Bhopal reported of Covid on Sunday, taking its total active cases to 11,770. Bhopal district’s crematoriums in April while official government data undercounted it to 104.
As the city’s residents beg for oxygen, medicine and hospital beds, one person has been conspicuous by her absence: Bhopal’s member of parliament Pragya Singh Thakur.
For over a week, angry citizens and opposition leaders have offering “rewards” for anyone who’s able to find their missing MP. Missing posters are being circulated, stating that whoever finds her will receive beds, oxygen and medicine.
Thakur was elected as MP in 2019 with a huge margin of 3.5 lakh votes.
Kankkshi Agrawal, a Bhopal-based activist who has been helping people find beds and other Covid resources, told Newslaundry that she had tried telephoning Thakur.
“I got her number from the Lok Sabha website and called her,” said Agrawal. “My first attempt got no response. The next day, I received a call from the number.”
Agrawal claimed that it was actually Thakur on the phone. “She introduced herself as her own personal secretary and started inquiring why I had called. I told her about the ongoing mayhem in Bhopal. She then kind of started interviewing me a bit about who I am, what I do, where I live. By that time, I knew that she herself was on the phone.”
But how did Agrawal know it was Thakur?
Agrawal didn’t just recognise Thakur’s voice; she claimed that on the call, the “secretary” said, “I circulated a [helpline] number last year,” something which Thakur had done last year.
Newslaundry accessed the audio recording of Thakur’s conversation. Five members of the BJP in Bhopal told Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity that the voice belonged to Thakur herself.
The person on the phone also gave Agrawal a phone number during the call, saying Thakur’s staff would “respond and provide assistance”. But assistance in which areas, Agrawal asked, and the reply was, “Call and ask on that number.”
Agrawal told Newslaundry: “I was shocked by her response. It’s her job to help people...She is totally missing from the scene. I tried the number given by her but nobody responded.”
But since Newslaundry could not verify the authenticity of this claim, we reached out to Pragya Thakur by phone, text and email to ask if she had impersonated a secretary on the phone.
Thakur responded on WhatsApp. While she did not specifically respond to the allegation that she impersonated a secretary, she said, “People say anything...Why will I go missing? There is no reason for it. Definitely my health is in extremely bad condition and right before Covid, I was taken to Mumbai from Bhopal for treatment, and still undergoing treatment. I have been helping people...working to get them beds, oxygen...”
She added, “People can say whatever they want but I will keep working peacefully as I am a sanyasi. I do my work without any kind of publicity. I don’t need a certificate from people who talk rubbish and don’t want to answer them. People whom I have helped know what I am doing.”
Newslaundry also contacted the phone number listed for Thakur on the Lok Sabha website. A person who identified himself as Swadeep Bhadoriya picked up and said Thakur was busy.
When asked about Thakur’s inactiveness in helping people in her constituency, Bhadoriya said, “I will convey your query but I would like to tell you that she has circulated the number of her office since last year. That helpline number is still active. Her team is working and we are in contact with the administration. Her physical presence is not there and I think it’s not required. You can see the tweets of her office.”
He added: “I can also raise questions about the absence of Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath. You should see her Twitter and Facebook accounts. She is working. People spread rumours against her.”
A day after this conversation with Bhadoriya, all the members of Thakur’s official residence in Bhopal tested positive for Covid.
Citizens forced to help themselves
Angry residents of Bhopal have now started campaigns demanding that their public representatives be held to account.
Mohsin Khan, 28, launched “Ghanti Bajao, Bhopal Bachao”, with posters of politicians and their contact details, urging citizens to call them and “wake them from slumber”. These politicians included Thakur, and MLAs from Bhopal like Vishwas Sarang, Arif Masood, Rameshwar Sharma, Krishna Gaur, and Arif Akeel.
“We started this campaign because people were in dire need of basic things and no one was there to help them,” Khan said. “They are not able to get oxygen, hospital beds, medicines, etc. There is a struggle right from getting admission in hospitals to the funeral at crematoriums and graveyards. People are helpless and they don’t have anyone to help them.”
Some MLAs have stepped forward, Khan said, such as the BJP’s Rameshwar Sharma and Vishwas Sarang and the Congress’s Arif Masood. “But Pragya Thakur can not be seen anywhere,” he said. “She is not even extending moral support on social media. She is just sharing posts of central and state governments along with celebratory wishes for festivals.”
Khan added that Thakur had been missing in action during the first wave of Covid last year. Yet again missing posters had been circulated and her party had said she had been , for “cancer and eye treatment”.
Anupriya Soni, 24, who is a doctor in Bhopal, said that Thakur has “shunned her responsibilities”.
“People are dying outright and suffering. It’s total chaos, but she is not in action,” Soni said. “She is our representative at the centre and is supposed to get medical resources for the city from them. She can use her MPLAD funds to avail oxygen and other medical needs.”
Soni added that no one knows where Thakur is. “Is she there only to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’?” she asked. “People are very angry and asking where she is...People who have connections are getting their work done but what about the common man who doesn’t have friends in high places? Social workers and volunteers are helping but they have limited resources. She is an MP with a lot of resources; why can’t she use them to help people?”
Shreya Verma, 22, told Newslaundry it took her 100 phone calls and four days to procure Remdesivir for her father’s treatment. “Pragya Singh Thakur is not anywhere in the picture in this crisis situation,” Verma said. “Even the government response is very slow, so slow that calls from the chief minister helpline to help Covid patients come a week after test results.”
Verma’s mother tested positive after her father. In her mother’s case, a response from the state helpline came nine days after they placed a request.
Several residents of Bhopal had similar stories to tell. Raju Kamble, 27, said his 14-year-old nephew died due to the unavailability of oxygen at a local hospital. “People are dying and these people are not there to hear them,” Kamble said. “What more can I say?”
Seema Karup, a social activist in Bhopal, said she’s been trying to figure out where Thakur is. “She was voted as a people’s representative so that we can approach her,” she said. “But people have never seen her during crises. She comes out for protests related to religious matters or right-wing parties.”
An important functionary of the state BJP said Thakur “got a ticket by chance” and won the election thanks to the Modi wave. “But she didn’t develop herself as a political leader, even after becoming MP,” the source said. “She is not fit to be an MP.”