“One who owes his oxygen to the pump is a dying man. Is it any wonder that India is in a dying condition?”

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that these lines were written by someone deeply agonised by the deaths of thousands of Indians during the Covid-19 second wave in April and May. As it turns out, those sentences actually appeared in Young India on July 6, 1921. They were written by Mohandas Gandhi. A few months later, on March 5, 1922, he used the metaphor again. “India does not get enough oxygen and feels suffocated,” he wrote in Navajivan.

Gandhi’s invocation of this image of people gasping for oxygen appeared shortly after India had been devastated by the influenza pandemic that started in 1918. It buffeted the country in four waves before it ended in 1921. David Arnold estimates that 12 million Indians – 5% of the country’s population – died in the pandemic. Like with Covid-19, influenza affected the functioning of the lungs.

The pandemic touched Gandhi’s family too, taking the life of Gulab, the wife of his son Harilal. “I felt sad for a moment when I learnt that your family were afflicted with influenza and there was even a death,” he wrote to his eldest son on November 23, 1918. “But such news is pouring in from everywhere so that now the mind is hardly affected.”

Campaign for self reliance

Three years later, Gandhi travelled across India to urge people to extend their support for the Tilak Swaraj Fund, which aimed to gather Rs 1 crore to support the cause of freedom. To drive home the idea of self-reliance, he used the image of a person being able to breathe without requiring an oxygen pump.

Almost hundred years after Gandhi wrote those words, the Modi regime adopted “atmanirbhar” or self-reliance as one of its main planks. Unfortunately, it proved unable to even ensure adequate supplies of oxygen for tens of thousands of people suffering from Covid-19.

Gandhi’s prescient use of the metaphor of oxygen to educate Indians about the deepening crisis of India under colonial rule has continued relevance in 2021 when the country faced an actual shortage of oxygen, with disastrous consequences.

As the families of Covid-19 patients were desperately running from pillar to post to get access to oxygen cylinders, some leaders to conceal the true extent of the problem. In April, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath claimed that there was no shortage of oxygen or hospital beds in the state. He said that the police would take action under National Security Act against the “anti social elements” who were spreading rumours about a scarcity of oxygen. It meant that any one who complained of lack of oxygen became vulnerable to punitive legal action.

As a consequence, the Uttar Pradesh Police decided to prosecute a young man named Shashank Yadav who desperately tweeted a request for oxygen for his grandfather: “Need oxygen cylinder asap”. However, the police claimed that his statement was misleading since there was no shortage of oxygen.

The brutal muzzling of Yadav invoked memories of Gandhi’s speech at the Congress session in Ahmedabad on December 28, 1921, when he described freedom of opinion and freedom of association as “the two lungs that are absolutely necessary for a man to breathe the oxygen of liberty”.

He elaborated, “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.”

In November 1931 at the Federal Structure Committee Meeting in London, Gandhi had oxygen on his mind again. British suggestions for provincial autonomy divorced from key responsibilities were like a physician trying to pump oxygen into a dying body, he said. Cautioning that the oxygen pump in that situation would not produce any result, he feared more repression of people at the hands of British authorities.

However, he asserted, “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…”

When Narendra Modi held a meeting last week to review India’s oxygen availability ahead of an expected third wave of Covid-19, he would have done well to read an article Gandhi wrote in Navajivan written on September 16, 1928, in which he discussed the compassionate treatment accorded to cattle in Ahmedabad by a Jain firm.

Gandhi said that compassion should be as vast as the ocean. “...As 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 creature,” he wrote.

As is plainly evident from the brutal headlines every day, scaling up the supply of the “oxygen of compassion” would serve India well.

SN Sahu was an officer on special duty and press secretary to President KR Narayanan.