Quite often it’s the little things we say or do that make a difference. The cheering smile, the comforting pat on the shoulder, the collusive wink, the carefully-chosen word of praise. Each of them speaks more than words can. Whether you’re friends or strangers, separated by language and culture, adult or adolescent, we grasp their meaning immediately. And this is something politicians understand better than most of us. It’s part of the bag of tricks they so effectively use.
This is why I’m baffled no one in government and not a single person in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has chosen to applaud the incredible – in fact, almost unbelievable – behaviour of Mohammed Yaqoob. He and his childhood friend Amrit Kumar were returning on top of a truck from Surat to their village Banpati in Bihar 2,254 kilometres away when Amrit started feeling unwell. Yaqoob pleaded with the driver to stop and let Amrit see a doctor, but the driver and their fellow travellers refused. Instead, they insisted Amrit get off. Unwilling to leave his friend, Yaqoob got off as well.
Alone and deserted on the highway, far away from help, Amrit’s condition deteriorated. Yaqoob placed his head on his lap, sprinkled water from a half-empty bottle on Amrit’s face and wiped his forehead to bring down his temperature. I find the picture of this heart-breaking moment hard to see without tears filling my eyes.
“I realised Amrit might not survive,” Yaqoob later recalled. “He was trying to speak but could only make some sounds.” Yaqoob’s fears proved correct. Though a passing ambulance took him to hospital, Amrit died that night. Yaqoob ended up in an isolation facility at a district hospital where he waits to find out if he’s coronavirus disease-positive.
Questioned by journalists as to why he had risked his life, Yaqoob’s answer was without artifice. “Just as my parents are waiting to see me, uske bhi mummy papa ruke the.” Amrit was 24, Yaqoob is 23. Their story has lessons for people decades older but filled with prejudice and hatred. If only they could be told about it.
This is where our ruling politicians could have made a huge difference. There’s so much else they tweet and talk about, yet, of this uplifting story, they had nothing to say. It can’t be that they did not know because it was in several papers. And it’s not that it wasn’t in our country’s bigger interest – as well as their own narrow advantage – that it be publicised. After the divisions we’ve seen over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens, the Delhi riots and the Tablighi Jammat – which have shamed us in international eyes and, particularly, those of West Asia – highlighting this story and praising Yaqoob could have sent a forceful message of Hindu-Muslim fraternity. One that would speak more convincingly than pompous diplomatic demarches and verbose comments by official spokespersons.
When I first read about Yaqoob and Amrit, I felt this was a moment for the BJP, the government, but, most of all, the prime minister (PM) to respond to the charge that they’re inimical to Muslims. Imagine the impact if the PM had praised Yaqoob and spoken of his affection for Amrit as an example of the love that binds India’s people together? It would have reverberated in every Muslim home in India and right through the countries of West Asia where the belief that India – and this government- is not fond of Muslims is gaining credibility. It could also have made Modi look like a secular statesman.
We need to repair our image, not just in the eyes of the world, but even more in our own. Yaqoob gave the government a chance to do so. A single tweet, a carefully-crafted reference, a deliberately leaked letter of praise is all that was needed. But that little gesture proved too much. However, I’m optimistic. Often foolishly so.