PROFESSOR MOHAMMED SALIM ENGINEER of the Dharmik Jan Morcha – a joint national forum of religious leaders – is an IIT-Kanpur alumnus and Professor at the Malaviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur. He has done a Ph.D. on 4G mobile communication technology and is presently Vice President of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. In an interview with MOHAMMAD NAUSHAD KHAN*, he, as convener of the meet, talked in detail about the outcome of the online meet of religious leaders with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the challenges of the Corona pandemic and joint efforts by religious organizations and governments.
Here are excerpts of the interview.
Question: During the virtual meet with the PM, did you get the sense from the talk of the Prime Minister that there was a realization within that Covid was not handled effectively, and it is the need of the hour to manage it effectively?
Answer: Our interaction with the Prime Minister was a collective interaction of different religious leaders. This meet lasted for about one hour and 37 minutes. Each religious leader was allotted five minutes to have their say. After hearing all 11 religious leaders one by one, the prime minister responded in about 12 minutes in his concluding remarks. During the meet, the positive aspect of the pandemic was discussed, and the Prime Minister appreciated the social and welfare work done by the religious leaders through mosques, temples, churches, and gurdwaras.
The religious leaders also shared the people’s negligence in following Covid guidelines and spoke about big political rallies and religious gatherings. Also, they spoke on the lack of preparation and planning, which was not as per the pandemic’s scale and size. When the religious leaders were presenting their viewpoints, the Prime Minister heard the talk of all religious leaders with keen interest and noted down the points.
The Prime Minister, during his response, did not mention the failures and weaknesses of the government. However, he said that together and unitedly, we can effectively handle the pandemic. He urged all of us to support and co-operate in the government’s work and initiative, which will ensure good performance of the government. The Prime Minister emphasized that by doing so, we can build a strong and better India. ‘The meeting we have today is a symbol of unity and power,’ he said.
The talk was very positive, but the Prime Minister refrained from speaking on the weakness and failure of the government, which the religious leaders had insinuated during their conversation. The Prime Minister did not reflect on the issues raised by the religious leaders. But we believe that we have presented our viewpoints and apprised the Prime Minister of issues and our concerns. Maybe he was not willing to talk about the shortcomings of the government. However, we are satisfied that we have presented our viewpoints, and we feel it was well-received by the Prime Minister even if he did not reflect on issues raised by us. We are hopeful that something positive will come from this meet.
Question: As far as vaccination is concerned, the role of religious leaders has been significant, and they could play a crucial role as we move from here onwards. Was it discussed during the meet?
Answer: Yes, it was. The religious leaders talked about their efforts, and their role played during the pandemic, and the welfare work done by them. Similarly, our organizations have created awareness and dispel doubts, myths, and misinformation regarding vaccines. They also spoke about the work in the direction to ensure that the people follow guidelines. All socio-religious organizations have worked in that direction. The religious leaders and their organizations have worked hard in the vaccination drive, and we will continue to do so.
In his concluding remarks, the Prime Minister asked the religious leaders for their active cooperation and to support the government’s vaccination drive and fight the pandemic collectively. The Prime Minister also said that the role of religious leaders would be crucial in removing the hesitancy towards vaccines and urged them to work in that direction.
The religious leaders also apprised the prime minister for an awareness campaign regarding vaccination drive, which has yielded better results. But the fact of the matter is that we can do the awareness drive campaign; as for providing the vaccines, it is the sole responsibility of the government, and the government should ensure that vaccines are available to one and all. In our nine points discussed during the meet, the availability of vaccines was also there. We also said that the government should take the necessary step to expedite the vaccine’s manufacturing process and the availability of vaccines across India. The vaccination drive should be completed at the earliest, and it is crucial to prevent or at least minimize the impact of the third wave, and vaccination would be essential. Therefore, the vaccines should be provided at war footing.
Question: The atmosphere of hatred was also prevalent during the pandemic in some states; it is being said that even the pandemic failed to stop the hate. Did this point was also raised in discussions with the PM?
Answer: Yes, many of us spoke about the hate atmosphere prevalent during the pandemic. The religious leaders opined that they would continue to play their part wherever there is moral and social decadence and try to diffuse the hate atmosphere as and when required. But the responsibility of law and order is with the government and its machinery. The government should take note of anti-social elements, perpetrators of hate and violence and take stringent action against them. Pandemic calls for an inclusive approach and peaceful atmosphere, which the government can ensure through the rule of law. This issue was raised by many of us.
Question: There is no clarity till today on how long the vaccine could be effective. Even if it was not discussed during the meet, do you think the Prime Minister should ask his scientific panel to research the subject to find out the effectiveness period of the vaccines?
Answer: On this issue, I think our country is only the user of the vaccine and not the original developer. The research labs in some foreign countries have conducted the initial development, and we in India are doing a little bit. We have institutes in India where things are being done. It is a technical issue, and one country cannot form an opinion on its effectiveness. The international scientists’ forum and teams should research how long any given vaccines could remain effective. There is intense competition between countries and companies in developing vaccines, and there are different claims and counterclaims on it.
Companies through propaganda are trying to prove that their vaccines are more effective than others which are very disappointing because even during the pandemic, people are trying to make money through vaccines. We all know that all vaccines available give protection, and it is very difficult to say how long it will be effective. However, experts believe that whatever vaccine is available should be taken, and one should not be grappled in the debate as to which one is more effective or not. Every vaccine will give protection against Covid-19. This pandemic is entirely different from pandemics of the past, as Covid-19 is the smartest virus. Earlier, we had one type of virus, but now we have many variants. So researchers will have to keep pace with the changing variant, and it is a challenging task.
Question : Was there any other suggestion made or demand placed before the Prime Minister by the Dharmik Jan Morcha?
Answer: Yes, we presented before him nine points that included the suggestion of better health infrastructure and healthcare facilities, keeping in mind the damage the pandemic has caused to the life of the people. You know more than four lakh people have died due to Covid-19. The present healthcare facilities are inadequate, and with such facilities, we may not be able to face the challenges posed by Covid-19 in the future also. We have also suggested that the government should allocate a significant part of the GDP to health services. Healthcare facilities and the number of hospitals should be increased manifold to meet the challenges. As it was a meeting of religious leaders, some moral and societal values were also discussed by the religious leaders. When concluding the talk, we said that we had a virtual meet due to pandemic, but we pray to the Almighty that the situation improves quickly, we get rid of Corona then we hope and wish to meet with the Prime Minister in person.
Question: What kind of cooperation the Prime Minister suggested to the religious leaders?
Answer: The Prime Minister spoke about the role of religious leaders in various capacities through their religious place and organizations. He also talked about collective efforts and asked us to support the endeavour of the government in facilitating the implementation of the various schemes. He also asked us to work together during the one-year celebration of the government to mark the 75 years of Independence. He also appealed to make India “Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat.”
Question: Who were other religious leaders along with you?
Answer: Besides myself, other religious leaders who participated in the meet were Shankaracharya Shri Omkaranand Saraswati Ji (Prayagpeeth), Peethadheesh Goswami Sushil Ji Maharaj, Galta Peethadhish Awadhesh Acharya Ji, Chief Granthi of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, Giani Ranjit Singh Ji, Father Dr. M.D. Thomas, Acharya Vivek Muni Ji, Brahma Kumari Sister B.K. Asha, Swami Shantatmanandji of Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vir Singh Hitkariji of Ravidasiya Dharma Sangathan and Dr. A.K. Merchant.
Question: You talked about nine points that the religious leaders presented before the Prime Minister. What are these points?
Answer: The nine points are:
1. The government cannot face this great challenge of the Corona pandemic alone. Therefore, it is essential for all religious leaders, institutions and social organizations, and governments to work together at every level.
2. This great challenge can be met successfully only when mutual love, goodwill, and trust are strong in the country, and no one feels insecure. In this regard, both the religious leaders and the government should make concerted efforts in their respective fields. Serious efforts should be made to strengthen mutual love and harmony and stop those who spread hatred among the people. Religious leaders and institutions at the social level and the state and central governments at the government level must work hand in hand for this purpose.
3. There is a need to intensify the programme of vaccination. Religious leaders should carry out the campaign of awareness for immunization in society, and the government should try to ensure the availability of vaccines with great speed.
4. Taking lessons from the immense loss of life during the second wave, we need to increase the government health facilities manifold; there is a need to increase the budget for healthcare services in the budget of the central and state governments.
5. During the second wave, there were many incidents of black marketing of medicines and healthcare facilities, and private hospitals taking advantage of the situation collected vast sums of money. The central and state governments should take strict steps to stop this from happening again.
6. During the second wave, temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, ashrams, dargahs, shrines had become the centres of social service. With the help of government resources, these places can be utilized as centres for social service on a larger scale; for this, religious leaders and governments should work together.
7. During the second wave, many deaths, and chaotic situations came to the fore. In addition, there was negligence on the part of the public in following the appropriate Covid behaviour, and we failed to stop religious and political events with large crowds. After reviewing all these aspects, necessary steps should be taken to work in a systematic and disciplined manner in the future.
8. The Dharmacharyas also pointed to the moral aspect of the disaster. They said that one reason for natural disasters is the imbalance caused by the misuse of natural resources by humankind and, on the other hand, the immorality, misconduct, injustice, atrocities prevailing in the society. There is also exploitation, violence, and favouritism. Therefore, we should personally, collectively, and at the government level take stock of our own mistakes honestly and make serious efforts to repent, seek God’s forgiveness and improve ourselves. We hope that God will forgive us, bless us, and give us relief from the disaster of the Corona pandemic.
9. Real situations and problems come to the fore through constant discussion, dialogue, and consultation between governments and the public, religious and social organizations. Therefore, this initiative of the Prime Minister is welcome. It is necessary and valuable for the nation to continue such initiatives.
*Mohammad Naushad Khan works as a sub-editor with Radiance Viewsweekly.