An Invisible Virus Highlights the Virulence of an Age-Old Visible Virus

On Ambedkar Jayanti, a sobering reflection: Not just the coronavirus, no epidemic can threaten the existence of Dalits to the extent that caste hatred and poverty do. Henceforth, caste, aided by the virus, will valorise the very idea of segregation.

Talking about the aspect of caste discrimination at a time when all sections of people face a common problem is considered by society to be in poor taste. “Should caste be brought in during a crisis like this?  Can’t these questions be put on hold until the time is appropriate?” is the common refrain.

In the imagination of those who articulate such views, only Dalits are obsessed with caste. Even as Dalits continue to battle day-to-day discrimination and isolation, they are expected to consider themselves ‘equal’ in times of crisis, go with the flow and extend their cooperation when fighting a common problem, which, at present, is the challenge posed by the novel coronavirus.

The question is when social distancing, intended as a precautionary measure, inherently carries the danger of getting Dalits killed, how can they be expected to support it?

Social isolation, made mandatory for tackling the spread of the coronavirus, is a familiar concept for Indians and finds much favour among the Hindus – it mirrors the social custom of ‘untouchability’ which has been practised against oppressed communities such as the Dalits and Shudras, fiercely protected for over two millennia by the upholders of the Hindu sanatana dharma.

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended social distancing as a precautionary measure to deal with COVID-19, it left the caste Hindus in India naturally elated, for it is the idea of social amalgamation which is alien to them, not isolation or distancing. The fact that untouchability continues to be practised in hundreds of ways in independent India and that rigorous endogamy is observed by 95% of Indians, is testament to the ‘permanent social distancing’ that has prevailed in India for centuries.

For the rest of the world, social isolation in the time of the coronavirus signifies the physical distance between any two individuals. But many Hindus have celebrated it as international validation of ‘untouchability’ so integral to the savarna culture which considers the very touch of a low caste fellow human being to be polluting. Celebratory social media postings are now excitedly seeking to revive the Hindu sanatana dharma. Those who find nothing wrong with preventing a section of fellow citizens – the other – from entering their houses, streets, temples and other public spaces in the name of purity, now think that science has offered them one more reason for holding the beliefs they do.

Also Read: National Lockdown to Run Till May 3, Relaxations Possible From April 20: Narendra Modi

Post the COVID-19 crisis, the world will go back to its normal, non-discriminatory rhythm of life. But, in India, the Hindu concept of purity and pollution will become sharper. Henceforth, caste, aided by the virus, will not only keep people more segregated; it will valorise the very idea of it.

Lockdown and the tale of two Indias

Unlike countries such as Italy, Spain or Germany, which are one against the coronavirus, we have two clearly demarcated Indias – one that is ‘touchable’ and the other which is its very opposite, or ‘untouchable’.  You could call them rich India and poor India to suit your sensibilities.

Those who belong to rich India are not dependent on government assistance, so they are in a position to comply with curfew orders and maintain social distancing/isolation. They stand within chalk circles drawn a metre apart at grocery shops, unerringly use masks, sanitise their hands every 20 minutes as recommended, and go to hospitals if they catch a cold or experience breathlessness. Because they conduct themselves according to the government’s instructions and rules, they are model – orderly – citizens.

In contrast, Indians who hail from poor India, comprising the oppressed sections that cannot keep up with such rules, are scorned as ‘immoral’ and disorderly.

When the nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25, the marginalised in cities came on the streets in sheer anxiety and fear. The sight of resourceless migrant wage labourers crowding bus terminuses to somehow find their way home, angered the rich Indians. They worried that the crowds would spread the coronavirus infection and put their lives in danger.

Migrant workers outside the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal. Photo: Anuj Srivas

What we fail to understand is this: for a government order or rule to be obeyed uniformly by all sections of society, that society must primarily be egalitarian. Otherwise, that rule is bound to be broken.

While the lockdown has resulted in restricted lives for the India that is rich, dominant and touchable, it has not fundamentally altered or threatened the socio-economic fabric of their existence. But what of the other India which comprises two-thirds of a population of 130 crore? The ‘social isolation’, or untouchability, that had pushed a significant section of this India into a bottomless pit of poverty for centuries, is now assuming a different form to punish them economically, snatching from them their last remaining wherewithal to survive.

Those prohibited from entering the streets of the dominant castes due to caste discrimination now find themselves barred from all streets due to the lockdown.

The poor exist on India’s streets. When those who are already on the streets are driven away from there too, what choice do they have but to die? To them, a house is nothing but a shield against sun and rain. Toiling in the sun is the only way for them to earn a square meal. Telling them to stay at home is tantamount to handing them a death sentence.

The Indian government not only commits this act without any compunction, it also seeks to justify it.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to apologise to the poor for taking the harsh step of the lockdown. Was it not he who brought poor India to its knees during the national disaster of demonetisation? The sight of poor people queueing up in front of banks to access the meagre wages of their labour by exchanging their currency notes, some dying of exhaustion and hunger, is still fresh in one’s mind. These were ‘miscellaneous’ deaths which do not count in this country.

Considering this poor India is still waiting for an apology for the harsh ruptures it endured during demonetisation, this farce of an apology for imposing the lockdown seems a trifle too theatrical. The needs of poor India have been sacrificed to ensure rich India’s safety and comfort. How can that ever be pardoned?

For the inhabitants of rich India, the lockdown has come as an unexpected period of R&R (rest and recreation) – three meals a day and in-between munchies, permission to order in food from Zomato and Swiggy, enough savings to stock up on essentials, non-stop entertainment on Netflix and Amazon prime, and television delights such as Ramayan, Mahabharat and Bigg Boss. Rich India seems to be celebrating the lockdown as a vacation.

But, for the poor and the working class, the lockdown signifies a man-made famine. At a time when rich India was posting photos of new pastimes, from recipes to paintings to singing, tens of thousands of poor Indians – migrant workers including daily wagers – who had converged on  Delhi’s inter-state bus terminus to go back to their villages, were uncertain about their next meal.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Displacement is a way of life for the oppressed

The history of this country shows that the oppressed have been entrapped in a never-ending tragedy of forced migration. All they do – have done – is walk for hundreds of kilometres, without a definite destination in mind! Fleeing caste-based atrocities, exploitation of their labour by feudal landlords, and poverty, they leave their villages and states just to survive. During the British era, they migrated as bonded labour, toiling in inhospitable environs to create lush plantations and unimaginable wealth for their owners. Displacement has been a permanent way of life for them.

The number of Dalits migrating to urban areas is increasing year by year. According to an Observer Research Foundation report of 2016, the previous decade saw the Dalit population in urban areas increase by 40%. The replacement of the ‘untouchable’ tag with the relatively better label of ‘migrant labourer’ in urban spaces combined with better wages is incentive enough for them to migrate.

The milling crowds of workers in Delhi who started walking back to their villages post-lockdown are testimony to the fact that rootlessness is the one constant in their lives. No matter how long they may have lived in one place, it only takes an instant for them to be uprooted.

Also Read: Social Distancing and the Pandemic of Caste

Common sense says the out-migration states should have had a plan in place for its returning labourers, but they did not. One night, in a televised address, the prime minister made an announcement of a nationwide lockdown, providing only a four-hour window. There was no mention of any plan in the offing.

For the migrant workers, the lockdown meant one tragedy after another. Many who walked for hundreds of kilometres, carrying their meagre belongings on their heads, reached their villages only to be stigmatised and chased away. If they could not survive in the city, how could they possibly do so in the village? What if some of them were to reach their villages just as the lockdown ends. They would have to carry the same meagre belongings and return to the same cities that pushed them away, to feed their stomachs. Can their lives get any more horrifying?

The coronavirus began its global journey in January. India had enough time to prepare for its urban and rural poor, but it remained indifferent to their needs. The Indian government, which operated many a foreign flight to bring Indians back home, could at least have operated trains for the migrant workers for some days. Let alone run trains, it did not even provide sufficient buses for them. As the poor just started walking – adults carrying their children on their shoulders, children carrying younger children on their hips and belongings on their heads, going without food and water – the central and state governments remained unmoved.

Only coronavirus deaths make news

On day eight of the lockdown, the number of people who died of COVID-19 was 38. The number was repeated endlessly on television news channels. On day two of the lockdown, the number of migrant workers who died on their walk back home was 22 (now the count has crossed 100) but that was not newsworthy enough for mainstream television channels.

It was not deaths which mattered but deaths caused by the coronavirus. Deaths among the poor as a consequence of the lockdown – due to displacement, hunger, accident, poverty, malnutrition, stress  suicides, murders or violence – are insignificant.

The bulk of the mainstream media is content to echo the government, disinclined to question it about the post-lockdown sufferings of the poor or report their travails from the ground. India has about six lakh villages and as many cheris (Dalit colonies, or ghettos). Those who have been involved in disaster relief work – in the wake of flood, cyclone, tsunami or earthquake – will tell you that the dominant castes block the Dalits from accessing any relief, be it in PDS shops or shelters. If this was the situation when NGOs and democratic movements were active on ground, what must the condition of the poor when everything is under lockdown?

A 3D model of the novel coronavirus. Photo: Pixabay

The choice between life and food  

At least now those who say, “The coronavirus does not discriminate, we are asking you to stay at home for your own safety,” should grasp the reality – between life and food, the marginalised will always choose food.

They risk their lives to enter sewers, work as manual scavengers or suffer as bonded labourers to ward off the spectre of hunger. When they enter the suffocating sewers, all they hope for is their next meal – if they manage to survive, that is. If not, they die.

As much as 68% of Indians are trapped in poverty, with at least 30% of them living below the poverty line, earning less than Rs 70 a day. Of them, 90% are Dalits. The Central government, overcome by hubris, is intent on grandiose ideas such as the world’s tallest statue, a bullet train project or a Central Vista revamp. It has no plans to eliminate poverty. Instead, it aims to annihilate the poor.

The intent of this government has been clear for a while now – witness its move to reduce the educational scholarship amounts for marginalised students; introduce the single medical entrance exam, NEET, putting underprivileged, rural students at a disadvantage; ban beef consumption and thereby crush the livelihoods of Dalits; and announce a 10% reservation for the ‘economically backward’ in the general category.

In addition, the decision to impose a nationwide lockdown without putting a plan in place has created an artificial famine, giving rise to the very real danger of starvation deaths. That’s not all; the malnutrition caused by starving for long periods will create a new and permanent set of physical problems for the poor.

But these deaths will neither threaten nor upset rich India for the simple reason that hunger is not an epidemic. It will not affect anybody beyond the poor and the oppressed. A self-absorbed rich India does not pay attention to anything that does not threaten its existence.

Also Read: Tamil Nadu Man, Who Returned Home After Lockdown, Killed for Marrying Outside His Caste

Rich India gets whatever it wants even during a lockdown. On day three a question was raised  in the media as to why Swiggy, Zomato and Uber Eats were not functioning when grocery shops, ATMs, meat shops and vegetable shops were open, and they were soon operational – but only in the areas of the rich. Now bakeries too are open from 6 am to 1 pm in Tamil Nadu.

What were the special steps taken for poor India? A Rs 1.70 lakh crore package for 80 crore poor Indians as announced by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, under which women with a Jan Dan Yojana bank accounts will receive Rs 500 for three months; five kg of rice/wheat in addition to the 5 kg already being given, with one kg of pulse for each household; free gas cylinders and Rs 2000 for small farmers for three months.

How do we make sure that even this meagre relief reaches the poor, especially the Dalits, Adivasis and the Muslims, and that governments act responsibly?

The Tamil Nadu government may point to the Amma Unavagams (canteens) as a way of addressing the post-lockdown crisis of hunger. But, of 407 canteens, 200 are in Chennai and the rest in municipal corporations across Tamil Nadu. Don’t the rural poor Indians have stomachs?

Why didn’t the Central and state governments think of equipping social workers and NGOs working among Dalits with protective gear – like policemen, corporation staff and food services employees – so that they could help meet the food requirements in rural areas?

Even as the progressive movements of this country have been rendered immobile and mute because of the fear of the coronavirus, field experiences shared by small groups working in various areas of the state point to an imminent crisis of mass hunger. Rendered jobless by the lockdown, the poor who have returned to their villages will be forced to do menial jobs customarily allocated to the lower castes, left with no option but to submit themselves to slavery and exploitation (according to government figures, Dalits comprise more than 80% of bonded labour).

Coronavirus or caste – which is more deadly?

We feel relief when we see the India that is visible, orderly and ‘cultured’. But the India that is invisible is brutal. Here poverty and caste hatred continue to kill Dalits. Even in the time of social isolation and lockdown, Tamil Nadu has witnessed caste-driven atrocities and murders. But they will go unquestioned and unnoticed, by the police and the mainstream media because of the coronavirus.

Not just this virus, no epidemic or disaster can threaten the existence of Dalits to the extent that caste and poverty do. The biggest issue for Dalits is not the invisible virus, but the caste hatred in the hearts of the Indians who are visible. There is no protective gear or medicine which can save them from these threats. They have but one question – will death by coronavirus infection be more horrific than a death caused by caste-motivated atrocity, “honour killing” or sexual violence?

We are witnessing a society doing everything the government wants it to do to kill the coronavirus – clapping hands, banging pots, bursting crackers or lighting lamps, staying at home and practising social isolation. Inhabitants of rich India are quoting law to the oppressed and the poor, asking them to follow the government’s instructions. They do all this because they perceive their lives are on the line.

But the same sections of society somehow refuse to acknowledge that the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Laws like the Untouchability (Offences) Act, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act, are violated every day by individuals and governments with impunity.

Due to the information blitz surrounding the coronavirus as well as fears and anxiety, many are aware of the exact number of people who have died of COVID-19. How many would be aware that close to 1000 Dalits are killed due to caste-motivated atrocities every year? Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)reveals that:

  • every 15 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit;
  • every day, six Dalit women are raped; and
  • every year 56,000 children living in urban slums die of malnutrition.

Has India ever thought about de-castifying itself just as the Germans de-Nazified themselves after the Second World War? The stringent attitude that governments and law enforcing agencies are demonstrating towards violations of the lockdown – have they ever demonstrated anything like this when it comes to the violation of laws against caste discrimination? For that matter, has the media ever shown the unwavering focus it has demonstrated with regard to the lockdown and the challenge posed by the coronavirus? Has the judiciary pronounced strictly on cases of caste atrocities? The answer is a resounding no.

A permanent epidemic called caste  

Post-war Germany dealt with anti-Semitism over one generation by way of education and creating awareness – by admitting to the Nazi era crimes committed against the Jews, culminating in the ‘final solution’ of extermination camps, and making sure that there would never be a repeat of anything like it. Post-independence, India too could have taken steps to educate the people on the issue of caste and the inhuman discrimination based on it. Unfortunately, society lacked the conscience and the nerve for it.

Also Read: Coronavirus and the Neo-Tribes of an Increasingly Fractured India

”However good a constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad” said Dr B.R. Ambedkar. What we see is a parliament, judiciary, education system and our media echoing the status quo. In the near future, the coronavirus may well become part of our school syllabus, but any idea regarding the annihilation of caste will never find a place in it.

Dalit women carry a portrait of Ambedkar as they block traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad. Credit: PTI/Files

Even after seven decades of Independence, the caste virus is sanctified and protected as ‘culture’, to be proudly passed on to future generations. It’s an ever-present epidemic spread by touchable/rich India to suppress and oppress untouchable/poor/ India.

Unlike the coronavirus, which is controlled through social isolation, the caste virus can be controlled only through social mingling. One can’t help wondering if a society that is observing social isolation with so much discipline, will ever veer towards the idea of social mingling – going beyond caste to forge togetherness among all Indians?

What we know about epidemics of the past tells us that the coronavirus too will eventually meet its end. But caste? Regretfully, from what we know about caste discrimination as it exists in our society today, one has to say that the caste virus continues to thrive in our very body politic, harming it incalculably. Yet, there’s no dearth of esteemed members of society who wonder if the ‘narrow’ question of caste ought to be raised in the crisis-ridden time of the coronavirus.

I will take the liberty of addressing myself to all those upper caste Hindus who proudly embrace the caste virus – this question will chase you until the day you hold yourself accountable. Until the day caste is annihilated.

Jeya Rani is a Chennai-based journalist.

Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan.