When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah were riding the crest of the wave by romping home an unprecedented electoral victory for BJP in Uttar Pradesh, their happiness was spiked by the eventual task of picking a Chief Minister. As the state’s politics has evolved along caste lines, it was no easy task. People privy to the war room atmosphere at the BJP’s election offices in Lucknow and Delhi, back then, said it was Modi’s idea to anoint Yogi Aditayanath as the chief minister of India’s largest and one of the most problematic state. The Yogi, a sadhu, was head of a Hindu Mutt at Gorakhpur and had raised a private army called Hindu Yuva Vahini, which had a role in frequent communal flare-ups in the town and enforcing their master’s pet Hindutva practices on Muslims.
Modi offered an interesting reason for picking a man for the top position who had been an open critic of the BJP; he blamed the party leadership for not sticking to the core Hindutva agenda like building a Ram temple at Ayodhya. He told Shah that the best way to neutralise the rebel was to give him responsibility. “Let him know that governing a state is not easy; he would either perish or get chastised,” Modi is believed to have told Shah.
Six months later, Yogi is facing the music. In his fiefdom, Gorakhpur, a constituency he had represented in Lok Sabha for two decades, more than 70 children have died in seven days in the Baba Raghav Das Medical College, mostly for want of life-saving oxygen. Forget about having prevented it, the aftermath of the tragedy proved Yogi’s inadequacies as an administrator.
Initially Yogi kept mum and then switched over to denial mode. This was a colossal tragedy - sick children dying after struggling to breathe on the hospital beds; parents helplessly watched them die knowing that oxygen supply to keep their sick bodies going had been cut off. The oxygen supplier company had disconnected the supply as the hospital had refused to pay them Rs 68 lakh dues despite various notices.
This BRD hospital is the only specialty facility for people of 15 districts in eastern UP for the treatment of encephalitis, a disease prevalent here. Even patients from neighbouring Nepal come here in the season. The belt is prone to Japanese encephalitis, a disease spread by mosquitoes that breed in the paddy fields; the disease becomes acuter in monsoon.
The initial probe into the tragedy by the district administration has confirmed what the Yogi and his ministers had been denying: most of the infants had died because of lack of oxygen. The vendor, it seems, had been pleading with the hospital administration to release his dues and as a last resort, he disconnected the supply after several notices. Yogi and his health minister kept claiming they were not in know of the overdue payment of the oxygen vendor Pushpa Sales Pvt. Ltd.
As soon as pipes went dry, there was panic in the encephalitis ward of the BRD medical college in the night; the para medical staff was worried about the critically sick children who were on oxygen. Dr. Kafeel Ahmed Khan, a paediatrician and nodal officer of the encephalitis ward, was at his home when he received a call from the staff late night. He rushed to the hospital and after seeing the condition of the patients he called a couple of local private clinics and hospitals and asked for oxygen cylinders. He paid for them and ferried a couple of cylinder in his car to the hospital. He continued his search for oxygen and once assured of cylinders he contacted the Seema Sahastra Bal (SSB), a para-military force deployed on Nepal border, and asked its DIG for a truck to carry cylinders from various locations across the town. The SSB commandant provided him with a truck and 11 jawans. Khan and the jawans carried the cylinders to the hospital and saved many lives. In fact, one shudders to think of the catastrophe the tragedy would have turned had Khan not lived up to his Hippocratic oath and paid from his pocket for the cylinders.
Nevertheless, 30 children had immediately died for want of oxygen. Next day, at the hospital, parents of the admitted children were all praise for Khan; they saw in him a saviour. The media accordingly highlighted his role and judged him the hero of the tragedy. In any other society, the government would have honoured him and praised him publically.
However, Yogi Adityanath’s priorities are different; this self- confessed Hindutva zealot chief minister visited the hospital on the second day of the deaths and refused to admit that most deaths have happened because of the missing oxygen. He instead blamed the unhygienic conditions around for the deaths! Lastly, he took the most brazen step of removing Dr. Khan from his position. Within hours of this sections of media were seen writing stories against Dr Khan – some calling him a thief and others a rapist. Unknown web links surfaced overnight which wrote detailed and imaginary accounts of how Dr Khan was doing private practice, stealing oxygen cylinders from the hospital. On the social media trolls apparently by BJP’s IT (information technology) cell and its satellites painted a negative picture of Dr Khan. For them and also for the CM, a Muslim can never be a Samaritan and more importantly he should never be projected as one.
Within days, an investigation had shown Khan was indeed a hero and none of the charges stuck to him. The police even said the allegations against Khan were part of a conspiracy. The ‘demonized’ Khan kept his cool but one wonders what message did it sent to conscientious citizens across the UP, where one fifth of the population is Muslim.
Yogi’s colleagues were equally unrepentant on the tragedy and offered similar explanations. Siddharth Nath Singh, grandson of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, claimed the deaths due to encephalitis were common in the hospital and there was nothing unusual about it this time. Even if statistics say so, a minister making such casual comments on the national television only shows his insensitivity – something unthinkable in any other society. It’s a fact that more than 3,000 children have died at the government-run hospital since 2012. The deaths were mostly of the children suffering from Acute Encephalitis Syndrome, a viral disease caused by mosquito bite in which brain is affected and children have convulsions. As the region is backward and malnutrition is common, the impact of the disease is more severe on the children.
As Yogi faced a bandh during his visit to Gorakhpur, he suspended college principal Rajiv Mishra for not paying the vendor in time. According to a report published in the Kolkata- based The Telegraph, Mishra had told Yogi about the pending payment of the oxygen vendor and his notice for disconnecting the supply for nonpayment during his visit to the hospital a few days before the tragedy. Yogi had kept mum on this.
BJP chief Amit Shah, who is since known as a wizard for making BJP win all but two (Delhi and Bihar) elections since 2014, also dismissed the Gorakhpur death being unusual. He even said, “More such deaths had taken place during UPA’s rule and states ruled by Congress.”
Even after this, Adityanath’s regime was busy in intimidating religious minorities – it ordered that Madrasas sing the national song and also video graph their Independence Day celebrations.
Uttar Pradesh offers the worst scenario on health in India; it has the second highest child mortality and maternal mortality rates in India. The government spends Rs 425 per person for health, which is nearly 70 percent less than the average spending by other states.
When Yogi government took charge, it was expected to announce a higher spending on the health and bring in accountability in the spending on healthcare. The Gorakhpur incident only shows that the former Mutt head remained still mired in religion. His preferences remain tackling love jihad and other imaginary or real Hindu-Muslim conflict areas; the deaths in the crib are routine for him.
Can Narendra Modi even think of turning India into a robust global power with such Chief Ministers around?(Published on 21st August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 34)