handling the backend and the tech infrastructure for it. CoWIN is again an example of how the Modi government has seamlessly embraced technology to ensure last-mile delivery. When it does become open to everyone, it will have four modules—user administrator, beneficiary registration, vaccination and beneficiary acknowledgement and, of course, status updation. The CoWIN app is likely to be made accessible to the general public for registration by the end of March-April 2021.
“Good governance is not firefighting or crisis management. Instead of opting for ad-hoc solutions, the need of the hour is to tackle the root cause of the problems”; this is a famous quote by PM Modi. Better words have not been said. Undoubtedly, India’s outstanding and successful war against Covid will go down in history as a textbook case of what a sensitive and nimble-footed leadership can accomplish. It would be apt to conclude with a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Undoubtedly, while a reckless China foisted the Wuhan virus on an unsuspecting mankind, a visionary leader like Prime Minister Narendra Modi utilised this unprecedented global crisis as an opportunity to reach out to and heal millions, both in India and outside, showcasing India’s true spirit of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, which means, “the world is one family”.
The author is an economist, national spokesperson for the BJP and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal.
LOCKDOWN IS NO ANSWER TO SECOND CORONA WAVE
Now that India is in the middle of a second wave of coronavirus, with the number of daily cases rising exponentially, particularly in Maharashtra, the Centre has issued a stark warning about the next four weeks being “very, very critical”. The infection is spreading more rapidly than it did earlier, even though the rate of infection in terms of population continues to be low, as it was when India witnessed the first wave. Amid this, reports of restrictions are coming, including weekend lockdowns being imposed in Maharashtra. But as we witnessed during the prolonged lockdown last year, any shutdown can cause economic havoc. India is yet to recover from the body blow that its economy received last year. Lives and livelihoods were badly disrupted, and continue to be so in sectors such as travel, tourism and aviation. So asking business establishments to down shutters just when the economy is showing signs of recovery and trade is picking up is not the best way to tackle the virus. No wonder traders in Mumbai are refusing to comply with the state government’s orderia. Another possibility of migrant labour being forced to return home is also looming in the horizon. This is completely avoidable. In fact it is not at all clear why a night curfew has been imposed in Delhi by the government of the union territory. What will such a curfew achieve except for giving the police some respite when it comes to controlling the law and order situation at night?
It is becoming increasingly apparent that this virus is likely to come back in waves and may continue for some time if not years before it settles down and we achieve herd immunity. Hence, the need of the hour is to learn to live with it—not by behaving as if there is no tomorrow, but by maintaining strict Covid protocols. So masking up and maintaining social distancing are norms that will have to be followed rigorously. It’s easier said than done, considering this is election season and high voltage campaigning has been going on in certain states, and will in fact continue in Bengal until the end of this month. But surprisingly, the maximum numbers are coming from states, except for Tamil Nadu, that have zero electioneering activity. Maharashtra Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab account for over 80% of the cases. Of these, Maharashtra alone has 55% of the total cases in the country. So where are these states going wrong? Considering the number of celebrities in Mumbai suddenly getting Covid, there is some speculation if Mumbai’s high-flying night life is contributing to the surge. Perhaps a socio-economic breakdown of people getting Covid will throw some light on why Maharashtra is witnessing this uncontrolled spread. Currently, it’s a mystery.
Media reports suggest that the Central government had told the Maharashtra government that weekend lockdowns had proved to be a failure to break the chain of infection, and hence the state should focus on a strict containment strategy. But the lockdown was imposed apparently to force compliance. However, the country may have to pay a heavy price for this, not only because of economic disruptions caused by the lockdowns, but also because some migrant labourers leaving Maharashtra may take the “new variant” of the virus to the rest of the country.
As for the demand that vaccination should be opened for all, it may prove to be a logistical nightmare if that happens, not just because of any possible shortage in the availability of the vaccines, but also the possibility of hospitals and health centres getting swamped. So the present focus should be on maximum coverage of the 45+ population, for which ongoing awareness campaigns need to be enhanced, including possible door-to-door visits by health workers.
However, there is a downside to vaccination too. Vaccination reduces and does not eliminate the risk of getting the infection. Hence arises the need for therapeutics. In the last one year, scientists and doctors have gained considerable understanding of the virus, in spite of its tendency to mutate into several variants, and how to treat it with medicines. This route should also be pursued aggressively.
Finally, without socially responsible behaviour on the part of the people, no government can cope with this virus. So it’s upon us to mask up, maintain social distancing, wash hands and for those above 45 to get vaccinated immediately. It’s time to be responsible citizens.
What is in the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan?
The warm community greeting of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ has assumed the proportions of an incendiary war cry in recent times. How did it become so and does it respect the true spirit of the Ramayana or Lord Ram?
A genie that had been throttled in a bottle since 1947 appears to have been released. A worrisome incident that left many from metropolitan areas appalled is a recent encounter which shows an emerging power semantics of public space. On the morning of 6 April 2021, in Gurugram’s Nathupur village market, three young boys in their early thirties, clad as sadhus, went from shop to shop, asking for money with thunderous slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”. A shopkeeper greeted them delightfully with “Jai Siya Ram”, but surprisingly, the sadhus appeared highly displeased and shouted back angrily, “Say ‘Jai Shri Ram’, ‘Jai Siya Ram’ is wrong.” There was a bit of a tussle and the sadhus, who were perceived as a nuisance, were made to flee by a united front of shopkeepers. This community village market is a cultural space for embedded normative exchanges which highlight the most pristine national inclinations. But the slogan of “Jai Shri Ram” has become an enigma for most Indians as its content and spirit do not match. Who has created this segmentation, and why?
Columnists often face the impossible task of balancing the forbidden (not everything can be written) with the forsaken (not everything can be ignored). Their universe of elliptical proximity to their subjects is jammed with justice-seekers in the waiting, for attention, consideration and even resurrection. Ironically, it appears that the current dispensation of Indian politics has turned Shri Ram, an incarnation of God, worshipped as a revered divine deity, into a consecrated yet perforated sachet of public delivery. The everyday greeting of “Jai Siya Ram” from benign communities inhabiting the holy land of Ayodhya to Chitrakoot resonates to the shores of Rameshwaram in search of the deity’s tales of tolerance, forbearance and humility flowing throughout the 5th century BCE epic, the Ramayana.
At the Ayodhya bhoomi pujan ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used the slogan “Jai Siya Ram” instead of “Jai Shri Ram”, acknowledging the fact that Mata Janaki or Sita, who represented “bhoomi” or Mother Earth has a central role in the Ramayana. His speech was a generous acknowledgement of the role that Mata Janaki or “Siya” played in the life of Rama. By referring to her moral strength as a ground for bhakti or devotion and faith, he in fact highlighted the bond that the Ramayana weaved together in its characters, from Bharat to Ahilya, Kewat, Shabri, Sugreev, Vibhishana, and finally in conceding before the knowledge of Ravana, despite slaying him in war. Love spares no one and that is the essence of the Ramayana, embedded in the warmth of the community greeting of “Jai Siya Ram”. Those who heard this speech felt an invocation of love and harmony in social relationships which have been strained since 1984. Nonetheless, one would agree that no content or any meaningful usage can be without a norm, especially when it is about its intentional usage, while laying claim to a slogan such as “Jai Shri Ram” or “Jai Siya Ram”. PM Modi was right in acknowledging the role of Mata Janaki in “Jai Siya Ram”, but why does this mother incarnate disappear among his followers when they roar, nay, let out the war cry of “Jai Shri Ram”? What made Mamata Banerjee object to the outcry of “Jai Shri Ram”?
The slogan “Jai Shri Ram” has an anecdotal past which reveals that it has been used to provoke incendiary thoughts and actions to achieve an objective which is otherwise not lawful, which is socially disliked and may not be approved by the administration. The slogan, with a militarised invincibility to its tone, a threatening call akin to “Allah hu Akbar”, screeches through social divisions, creating schisms and provocations to accomplish conspiracies of brutal punishments against sinners, the unchaste and the promiscuous. This slogan has been used to glorify social evils and customs in the name of sanitising society such as the glorification of the dreadful act of “suttee” or “sati”. An interesting case from 1871 may bring greater clarity in understanding the normative links of this slogan. In Queen v. Mohit Pandey & Others (1871), the woman had been prepared to commit suicide by “suttee”, as was expected by her husband’s family. As she moved towards the pyre, her stepsons followed her, shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” to create an environment of bizarre but powerful religious nostalgia for a cause larger than a woman’s life, lest she change her mind on nearing the pyre. When conspirators of a grotesque self-infliction become vanguards of a holy army, slogans can stifle minds, appropriate to the accomplishment of an offence. Evidence that emerged from the heinous act of burning the woman with her husband’s body revealed active connivance and unequivocal support of the suicide by the accused and justified the inference that the provocative sloganeering was indeed a conspiracy for commission of the “suttee”. The District Sessions Judge of Ghazeepore, S.N. Martin, sentenced the accused under Section 306, IPC to five years of rigorous imprisonment for abetment to suicide.
On the whole, the Ramayana’s true spirit and character have been badly dented by the enterprise of politics which becomes dependent upon slogans which are used to push male supremacy, militarised followers and provocative communication. In fact, during the last years of his stay at Kashi (now Varanasi) Acharya Tulsidas mentioned how malice, hatred and sectarianism were spread by similar unscrupulous pundits and miscreants who mocked his common man’s imagery of Rama. In Ramcharitamanasa, he has referred to such miscreants as: “Hasi hahi krura kutila kavi cari/ Je par dusana bhusana dhari.”
Those mundane pundits would later touch Tulsidasa’s feet and beg for atonement at the Kashi Vishwanath temple but what about these muscle-flexing sadhus desecrating the name of Rama by filling it with aggression, violence, hate and a deadly ambition to capture political power through the weapon of “Jai Shri Ram”? Will the final courtroom of Rama ever provide them an opportunity for penitence or as the renowned Urdu poet “Zauk” expressed: “Charakh par baith raha jaan bacha kar Isa;/Ho saka jab na mudaba mere bimar ka.” (Hazrat Isa was sent as a messenger of God to earth to reform people deviating from the path of righteousness but He soon got frustrated and took refuge in heaven again.)
The author is a former Professor of Administrative Reforms & Emergency Governance at JNU, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.
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