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Mahatma Gandhi's Profound Reflections on Oxygen Assumes Relevance in the Context of COVID Pandemic and Struggle to Save India

By S N Sahu | PUBLISHED: 16, Jun 2021, 10:42 am IST | UPDATED: 16, Jun 2021, 10:43 am IST

Mahatma Gandhi's Profound Reflections on Oxygen Assumes Relevance in the Context of COVID Pandemic and Struggle to Save India “One who owes his oxygen to the pump is a dying man. Is it any wonder that India is in a dying condition?” Any one reading these two sentences would get an impression that a profoundly sensitive author having been deeply agonised by the death of thousands of COVID infected people during the lethal second wave, attributed to Narendra Modi regime’s utter failure to arrange oxygen and hospital facilities, would have written them. These two sentences are evocative of  India’s disastrous health crisis forcing COVID patients and even several hospitals across the country, during April- May 2021, to hunt  for oxygen cylinders to ensure uninterrupted flow of oxygen to their patients and save their lives.

It is indeed tragic that as basic as oxygen could not be provided to the millions of COVID patients and thousands of  lives were lost. Probably for the first time in the history of India many  hospitals including very prominent ones declared  with alarm and anxiety that  they had oxygen for only a few hours and any failure to resume oxygen supply would endanger the lives of their critical patients. Many knocked at the doors of high courts and even the Supreme Court praying for quick and unbroken supply of oxygen.

But hold your breath. Those sentences were not written by any author in the context of the second devastating COVID wave. Those were written by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 in Young India on 6th July 1921. Again a few months later, on 5th March 1922, he  wrote in Navajivan,  “India does not get enough oxygen and feels suffocated.”

Influenza Pandemic of 1918, the deadliest pandemic

Let us be mindful of the fact that  he was writing those lines after India became one of the worst victims of the influenza pandemic of 2018, described as the deadliest pandemic in history. It affected Indians in a very gruesome manner during its four waves which lasted from  1918 to  1921. Its  second wave was the most lethal and  it claimed  millions of lives. Mahatma Gandhi in a letter to Harilal Gandhi wrote on 23rd November 1918,“I felt sad for a moment when I learnt that your family were afflicted with influenza and there was even a death. But such news is pouring in from everywhere so that now the mind is hardly affected”.

Metaphor of Oxygen and the Idea of Independence

It is important to understand the backdrop against which Gandhi wrote those aforementioned sentences referring to oxygen.  Lokmanya Tilak had died in 1920 and it was decided that to fructify his clarion call  “Swaraj is my birth right” a fund (Tilak Swaraj Fund)  should be set up to mobilse one crore of rupees from across the country, urge people to extend their support for the cause  and achieve freedom for  India from  British rule in one year. Gandhi travelled the length and breadth of our country for that purpose. His objective was that India should be freed from foreign rule and her independence would have meaning and significance if she would not remain dependent on foreign markets. To drive home that point he gave the metaphor of a man capable of breathing oxygen on his own without  depending on a pump or machine. It was  indeed quite thoughtful on the part of Gandhi that he drew parallel between a person breathing on his/her own without depending on an oxygen cylinder with the independence of India which will be self-reliant without deriving its sustenance from foreign countries.

Almost hundred years after Gandhi wrote those prophetic words that a man dependent on oxygen on a cylinder is a dying man, the second wave of COVID pandemic caused havoc in India and patients  scrambled  for  oxygen cylinders to breathe and normalise their oxygen saturation level so badly diminished by novelcrornavirus and its deadly variants. Modi regime which time and again invoked  its much publicised declaration to make India Atmanirbhar, self reliant, pathetically failed to organise even oxygen for the COVID affected people struggling to breathe.  

Gandhi’s prescient words of 1921 and 1922 using the metaphor of oxygen to educate people about the deepening crisis of India under colonial rule can be used to explain  grim reality in India of 2021 when the country faced a real and catastrophic shortage of oxygen and thousands of COVID patients lost their lives. It is best captured in the caption of an article, “A Country Gasping for Air : Indians Pay the Price of Government Inaction as COVID-19 Surges”. Authored by Mandakini Gahlot and published in the 28th April 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs it painfully depicts the price Indians had to pay for Government inaction as COVID-19 surged and caused horrifying  consequences.

Suppression of Freedom of People in the Context of COVID Pandemic
As COVID patients were desperately running from pillar to post to get access to  oxygen cylinders to breathe, many leaders were spreading fear and fabricated information to hide the truth concerning acute shortage of oxygen. The Chief Minister of  Uttar Pradesh  Yogi Adityanath made a statement during the last week of April 2021 that there was no shortage of oxygen and hospital beds in the State. It was accompanied by his intimidating statement  that police would take action under National Security Act and Gangster Act against “anti social elements” spreading rumours  that there was scarcity of oxygen. It meant that any one who complained of lack of oxygen became vulnerable to punitive legal action. It  represented the ugliest example of a regime attempting to deal with COVID pandemic by generating fear in the minds of people. The UP police prosecuted one Shashank Yadav  who desperately sent a tweet requesting for oxygen for some elderly member of his family. His tweet “Need oxygen cylinder”  was held to be a misleading statement by the police.  Such a muscular approach of a political regime muzzling voices of people and suppressing their  rights  when they were asking for oxygen while confronting life and death situations   smacked of   brutal methods of governance in  dealing with the COVID pandemic.

Freedom of Opinion and Association as Two Lungs to Breathe Oxygen of Liberty

It is in this context one is reminded of words of Mahatma Gandhi who on 28th December 1921 while speaking in Congress Session in Ahmedabad described   freedom of opinion and freedom of association as the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen. He said so in the context of the British authorities who displayed sheer arrogance, disregarded public opinion and suppressed people.

Gandhi’s formulation that freedom of opinion and freedom of association as the two lungs absolutely necessary for a man to breathe oxygen is so intensely applicable in Modi regime’s  New India where dissent has been criminalised and  people have been arrested for  displaying  posters which asked  as to why COVID vaccines meant for Indian children were sent abroad.  Recently even a BJP MLA of UP said that if he continued to be critical of the Yogi Government’s mishandling of the second wave of the COVID crisis he might get slapped with  sedition. Such fear against the Modi regime for its repressive measures reminds the colonial era repression during the influenza pandemic which lasted from 1918 to 1920.

In fact there is a certain kind of replay of history. What the British regime did in suppressing rights of the people when Indian subcontinent was worst hit by influenza pandemic is being done by Modi regime at a time when COVID pandemic has caused havoc in our country. Mahatma Gandhi’s description of freedom of opinion and freedom of association as the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe oxygen are of abiding significance for our time. His ringing words of 28th December 1921 are worth recalling. He said, “if there is any authority in this country that wants to curb the freedom of speech and freedom of association, I want to be able to say in your name, from this platform, that that authority will perish, unless it repents, before an India that is steeled with high courage, noble purpose and determination, even if everyone of the men and women who choose to call themselves Indians is blotted out of the earth.”

Such empowering thoughts expressed by Gandhi in face of the attempts of British authorities to curb freedom of speech and freedom of association constitute a source of inspiration for  people confronting  repeated  persecution in twenty first century India for exercising these same rights to address the oxygen crisis they faced due to deadly COVID pandemic.

Gandhi Interpreted Repression as Source of Oxygen to Fight for Liberty

On 23th November 1931 while speaking in the Federal Structure Committee Meeting in London Gandhi  said that the attempts of a British official to provide provincial autonomy by divorcing it from other key responsibilities was like a physician coming with an  oxygen pump and  trying to pump oxygen into a dying body. Cautioning that the oxygen pump in that situation would not produce any result he apprehended more repression of people at the hands of British authorities. However, he asserted by saying that, “Repression has never done harm to a single nation which is sailing for her destined goal with a fixed determination, for that repression is really an oxygen draught…”

Gandhi’s hopeful articulations  that  in spite of repression people would be actuated for liberty and freedom because it acts like oxygen are of paramount significance for our country confronting numerous dangers from those leaders who failed   to provide  medical oxygen and are continuously suffocating   people  by denying them oxygen   of liberty.

Oxygen of Compassion

In his article in Navajivan written on 16th September 1928 Mahatma Gandhi referred to the compassionate treatment of cattle in Ahmedabad by a  Jain firm. Describing that compassion as narrow in scope he stressed that compassion should be as vast as the ocean. He wrote, “ the life-sustaining oxygen spreads its fragrance from the ocean all the hours of the day, so should the oxygen of compassion do and give happiness, peace and good health to human beings and all other living creatures.”

In fact, medical oxygen for the victims of COVID pandemic is as much indispensable as the oxygen of liberty and compassion to safeguard our democracy and country from the forces representing majoritarianism and  suppressing the very  soul of India and  freedom of people guaranteed by the Constitution. Gandhi’s innovative use of oxygen as a metaphor during freedom struggle to explain the idea of independence and underline the importance of liberty and rights of people is of enduring significance for people  of  twenty first century India grappling with COVID pandemic and struggling to defend the rights and liberty enshrined in the Constitution.

# Author served as OSD and Press Secretary to President of India late K R Narayanan
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