5 million is also about one-third of the number of people who were displaced during the partition of India, over a period of four years.

BJP National Secretary Ram Madhav on BBC HardTalk
news Politics Tuesday, June 09, 2020 - 17:54

That several hundreds and thousands of migrant workers have walked home during the lockdown imposed in India due to the coronavirus pandemic is well-known. But do we know how many?

Ram Madhav, National General Secretary of the BJP, has put a number to it: 4 to 5 million.

5 million is the population of New Zealand. 5 million is also about one-third of the number of people who were displaced during the partition of India, over a period of four years. However, Ram Madhav was quite dismissive about the sheer scale of this tragedy in his interview with Stephen Sackur on BBC’s HARDTalk programme.

It has been a long time since a senior representative from the BJP-led government at the Centre gave a journalist an in-depth interview. That is, a journalist who does not toe the government's line. When we watched Ram Madhav answer questions from Stephen Sackur, therefore, it came as a jolt. But the surprise didn't last for long because we soon realised that Ram Madhav was not really answering the questions, he was just repeating the same sentiment throughout — whatever it is, the BJP is not responsible.

Stephen Sackur began by asking Ram Madhav about India's handling of the coronavirus crisis and the questionable decision to lift the lockdown when cases are still rising steeply. Many experts have pointed out that India's lockdown, imposed without due warning, was an arbitrary decision taken without the consultation of epidemiologists. Though it may have slowed down the infection rate— and not everyone agrees that it has— it became untenable because of the hasty and poorly planned implementation. Millions of migrant workers, especially, were hit badly by the decision. With no food or wages, they were forced to rely on the largesse of their employers or embark on a long and arduous walk back home. State governments eventually set up shelters for them after criticism, but there were numerous complaints about these too.

For all this pain, India has gone from a little over 500 cases to over two lakh cases from the last week of March to end May. Ram Madhav, however, explained away the situation with India's large population size. “You're right that there is some rise in numbers recently. But if you look at the period when there was a tighter lockdown, in the first four weeks, it was strictly under control. As we relax the lockdown a little bit, there is a little rise in the cases. But it is very much limited to a few areas. It is contained in that sense,” he said.

Ram Madhav went on to claim that when the first lockdown was imposed, India did not have the time to prepare its healthcare facilities. But now, he claimed, India has 9,00,000 beds ready and that the country was taking all precautions. This, even as there are several reports about families being forced to take their loved ones from one hospital to another because of insufficient beds, ICUs and ventilators in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, which continue to see big everyday increases in new cases. With insufficient staff and overflowing patients, hospitals in these hotspot metros are struggling to cope.

Sackur then read out a long criticism from writer Arundhati Roy— often branded an anti-national by BJP leaders and their supporters— about how the Indian government had treated the migrant worker crisis. Perhaps because it was the BBC and not Republic TV, Ram Madhav was forced to actually respond to the criticism instead of simply calling Roy an 'anti-national' and dismissing whatever she had to say. Terming it an exaggeration, Ram Madhav insisted that COVID-19 was contained to a few pockets of the country and had not, as Sackur was suggesting, spread to remote corners of India due to the migrant exodus.

The most shocking part of the interview though, was when the BJP leader blithely admitted on camera that as many as “four to five million” workers had walked back home.

“India has 130 million migrant workers. Out of that, about 80 million work in other states than their home state. It is bigger than entire populations of countries like Germany, countries like UK. That is the size of our migrant population. Out of that, majority of them, I would say about 90% of them, still stick to their places. They have not undertaken this perilous journey. But yes, you're right, about 4-5 million people have taken to streets to try and reach their destination,” he said.

After huge outcry and migrant worker protests, the government finally arranged for 'Shramik' trains to take them back to their home states. But not only have these trains been insufficient, as many as 80 migrant workers have died on them— thanks to lack of food, water and the trains even losing their way and reaching destinations hundreds of kilometers away.

For questions on the BJP communalising the pandemic, Ram Madhav merely said that his party did not “approve” of such comments and that the 1.3 billion people of India were united in their fight against the pandemic. Predictably, there was no response to why BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra, who have been actively spewing hate and Islamophobia, have faced no serious action. When asked what the government was doing about attacks on Muslims like the one on activist Zarine Taj and her family members in Karnataka, Ram Madhav perfunctionarily said that such perpetrators would be brought to justice, and went on to indulge in whataboutery, talking about the attacks on doctors, nurses and policemen.

More absurdly, Ram Madhav claimed that since the Prime Minister’s popularity ratings, done by independent agencies, showed that over 90% of the population approved of him, (this is true in some states, not everywhere in India), it wasn’t true that minorities were not in his support. “Everybody, irrespective of their religion, supports the actions and decisions that the government is taking, because it’s in the interest of the entire population,” he said.

A gobsmacked Sackur responded by saying that Ram Madhav appeared to be living in a parallel universe, citing an Islamophobic tweet by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy that played up the usual Hindutva threats about Muslims taking over the population of India. A giggling Ram Madhav warned Sackur that he would be sued by Swamy if he had misquoted him, and said...that the BJP does not “approve” of it. But of course.

Further, when Sackur brought up the Citizenship Amendment Act and asked Ram Madhav about Amit Shah referring to illegal Muslim immigrants as ‘termites’, Ram Madhav jibber-jabbered about the ‘context’ in which the comment was made. He defended the Act, which excludes Muslims from its ambit, and flatly refuted the charge that it was discriminatory.

Ram Madhav went on in this vein through the rest of the interview, painting Veer Savarkar as a great champion of communal unity, claiming that the RSS had never supported the Nazi ideology, defending the arrest of Kashmiri politician Shah Faesal, and the continued suspension of 4G internet in Kashmir. No real surprises there.

Watch the interview here: