As I watch the Gorakhpur tragedy unfold, “Nero’s Guests”, a documentary by P Sainath, comes to my mind. It concludes with Sainath’s speech where he shares a piece of ancient history involving Nero, the infamous emperor of Rome.
When Rome burnt and Nero could not control the fire, he decided to throw a party and invite “everybody who was anybody” to deflect attention from the fire. But there was no provision to illuminate the huge garden that was supposed to accommodate the laundry list of invitees. Which is when Nero had an idea.
He summoned the convicts in the Roman jail, particularly the ones about to be hanged or imprisoned for life, and burnt them alive in the periphery of the garden. The fire ensured there was no absence of light, and the party went on without any difficulties.
As horrific as it sounds, Sainath makes an important point. “The problem for me is not Nero,” he says in the speech. “What did Nero’s guests do? Did they speak out against it?”
The reactions to the Gorakhpur massacre and I use the word massacre with all responsibility, indicate we, as a society, particularly the urban middle class, have become Nero’s guests. The government hospital does not pay 60 lakh rupees for kids’ oxygen but spends 40 crores on cow ambulances. In the aftermath of what happened, the doctor who spent from his own pocket to save kids is sacked. One or two other people have been suspended, but the babus, and more importantly, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have shrugged responsibility when the buck directly stops with him.
Yet, social media is flooding with comments normalizing the incident. We are being told how people have died at the hospital in the past, and how Gorakhpur is an ideal town. The doctor who saved kids is sacked and we are told how he is actually an immoral man being accused of crimes in 2009. So when Times Now anchor Navika Kumar asks her guest to not “rake up kids’ deaths and divert from real issues” while debating Vande Mataram, she seems to be a mere reflection of Nero’s guests who watch her show.
When a man is killed in Dadri, we discuss whether the meat in his fridge was beef. When a man is lynched in Rajasthan, we wonder whether he indeed had a legitimate permit, as if it justifies the lynching if he did not. The way we, in the media, report rural India, and the indifference with which the urban middle class treats the plight of those who are not “one of them”, are all examples of normalisation that establish ourselves as Nero’s guests. However, If 60 infants dying due to criminal negligence does not disturb us, then nothing will.
The normalization has severely and successfully diluted the value of human life. As George Orwell famously said, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than the others.”