Maithili Sharan Gupt’s immortal lines hum kaun thae, kya ho gaye hain, aur kya honge abhi, aao vichare aaj mil kar yeh samasyaen sabhi (Who were we? Who have we become? And what more shall we be? Come, let us together meditate on all these conundrums), seem the right exhortation on India’s 70th Independence Day. It seems necessary since the virtues Gupt extolled in the imaginary universe of his poem — knowledge, self-knowledge, independence, detachment, piety, free-spiritedness and, above all, compassion (“by the suffering of others, we were with tenderness moved”) — seem all but eclipsed from our scale of values.

But more crushingly, the unimaginably horrible deaths of more than 60 children in BRD hospital Gorakhpur have probably become a more accurate mirror of what we have indeed become: A nation without common decency, common practicality and basic compassion.

There are proximate political and administrative failures leading to children being denied oxygen. Individual responsibility will have to be assigned. But this horrific episode is also a rebuke to our independence, what we have done with it, the kind of community we have become, and the scale of values we measure ourselves by.

The numbness the episode produces is in part because it reminds us that in our republic poor children are fated to die in part because of what we choose to be. The children are fated to die because in this republic our priorities have gone awry. The crisis in India’s health system is not the biggest secret in the world. Yet this crisis does not precipitate the slightest public anger, does not engage our collective intelligence, or move our conscience.

The children are fated to die because even in tragedy we will find an excuse to once again replay mock battles. In India, there is no space for mourning, only for recrimination. There is no space for truly valuing what was lost, even a moment of pause where we confront the gaping void these deaths leave behind. Instead, that void will be filled very quickly by the same politics of recrimination, divisiveness and distraction that produced this outcome in the first place.

The children in India are fated to die because settling medieval scores, living out accumulated resentments, depletes our social, political and emotional resources. The real individuality of our citizens, children with a future, parents with hope, is rendered invisible by more abstract and murderous battles of clan and community. The dead weight of a politics trapped in the past renders invisible the sufferings of the present.

The children are fated to die because our structures of representing reality are now irrevocably broken. Rather than allowing us to access the totality of our circumstances, they consistently throw a veil over reality. They satiate our appetite for mock battles of great sound and fury, whose only consequence is greater estrangement of citizens from one another.

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