Featured image by Nathaniel Nampui Majaw
The Covid-19 pandemic has been touted as a great equaliser. One underlying theme has been the indiscriminate manner in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus affected both the global North and the global South, as well as people across class, gender, race and so on. However, in India, calls for social distancing to flatten the curve acquired a whole new meaning. Social distancing turned out to be a privilege that millions of Indians simply cannot afford. The visuals of starving migrant workers with children in tow making the endless walk back home from cities and being brutalised by the police evoke a range of emotions that defy words. The emotions that one feels are of heart-breaking pain, rage, and helplessness. Many of the media reports that I read and watched in the wake of the 21-day lockdown announced by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi have rightly pointed out the callousness and incompetency of the central government. However, they invariably stop short of naming what is at the core of this insensitivity.
One could ceaselessly criticise the atrocities committed by Modi’s regime; but what good is a critique, or a journalism of pathos, or high academic theorisations if they do not take the bull by its horns as it were. This has prompted me to drop the C-bomb — the caste question. How long will Indians pretend to live in a post-caste society and not address the evil that is at the root of a million injustices? The perniciousness of caste is an Indian reality that plays itself out in myriad ways. It plays out in both crude and sophisticated ways, at the village wells, in police thanas, in newsrooms, boardrooms and universities. In many societies where caste is a given, the unwritten codes of bodily comportment, of verbal deference and arrogance are unconsciously enacted. It can be all-pervasive as to become unnoticeable. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan remarks in a different context that the fish is not aware of its wetness because it lives in water. Similarly, many of us do not recognise the culture of callousness that we are drenched in. Hence the very people who enacted the tali-thali pandemonium at Modi’s bidding remain inured to the hardships of fellow citizens.
Modi’s callousness should not be seen in isolation as an individual pathology of wickedness. The lockdown is justifiable but the inefficient manner in which it is being implemented is indefensible. His disregard for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged populace stems in large part, from the “lobotomisation” that he underwent as a child at the shakha. The RSS for all its claims of caste “inclusivity” within its fold fails to tackle the everyday violence faced by the “lower” castes and dalits. Modi comes across as a cryptic man who does what he does either by having access to some mystical knowledge and power, or, out of sheer incompetency and callousness. It is a tragedy and a shame that many well-educated Indians believe in the former.
Now, consider the ruthless employers and landlords who lacked the empathy to support their employees and tenants during the three-week lockdown and threw them out to face the vagaries of the corona virus, police brutality, and starvation. Occupying a position of power, they did what came to them “naturally”. Where does such inhumanity stem from? For those who perpetrate casteism, it is second nature and it is often unacknowledged. Those who are presumed to be “below them” deserve no compassion, let alone human dignity. The cruelty exhibited by them is completely of a piece with Modi’s reckless decisions and disdain for the weak, the poor, the vulnerable and the downtrodden. India will survive the corona pandemic; but if sensible religious leaders cannot reform the worldview of the faithful, India will forever remain a bundle of contradictions — of wanting to find pride of place amongst the world superpowers on the one hand, and being riddled with poverty, disease, hunger, bigotry, and injustice on the other hand, fuelled by the “virus” of casteism.
Racism in India should not be explained by detaching it from casteism. The jibes and physical violence visited upon northeastern Indians emanate from highly misconceived notions about purity, pedigree, and hierarchy. It is further enabled by a culture of impunity. However, it must also be pointed out that racism is not a one-way traffic and victims somewhere can also become perpetrators elsewhere depending on their vantage point. This issue merits an article in itself and will have to be dealt with another time. Let me return to the main point by way of a conclusion.
The meagre and ill-organised relief measures doled out by the government as well as the contributions by the wealthy should not be regarded as charity. It is an issue of justice and equitable distribution and should be the norm rather than an exception. Every citizen has a right to and duty towards justice. The Indian politician and policeman think that the lathi is the solution to every problem. What we need is to advance the welfare state and not a police state. This is all the more pressing in times of a pandemic. With a crumbling economy and the visible signs of police and military excess, one hopes that the nation does not descend into a dystopia where existing social hierarchies become magnified. One saving grace is that the tragedy that is still unfolding has also revealed humane acts of service, generosity, and empathy by a few people on the highways distributing food and water.