The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A sequence of events that impairs our claim to civilization
Just one outrage more

In Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, there is a striking episode set in Paris before the French Revolution. A great lord was driving his carriage recklessly down a narrow crowded street. A little girl was crushed under the wheels. The lord tossed a coin to the bereaved father, cursed the plebeians for not taking care of their children, and enquired anxiously whether his horses had suffered damage.

In Calcutta, in the early 21st century, another little girl was held up on the way to hospital on a day of political rallies. She died through dehydration and lack of treatment. The state’s rulers expressed their regrets, charged the bereaved parents with ignorance, and agonized lest the incident might jeopardize their right to block roads.

Our horses are metaphorical ones — today’s chariots of power are drawn by rallies — but the real-life parallel with the fiction of the ancien regime is too compelling to miss.

I grant that Shabana Parveen may not have died because of the rallies. She had contracted diarrhoea in her grossly unhygienic slum. She had obtained dubious treatment at one hospital and been turned away by another. The road where she was held up is often choked anyway. Quite possibly, these other causes would have sufficed to kill her.

At the same time, only the ignorant or the disingenuous would claim that a rally on College Street could not affect traffic on Canning Street, or that an eastbound taxi could proceed down Mahatma Gandhi Road. The role of each factor in Shabana’s death would elude the most honest and scrupulous enquiry; and any honest enquiry seems out of the question.

I am not writing this piece to argue against rallies. That would be a heartless frivolity, of a piece with our rulers’. By now, the rally controversy has exposed such sores and fissures in our body politic that the actual blocking of roads seems a trivial matter in comparison.

Even a month ago, Bengal seemed to be moving slowly towards a more productive, more ordered dispensation. The image has shifted with startling suddenness. The voice of state power has abruptly grown so intemperate, so contemptuous of the people, so defiant of law, rights and social mores, that we are left helplessly contemplating the notional wreck of our status as citizens.

Clearly, our leaders view Shabana’s death solely as a political threat, especially in the matter of rallies. They have therefore come out with the politician’s apology for an apology. The death, they admit, is duhkhajanak, “regrettable”.

The word might suit a missed train or delayed appointment. To apply it to a child’s death argues a grotesque insensitivity and, almost worse, a lapse from public decency. It would have been better to say nothing at all. We might have ascribed the silence to shock or grief.

I have a daughter. So do many decent friends and colleagues subscribing to political parties. So do Mr Anil Biswas and Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. If, heaven forbid, those daughters were taken away from us — and in such traumatic circumstances — we would not feel “regret”: we would be devastated. And so, when fellow-humans lose their daughters, however hardened and self-absorbed we may be, we speak gently and make a show of formal grief. There is something sincere even about that show.

Our leaders, on the contrary, have been defensive at best, and sometimes blatantly aggressive in their reactions. Their words (and expressions on TV) indicate a singular callousness to human suffering, irrespective of cause.

But then Shabana and her family are not of “us” but of “them” — those who live and die so axiomatically in indignity and civic deprivation that one outrage more or less does not really shake us. Even those of us professing honest indignation need to test our honesty. Are we exploiting the child’s death to press our own class interests, to vent our spleen at the government, party or police, or simply to plead against rallies' I keep asking myself this question as I write: I do not know the answer. But I know that my human dignity has been compromised by the event: I belong to the city where it happened.

The modern citizen’s dignity and well-being are in ransom to the state, because the state (with its political back-up) governs so much of our lives. When I do not get due service from a public utility, when I am pushed around the corridors of an office or a hospital, when I have to endure power cuts, clogged streets and derelict transport, I am not merely deprived; I am insulted as a citizen, even if no one has verbally abused me. If I am affluent and well-educated, I will suffer less, though I may be more sensitive to what I suffer. If I am poor, illiterate and unempowered, I will accept such insult as my due, perhaps even without feeling it as insult. The very leaders vowing to empower me might enslave me by their patronage, exercised in crude and material ways — often in exchange for cash or forced political labour.

If, like Shabana’s parents, I belong to that stratum, I will accept civic deprivation as my due. There is a latent hypocrisy in the post facto offers of service and probity. “Why didn’t the parents report the worker who wanted a bribe'” demands the head of the Medical College. “Why didn’t they call upon the police to clear their way'” asks a deputy commissioner. “Why didn’t they ask us to let them cross our ranks'” says a leader of the rally.

We know the answer. It is because they would not dare. Probably it did not occur to them. And very likely, they would have been given short shrift had they tried. Far more privileged citizens are conditioned to put up silently with the tyranny of public servants and partymen. Collaterally, the humblest functionary is trained by his milieu to ignore or turn away the citizen seeking his help.

This normative failure of our public services opens up another grotesque angle to this wrangling over a dead child. It wasn’t the rally that killed her, we are told. The traffic is always that bad: it could have happened any day. Nor had any hospital worker asked for a bribe. It must have been a tout: our hands are clean.

It may indeed be so. There are countless comparable cases: Shabana’s number merely came up in the media stakes. All the same, it is a truly amazing defence. The fact that any day anywhere, a child might die on the way to hospital, or through neglect or fraud on reaching there, is advanced as a normal and acceptable situation, intended to quell rather than arouse protest. No outrage is felt at the slow, pervasive, undramatic bankruptcy of the civic order. The most sweeping indictment of the system is presented, apparently without irony, as a vindication and reassurance.

There are no acceptable circumstances under which a sick child can be hustled out of hospital, carried down a blocked street with a saline drip held over her, and rejected by another hospital in a disorganized and irresponsible manner. It is an obscene sight, and a sequence of events that impairs our claim to civilization. I have chosen these words with much thought: I mean them soberly and literally. If they appear overwrought, readers might suggest suitably moderate language — always assuming the child was their own. The director of medical education, alone of all officialdom, has put himself on record in much the same terms.

No line can be drawn between the merely incompetent and the corrosively evil. All incompetence is immoral. When we compromise on minimal public services, we encourage callousness to our own condition. If we deprive a citizen of his civic dues, we lay him open to every kind of oppression. If we accept the traffic hold-up and the hostile help-desk, sooner or later a little child is going to die. And when she dies, the city’s air will be further polluted by utterances that seem imperfectly human.

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