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Narendra Modi Under Fire As COVID-19 Crisis In India Continues

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

India is now leading the world in COVID infections, with half of global COVID-19 cases happening in that country. And the United States has now announced that starting this Tuesday, it will ban non-U.S. citizens traveling from India to the U.S. because of the new variants of the disease spreading there. As the situation spirals, with hospitals overwhelmed and people being abandoned to die, the government of Narendra Modi has defended its handling of the crisis and has censored those who criticize it, including opposition politicians and activists.

Among those who are blaming the Indian government for the COVID catastrophe is famed author and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, who wrote in The Guardian this past week that what is unfolding is a crime against humanity. She joins us now from New Delhi. It is my honor to have you on. Welcome.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us what the situation is right now where you are. What are you seeing? What are people experiencing?

ROY: What is going on in the countryside, where there are no tests, there are no hospitals, there is no oxygen - nobody knows what's going on there. But in terms of what we do know, Delhi, the capital, cremation grounds have run out of firewood. There's no oxygen. I have friends who are just driving around town with a couple of cylinders so that they can just administer a little oxygen to someone who needs it until their oxygen goes up and then move on to the next place.

The crisis is huge. And the real problem now is that the massive criticism that has built up is being viewed very seriously by the government. Already, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the chief minister has said that anyone who says that there isn't any oxygen will have a police case registered against them. That has happened. So the health crisis is huge. The political crisis is equally huge, so the situation is pretty dire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gopal Agarwal, the spokesman for Modi's ruling party, said this in an interview with BBC's "Newsnight."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWSNIGHT")

GOPAL AGARWAL: If you make a concerted effort and take fake news and false narration, and build that and create panic out of the crisis, every government has a right to control the panic.

EMILY MAITLIS: Multiple people are dying.

AGARWAL: That fake news and false news - you want...

MAITLIS: Right.

AGARWAL: ...To say that we should allow this?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we hear there, they blame fake news, social media, the international press for putting a negative spin on the disaster. What is your reaction to those statements when you hear that from the spokesman for the ruling party?

ROY: Well, my reaction is not one of surprise or shock because already, as we know, for a whole set of other reasons, you have, you know, hundreds, thousands of people in jail already on false cases. You have among the best activists and lawyers in jail. This sense of those who complain are traitors, anti-Hindu, anti-India - all old tropes, of course. But there's huge unrest. You know, this - Modi must resign is trending on social media. You know, people who did support them once are openly coming out and calling them criminals and liars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is, of course, incredibly worrying because India is, of course, the world's largest democracy. I am...

ROY: That's the world's oldest joke, but...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

ROY: ...Yeah (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it also has a truth about it - right? - which is that it holds an incredibly important place in the world.

ROY: It is, and you're right. And the unfortunate thing is, in the last few years, you have seen every institution that is supposed to safeguard how a democracy functions being hollowed out, you know, from the courts to the media, to the election machinery. So, you know, it's a democracy which is putting up such a tragic show to the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You wrote in this article, the system has not collapsed; the system barely existed.

ROY: Yeah, because one of the things that you're seeing now is this kind of spin that's been given - oh, it's a tragedy; it's a once-in-a-century tragedy; the virus has overwhelmed us - which hides how systematically the government refused to look at the warnings by its own committees, refused to set up things like oxygen plants. The prime minister came out and encouraged people to show up in the hundreds of thousands at his election rallies. It organized a pilgrimage where 10 million pilgrims showed up while the virus was rocketing up, you know? And apart from that, you have this incredibly poor country where health has been corporatized. You have a vaccination program which is among the most expensive in the world for the poorest people. So these are very serious problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The government there also says, though, that they believe the world is treating India unfairly. I mean, do you think that that's partially right? I mean, what is your reaction to the U.S. ban on travel from India, considering that the United States has almost 600,000 dead and went through its own catastrophe?

ROY: All I know is that this is a problem that is not just India's problem, you know? In this atmosphere of terror and fear and tyranny, this virus is prospering. And then it's a threat not just to India, but to the world. So how do we arrive at a place - at a democratic place where there is a nonpartisan decision-making system in place that can get us out of this crisis?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I spoke to our India correspondent earlier, and she called you the conscience of the nation. This is a time of crisis. You do have an international profile. You're using that profile to speak out. Are you worried about your own position at this time in terms of this potential crackdown? And what is it that you want to say to those outside India who are listening?

ROY: I kind of don't like to be called things like that because I think the remarkable thing in this country is that there are so many people, so many activists, so many young people who have been fighting this just as I have. I'm not so effective at driving around the city with oxygen cylinders. I'm more effective writing, so that's what I did, and that's what I do. And I don't know what'll happen to us. I - as I say, I see vilification and punitive action against people who are seen to be blaming the government for this. But all the blame lies with the government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Author Arundhati Roy joined us from India. Thank you very much, and please stay safe.

ROY: You're welcome. Thank you. Goodbye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.