Why is Modi playing down the deaths of children in an Indian hospital?

Nilanjana Bhowmick is a journalist and writer in India.

India this week celebrated 70 years of freedom. It should ​have been in a state of mourning.

Leading up to the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule, at least 63 children, among them 34 infants, died in a state-run hospital in the town of Gorakhpur — current chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s political base from where he has been elected to the parliament five times — after the oxygen supply was allegedly disconnected by the supplier over non-payment of dues which amounted to 6.8 million rupees ($106,000). The deaths occurred in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh — one of India’s most underdeveloped states with a population of around 200 million — run by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

In any other country, the sheer number of the victims would have merited flags flying at half-mast. But in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, where marginalized communities and minorities feel increasingly cornered, everything has been business as usual. The Indian prime minister — after remaining silent for a week — used his Independence Day address to the nation to offer condolences for the deaths. In what was a bit of a soulless message, Modi said that “several parts of the country faced natural calamities recently” and that “innocent children lost their lives in a hospital.”

More than 60 children died allegedly due to negligence in a state ruled by his party — but they couldn’t elicit a paragraph of their own in the prime minister’s speech. Modi’s cursory reference to a possibly preventable tragedy in a state-run hospital, which he equated to the randomness of natural disasters, is alarming given that India is still grappling to provide a better, disease-free life to its children. While the country managed to bring down its infant mortality rate by 16 points over the past decade, that rate is still higher than poorer neighbors such as Bangladesh and Nepal and the African countries of Rwanda and Botswana.

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