Unedited transcript of Shri Ram Madhav’s interview with Mr Stephen Sackur for BBC HARDTalk on India’s response to COVID-19. (Highlighted portions were not aired)
Stephen Sackur– Ram Madhav in Delhi welcome to Hard talk.
Ram Madhav- Thank you.
Stephen Sackur – Let us begin with the coronavirus situation in your country. Officials in your government that have proclaimed the success of your lockdown policy have pointed to a relatively low number of deaths. But right now we see the curve, the infection rate curve in India seems to be rising and rising alarmingly. Do you think your government has been complacent?
Ram Madhav– We are 15 percent of the world’s population. Yet if you look at the rate of the affected people in India it is very low. You are right that there is some rise in numbers recently. But if you look at the period during the tight lockdown – that was the first four weeks, it was strictly under control. As we relax the lockdown a little bit there is a some rise in the cases. But it is very much limited to a few areas. It is contained in that sense and has not spread across the country. Actually we are opening up the country gradually because almost 60% of the country is free from the spread of the virus.
Stephen Sackur – Yeah that’s what worries some of the scientists, epidemiologists in your country that you are easing the lock down very significantly in large parts of the country while to quote Brahma Mukherjee an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who watches India’s case very closely he said we see no flattening of the India curve so why is the lock down so significantly now?
Ram Madhav– Certain lockdown measures are very much in place even now. There are relaxations in terms of starting up some of the industries. Some economic connectivity has been allowed to restart. But let me tell you when we imposed the first lockdown, that was when we did not have enough preparation in terms of our health care facilities. But, 6 to 8 weeks down the line we are fully prepared, today. I can tell you today that we are ready with 900,000 beds. We have hospitals etc ready. Yet we are taking full precautions; we are quarantining people who are traveling to a few destinations. We are not lacking in our precautions, yet we are gradually opening the economy.
Stephen Sackur – If I may interrupt, Mr Madhav, Reuters only two days ago quoted directly a series of medical professionals who said Hospitals were overburdened and that they were treating the patients without adequate gear and they felt that they were exposing both themselves and their patients to a high risk of infection.
Ram Madhav – Hotspots like Delhi and Mumbai have seen a sudden spurt in number of cases. Even there the government is immediately addressing the particular problem that you are mentioning. There were some overburdened hospitals; so, we are encouraging more hospitals to create additional beds for patients, and additional doctors. Government is on a day to day basis monitoring the situation and making necessary arrangements.
Stephen Sackur – Perhaps the most worrying thing of all Mr Madhav about the Indian situation is the extent to which your sudden dramatic lockdown all those weeks ago forced millions of your poorest people- migrant workers in the big cities to head for home. Arundhati Roy, the famous Indian writer has written the lockdown worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated many hidden things the urban poor were driven out by employers and landlords millions of impoverished hungry-thirsty people including the young the old and the sick were forced to attempt the long walk home. They are now home, the lucky ones who made it, and they are infecting other people in those parts of your country least able to deal with the pandemic.
Ram Madhav – Oh! That is a pretty exaggerated statement I tell you! You see! The lockdown that was announced on the 24th and 25th midnight was a decision taken at the right time. It was directed at safeguarding the healthcare of 1.3 billion Indians. That has certainly helped in managing the spread of the virus in a very significant way. If today I am claiming that the virus is now restricted to a few pockets in the country, that was essentially because of the timely lockdown. As far as the migrant workers are concerned let me give you some information first before we decide about the impact of it.
India has 130 million migrant workers. Out of that, about 80 million work in other states than their home state. It is bigger than the entire populations of countries like Germany and UK. That is the size of our migrant population. Out of that, majority of them, I would say about 90 percent of them, still stick to their places; they have not gone out; they are not undertaking the perilous journey. But yes, you are right; about four to five million people have taken to streets to try and reach their destinations. In the process they have faced hardships for which we are very sorry. Our Prime Minister has apologized with ‘folded hands’, that is how we call it in India.
And, the most important thing is in the last 2-3 weeks we have made extensive arrangements to transport them back to their destinations. Railways themselves have transported 3.6 million people. We have taken up their responsibility on our shoulders now.
Stephen Sackur – Probably, shouldn’t you have foreseen this massive humanitarian disaster for so many people in your country, you should have surely seen it coming.
Ram Madhav – Yes of course, we had anticipated that there will be some trouble. That’s the reason why our government has issued specific directions to all the employers to make sure that even if there was no work due to the lockdown the daily wages and the monthly pay should not be discontinued. That was keeping in view the possibility of some people going back. I can tell you that the majority of the migrants who embarked on going back to their places did it more out of the anxiety and fear of Corona than necessarily about the economic reasons. I’m not ruling out the economic reasons, but they are minor because the government has taken care of their shelter and food. Non-governmental organisations have chipped in in a big way in taking care of their facilities and food. Yet the anxiety to go home has probably propelled quite a good number of them and we are sorry about that.
Stephen Sackur – Mr Madhav how do you feel about the members of your own party the ruling party the BJP who have specifically explicitly blamed Muslims for spreading corona virus.
Ram Madhav– Firstly, let me let me tell you that in this fight against the virus, we, the 1.3 billion people of India are united and together. Irrespective of our parties, irrespective of all the differences in the country, political or otherwise, we are united. If anyone has made any statement contrary to it, it is wrong. We do not endorse it nor do we ever support any such statements.
Stephen Sackur – So what has happened to Kapil Mishra for example, a local BJP leader who is known for his intemperate language who tweeted and this is a quote the Tablighi Jamaat people that is from the religious organization who held a meeting a big meeting in South Delhi at the beginning of all this- these people, he says from the Tablighi Jamaat have begun spitting on doctors and other health workers it is clear that the aim of these people is to infect as many people as possible with coronavirus and kill them. He has referred to ‘coronavirus terrorists’ and he means Muslims.
Ram Madhav– Yes, all such statements are wrong. We have condemned those statements. We have cautioned or warned such functionaries if they are indulging in any such statements. But I would like to make one submission. Sometimes if some people talk about Tablighi Jamaat, please don’t take it that they are talking about the entire Muslim community. Within the Muslim community there is a large section of the people in India and elsewhere who do not approve of the way Tablighi Jamaat behaves or behaved in India. But that is no reflection on Islamic society, no reflection on ordinary Muslims. If anybody makes such statements it is wrong, and we condemn it.
Stephen Sackur – Yes Mr. Madhav, What I want to know is- what the BJP is doing to stop the communal violence that we have seen since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic in your country. For example, Syed Tabrez and his mother Zarin Taj they are two Muslim civilians who volunteered to distribute food and emergency aid in their communities. They were attacked by a gang of BJP activists on the 4th of April in Karnataka. What have you done to punish those people who attacked the volunteers and also to ensure it never happens again?
Ram Madhav- Certainly any such acts of violence will be punished. In this specific case our state unit, if what you are saying is true, will certainly take action. But let me tell you for your information – in India, so many doctors were attacked, so many nurses were attacked, so many voluntary workers were attacked, police officers – their arms were chopped off. Such incidents have happened during the lockdown. I am not talking in terms of which religion has done it. Whoever does such things will be punished. In India we have a very robust law and order system. As far as our party is concerned, we shall never approve of any such activities and we will act against them.
Stephen Sackur – So what do you say to the analysts who study your communal relations inside India very closely like Gilles Vernier at the Ashoka University who say the government has seized the opportunity of the lockdown and the coronavirus crisis to go after Muslim activists.
Ram Madhav– Totally baseless. As I said, as far as we, the government is concerned, in this fight we are all together. You see, the ratings of the Prime Minister by independent agencies cite his popularity to be above 90 percent. Now 90% is not the Hindu population (alone) in India. That means everybody irrespective of their religion supports the actions or the decisions that the government is taking, because it is in the interest of the entire population. In India, we do not approve of or we do not see any communal kind of situation or any communal conflict happening at this juncture.
Stephen Sackur – You seem to be living in a parallel universe as, to many Indians particularly Muslim Indians
Ram Madhav- I am in Delhi and you are in London.
Stephen Sackur – Are you not aware that just last month the BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy said- Muslims if they become anything like 30 percent of our population will be a danger to the country. Muslims, he said are not in an equal category. This is the language of pure discrimination and it is coming from senior figures in your party.
Ram Madhav – I have not directly seen that statement. I take it that what you are saying is true; but you be careful; if it is not true, you will be sued by Dr. Swamy. Having said it, we do not approve of any such sentiments, any such statements. India is a democratic country. People make statements. But as a party and as a government, we shall not approve of any statements targeted at any community or religion.
Stephen Sackur – But again, I just wonder on what basis you’re telling me all this stuff about harmony and unity in India today, are you not aware that the fallout from your own government’s Citizenship Amendment Act has included the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calling that legislation which of course is fundamental to your government’s program called it “fundamentally discriminatory”.
Ram Madhav – A lot of misinformation and lack of knowledge about that act is leading people to make all sorts of judgments. Let me tell you first of all, the so-called Citizenship Amendment Act does not apply to a single Indian. Do you know that 1.3 billion Indians – Muslims constitute 200 million out of that – the CAA does in no way affect them! So where is the question of any discrimination? Secondly and most importantly, it is not a full act; it is an amendment to an act. You should know that in India there is no discrimination. Anyone can come and become a citizen in India.
Stephen Sackur – Your message to the world is quite clear that you make a distinct category for Muslim people. In this case it is a question of people who come from neighboring states into India, you give the rights to non-Muslims to a fast track to citizenship, a right which you specifically and explicitly deny to Muslims.
Ram Madhav– Just as Austria has done that to the Jews, America has done to certain sections of Vietnamese refugees, and if I am not wrong, even Spain has done to certain descendants of Jews of the Second World War time, for certain category of refugees, their citizenship has been just fast-tracked. Nobody is denied citizenship in India if one qualifies. For example, I tell you, at least 15 Pakistani citizens have acquired Indian citizenship under our government in the last 5-6 years. So, our Citizenship law does not discriminate.
Stephen Sackur – Mr. Madhav I don’t want to misunderstand you or put words in your mouth but when you start telling me about the way in which Germany or Austria treated the Jews
Ram Madhav– Not Germany, I have not used the word Germany. I have used the word Austria. (Reference to Austria and Spain was about their recent amendments granting special citizenship provisions to descendants of the Holocaust era Jews of those countries.)
Stephen Sackur – I begin to wonder what you’re driving at. I mean for example, I was very struck yesterday that your Prime Minister Mr Modi paid fulsome tribute to one of the great ideologues, well great in Mr Modi’s view of the Hindutva movement which of course your previous organization the RSS and your current party the BJP is very much a part of. Now, Mr. Modi said of V D Savarkar that he showed extraordinary courage and leadership.
We know that Mr Savarkar in 1939 was expressing sympathy for what the Germans were doing to the Jews and said that our Muslims in India are very much like the Jews of Germany. There are many people around the world who find this sort of ideological connection and background to the BJP and the RSS to be deeply and profoundly disturbing.
Ram Madhav – You have totally misunderstood Mr. Savarkar’s philosophy. He was never against any community. He was for the greater unity of all the Indian citizens irrespective of religion. That’s the reason why even leaders like Indra Gandhi, the congress leaders, also have praised his patriotism and his sacrifice for the nation. He was one leader who was given a 50-year jail term by the British during the colonial rule in India. He fought for independence. He is one of the misunderstood leaders in India. So, you have to understand from the perspective that we see him in.
Stephen Sackur – So you mean he’s misunderstood because of his sympathy for what the Nazis were doing was okay?
Ram Madhav– No, he was not sympathetic to Nazis at all. That is the greatest misinformation that is spread about him.
Stephen Sackur – Forgive me but it’s not just critics outside the country that are deeply disturbed by some of the ideology they hear from the RSS and BJP. Listen to the words of Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandson Tushar Gandhi who spoke to us. He said- the BJP and the RSS right-wing groupings have polarized Indian society, they present a grave danger. The danger is that in 10 years’ time this country won’t be India anymore it will be a fascist dictatorship.
Those are the words of Mr Gandhi’s great grandson today.
Ram Madhav – That could be his personal opinion. Mahatma Gandhi himself had attended the RSS rally. He had praised the discipline of the RSS. He said that ‘the work that I am doing for the upliftment of the untouchables, the RSS is doing in removing the caste differences in the society and I fully appreciate your activity’. This is what Mahatma Gandhi himself had said. His grandsons are many. Some of the great grandsons are in our party too, for your information. They are a part of the BJP today. So, don’t go by one statement. There are different views. That’s why I said India is a democracy and we respect all the different views but they are their personal views.
Stephen Sackur – Yeah, just another point one more quote for you from M S Golwalkar, another senior leader of your RSS organization. He wrote admiringly about what the Nazis were doing. In 1939 he said “to keep up the purity of the race and its culture Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Jews it was national pride at its highest” said Mr. Golwalkar.
Ram Madhav – Firstly, that book which was a translation of some other book was disowned by Mr Golwalker immediately. But second thing, I tell you, all that he said was, it is ‘shocking’. I don’t know how the word ‘shocking’ becomes a praise? He had clearly said that it is shocking to see this kind of behavior in the name of nationalism. The RSS has never ever approved of the Nazi fascist or supremacist ideology. We have always stood for the persecuted Jews even to this day. We believe that the persecution that happened against the Jews was one of the worst crimes against humanity in the history of the 21st century.
Stephen Sackur – Just one more thought on this then and I want to move on. If you are so sure that there is not racism, deep discrimination, communal hate at the heart of your party and movement’s ideology how do you react when your own home minister Amit Shah describes migrants from Muslim majority Bangladesh living in India as “termites” who will be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. It is the classic technique of othering and dehumanizing those that you regard as second class how do you react to it yourself?
Ram Madhav – That particular statement was taken fully out of context. He only said that the infiltrators that come into India are the illegal migrants. Please explain to me how an illegal migrant can be a person of any religion by your definition! We are saying that the illegal migrants are not welcome in India. Towards that, we are taking certain measures. But some statements sometimes are taken out of context which is not correct.
Stephen Sackur – You think that it’s justifiable to call even an albeit an illegal Muslim immigrant a termite, an insect.
Ram Madhav– No, you see, it was in the context of illegal migrants. All these words are taken completely out of context; that’s what I’m saying. What we did or what we tried to do was to regulate the flow of refugees into India. It is done by every country, not just India. Every country regulates the influx of illegal migrants. That is precisely what we are doing; not against any humanitarian spirit or anything. We have quite a humanitarian sentiment about every person; but after all, nations have to safeguard their people, their livelihoods and their economy from illegal infiltrators.
Stephen Sackur – I wonder briefly if I may before we finish touch on Kashmir, last August you revoked article 370 of the constitution. Revoked the special status for Kashmir you sent thousands and thousands of troops into the territory and you arrested a large number of Kashmiri political leaders. We interviewed Shah Faisal in India, not in Kashmir, he spoke to us I believe from Delhi. He was arrested just hours after talking to Hard talk he is still in detention and today this month his detention has been extended. He is a so-called moderate leader, a civilian politician and a Kashmiri who is proud to be Kashmiri. Why on earth is he in detention?
Ram Madhav – Many people have been detained immediately after the important decision we took on the 5th of August last year to nullify the impact of article 370. Now, most of them have been set free. Mr. Faisal and a few others, about four or five of them, still face certain charges under what we call as the PSA (Public Safety Act). But I tell you, these are all measures taken based on the security assessment there. They will also be set free very soon. As I said, hundreds of such activists have been set free. They are all free and Mr. Faisal will also come out very soon. We want all of them to come out and continue their political activity happily.
Stephen Sackur – There’s no justification for it really is there Mr Madhav? Nor is there justification for the continued control of the internet 4G services in Kashmir severely restricted, when doctors in Kashmir are saying that they need the best access possible to the internet and to public health information on the internet to deal with the coronavirus crisis. What kind of humanitarians are you in the Indian government that won’t even allow doctors to use the internet in Kashmir.
Ram Madhav – I’m afraid you should know the ground reality before jumping the gun and calling us inhuman and all that. Firstly, for doctors and others, in all hospitals and all medical centers, we have the broadband services fully available. Internet is fully working in all the hospitals and all the public institutions. It’s only on handheld mobile devices that certain 4G speeds are not available; they also have access to 2G speeds. So, calling us anti-humanitarian or judging us as not having humanitarianism is far-fetched. You should not do that. Having said it, the Kashmiri healthcare establishment is doing a phenomenal job. They are taking care of the Covid patients effectively and they have all the facilities available. As I said, broadband services are fully available in every home and every public institution in Kashmir. The 4G services also will be restored very soon.
Stephen Sackur – look forward to getting a response from Kashmiri healthcare workers to that. Let us finish with one thought- BJP has big ambitions in turning India into an economic, political, diplomatic superpower. Right now because of coronavirus your economy is facing contraction this year you have rising tensions on your border not just with Pakistan but also now with China where you’ve got a military standoff in Ladakh with Chinese forces on the disputed border. Suddenly the BJP’s program for India looks as though it’s running into serious trouble would you agree.
Ram Madhav – Economy is a challenge not just for India, but also for the UK and all other countries. It’s a global challenge. As far as India is concerned, we have made elaborate plans to quickly come out of the impact of the pandemic. Hopefully in two to three quarters time, we will be able to come back to our better GDP growth rates. The other issues like the issues that are happening on the borders are serious no doubt and the government is seized of those matters. Let me tell you, this is not the first time that these things are happening. In the past also we have had certain tensions along the Indo-Tibetan border with China. We both countries have matured leaderships to tackle them. We are engaged diplomatically. It’s true that on the ground we are firm; we are taking a firm ground posturing; but we are proactively engaged with the Chinese leadership diplomatically too.
Stephen Sackur – Ram Madhav! We must end there but I thank you very much indeed for joining me from Delhi. Thank you.
Ram Madhav– Thank you, my pleasure.
(Video of the interview can be accessed at BBC HARDTalk)
I think Mr. Ram madhav was unduly apologetic and polite in the face of deliberately provocative questions/ comments. He could have stated the background of last 50 years clearlywhile responding to the Kashmir related provocative questions.
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