The serendipity in the coincidence that the COVID19 vaccine has become available in India at around the time of the country’s Republic Day on January 26, would not have been missed by many. The idea that the Republic, so well defined in the cliché as a government of, by and for the people, seems to have been reinforced by this coincidence. Quite ironically, January 26 is also celebrated as Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the first fleet of British colonisers at Jackson Port in New South Whales, and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillips, the pioneering leader of the founding of modern Australia, in 1788. Quite expectedly, indigenous populations of Australia who were displaced and marginalised in this colonisation process, are now beginning to demand January 26 commemoration in the country’s history to also incorporate their perspective, but that is a matter for Australia to settle. For India, this is the day a freshly free nation from the yoke of British colonialism, gave itself its Constitution in 1950, the foundation on which would rest its nationhood. True enough, the preamble of the Indian constitution begins with “We the people of India” pleding a Republic which guarantees justice, liberty, equality, fraternity for all its citizens. The idea of the people of India, and therefore the idea of India itself, were to be as per the definition enshrined in this constitution, and it is rather unfortunate that this idea based on the notion of unity in diversity is now being dismantled to be reshaped into a unitary monolith shaped by a majoritarian mould, carrying along some subordinate affiliates in the margins out of the majority’s generosity. But this will be for another debate. For now we would like to deal with a more immediate challenge the COVID19 vaccine administration is throwing up and how this is reflecting on the very nature of leadership, or its lack of, in this peculiarly redefined Republic.
For about a week now, COVID19 vaccination has been underway in Manipur, as in the rest of the country. In the first phase of vaccination, frontline workers in the health and social service sectors are being given preference, and this is understandable. But there have been plenty of reports of resistance, reluctance and refusal to take the inoculation, not out of any disbelief in science, but because they suspect they may end up as guinea pigs to confirm the efficacy of the vaccine. They also fear they may be left to face adverse side effects in this experiment. Although many experts have confirmed the two indigenously developed vaccines approved in India are safe, given the rush to develop them to meet the emergency thrown up by the pandemic, as well as the short time they have had for trial, the apprehension is understandable too. This is especially in the case of one of them, Covaxin, which even one of the best known virologist in India, professor of microbiology at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Prof. Gagandeep Kang, cautioned against as it has still not completed Stage-3 trial. Thankfully for Manipur, the vaccine allotted to it is the other brand, Covishield, which has completed this stage trial at least. Otherwise, from authoritative literature available on public domain, normally a vaccine takes as much as five years to be confirmed effective and safe. Again, both these vaccines were developed using the old technology of introducing real but weakened versions of the disease causing virus into the body so that the body is stimulated to develop anti-bodies which in turn will immune the body against fresh infection by virus. The other more recent and advanced technology known as Messenger RNA (mRNA), in which an artificially constructed stimulant is used to trigger the body to develop anti-bodies without the need for introducing weakened virus, is considered much safer and effective. This technology however is not available in India yet.
This being so, to instil confidence amongst the people, it would have been good to see our political leadership, in the true spirit of being custodians of a people’s Republic, deciding to lead from the front and taking the vaccine ahead of everybody to demonstrate publicly that everybody, including them, are in this together. Many other nations, including the US under the new administration and Britain, did this to break or soften any possibility of public doubt in the initiative. It is unfortunate that no such steps are visible in Manipur and indeed elsewhere in India. It is also in this same spirit that we have in these columns suggested numerous times that in order to have our government schools and colleges lifted out of the swamps they are now stuck in, our political and bureaucratic leadership should take the lead and have their own children and wards study in these institutions rather than preach from a falsely presumed moral higher ground on how these institutions can be improved for the benefit of the not so priveleged. If indeed the government is truly of, by and for the people, and its leadership had been courageous enough to lead from the front, many of the endemic problems the state is stymied by today would already have been left far behind by now.
In many ways, January 26 is also time for nostalgia for many older than 50 whose childhood or youthful years were in the 1970s or earlier. In those days Republic Day was the celebration of an ideal that fired everybody including the ordinary citizenry. The truth is, today the day is observed but it can hardly be said to be a public celebration. No, we are not just referring to the extraordinary development of the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day, and the chaos it descended into. Even if this cataclysmic event were not to have happened, there can be no denying things would not have been, or are not the same anymore. In the 1960s and 1970s, whole families use to come out of their homes on foot in festive mood to converge along the stretch of road between the Governor’s residence and the Kangla Moat to witness soldiers and policemen, along with cultural troops from different districts, marching to the tune of local and Manipur Rifles bands, spaced out at intervals so that the entire parade length remained at earshot distance of at least one of them. These were also the years colleges and high schools eagerly sent their marching contingents to the parade and competed with each other to be the best marchers. Balloon, ice cream (which were nothing more than sweetened ice on sticks) and candy floss vendors line the streets elsewhere adding to the excitement of the day for children. And in the evening, there would also be cultural programmes at the then Open Air Theatre, now part of the Manipur Film Development Centre, MFDC, complex. The public enthusiasm was evident everywhere then. Those were innocent times indeed, but that innocence ended not long after. The Republic failed to address some of the most fundamental issues of identity and history pertaining to the state and the region in the honeymoon decades, with the inevitable result of a general disenchantment which only got worse in the coming years, leading even to the outbreak of violent insurgencies. By the 1980s, Republic Day celebration had transformed from an eagerly participated public fanfare to a solemn official function and it continues to be so till this day. If the nation is ‘a daily plebiscite’ as Earnest Renan famously said, India apparently failed to strike the refresh button from time to time to accommodate the changing needs and aspirations of its widely varied people. Instead, rather than conform to the ever-changing aspirational needs of the people, the Republic now seemingly wants the people to conform to its dogmas. The current ruling dispensation has been pursuing a policy inclined towards more centralisation of administration and homogenisation of the population along religiously driven contours. The protest over the CAA and now the farmer’s agitation, are some more evidences of disenchantments of large sections of the population pushed into the margins by this new approach. We do hope there will be course corrections soon so that things are not allowed to degenerate any further.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author