Rights

What India Lost in 2020

There’s little room for doubt about one thing: 2020 was, undeniably, the year of loss. A loss of time, opportunity, plans, possibilities but above all, of lives.

In many ways, 2020 has been a surreal year. Some have called it the ‘longest year in existence’. For others, months flew by like minutes.

As the pandemic engulfed all corners of the globe, the strangeness brought us all together. From ‘social distancing’ to the ‘new normal’, a slew of new phrases entered our lexicon overnight as we tried new tricks to keep ourselves busy under lockdowns.

But as we struggled – and still struggle – to make sense of this year, there’s little room for doubt about one thing: 2020 was, undeniably, the year of loss. A loss of time, opportunity, plans, possibilities but above all, of lives.

Ever since the very first case of COVID-19 was identified in Kerala, close to one and a half lakh individuals have died due to the virus in India. This number represents not only the lives lost due to the disease, but also the inadequate care at overburdened and underfunded public hospitals. In response, Prime Minister Modi did little to revive the dwindling health sector, the crumbling infrastructure or ensure protective equipment for medical staff. Instead, he resorted to diversionary tactics.

For days, Indians, as per the prime minister’s instructions, clapped, banged thaalis and lit diyas in their balconies, while at the frontline, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers – Modi’s ‘corona warriors’ – lost their lives.

A woman watches as healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) check the temperature of residents of a slum during a check-up camp for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India June 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

Also lost amidst this distraction, was a vast amount of money – approximately Rs 10,000 crore  – into the abyss of the newly created PM-CARES fund. Despite the existence of a more transparent Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund for emergencies and disasters, the government urged people to donate to the largely opaque PM-CARES. Many donations were not so voluntary, deducted as they were from citizen’s paycheques. Big corporates, of course, donated voluntarily, losing no time to avail of the tax benefits the fund offered.

While the government shielded itself from scrutiny by refusing to disclose any information about the PM-CARES fund despite the numerous RTIs filed, it sought to put citizens under greater scrutiny. Under the newly pushed through National Digital Health Mission, citizens’ health records would be digitised in the coming future and linked with Aadhaar – another step towards a potential loss of individual privacy through state surveillance.

Also read: Aarogya Setu App: A Tale of the Complex Challenges of a Rights-Based Regime

In March, the nationwide lockdown was imposed without any prior consultation with experts. While several BJP leaders didn’t lose any opportunity to call Modi’s decision ‘bold’ and ‘brave’, the economy lost its drivers. Critical sectors lost profits. Scores of people lost their jobs. But nothing came close to what migrant workers lost under the draconian lockdown.

Lost in alien states, out of money, work, shelter and food, lakhs walked to the only thing they had left – home. Barefoot, in makeshift carts, on borrowed bicycles, parents carried their young children and children their old parents, while the government and courts mutely watched the making of the largest mass exodus since the Partition of 1947.

Some migrants got lost on special trains. Many were lost to hunger. Many more to exhaustion. And when the parliament asked how many had lost their livelihoods and demanded financial compensation for those who died on their long journey, the government seemed to have lost the data. No data, no loss hence no recompense, it said.

Migrant workers

File photo of migrant workers and their families walking hundreds of miles to reach their homes after the national lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

This was also a year when we also lost some remarkable individuals. Former president Pranab Mukherjee, LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan, Congress leader Ahmad Patel, writers and poets like Shamsur Rehman Farooqui, Rahat Indori, Manglesh Dabral and artists like Soumitra Chatterjee and Irrfan Khan – each survived by a brilliant, dazzling legacy of his own.

But amidst the multiple demises, it only took one death, that of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, to show what the nation had really lost: a moral conscience. The country watched the agape as TV news media subjected actor Rhea Chakraborty to a misogynist, ruthlessly vile and false campaign, blaming her for all of Rajput’s miseries and death.

Also read: The Good People V. Evil Elites: How a Personal Tragedy Acquired a Political Spin

In the nonstop din of drugs, depravity and death, the country lost sight of more critical issues. Devastating floods in Bihar, rising unemployment and the record fall of the GDP by 23.9% in the second quarter – all were questions left unasked by the mainstream media.

Around the same time, at the Sino-Indian border, we first lost land in Ladakh and then men in trying to recover it. Cabinet ministers lost their ability to even take China’s name while referring to the transgressions, let alone restoring any ‘territorial integrity’. Not lost were occasions to ban Chinese apps, the only retaliation the Indian government could manage.

Not just territory, day by day this year, we lost what remained of the old image of a secular India. On August 5, Prime Minister Modi conducted the bhoomi pujan of the Ram Temple to be built at Ayodhya. By September, memories of numerous eyewitnesses who lived through the bloodshed and destruction of December 6, 1992, had completely lost their worth. A special court acquitted L.K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar among the 32 accused of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on account of inconclusive evidence. “The demolition was not pre-planned”, the judgement said, ignoring the testimonies that proved otherwise.

PM Narendra Modi takes part in the bhoomi pujan for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, August 5, 2020. Photo: PIB

With each passing day, the Muslim minority lost their political stake in the country. Before being demonised in the name of ‘UPSC jihad’ by the likes of Sudarshan News’ Suresh Chavanke, the community was blamed for spreading COVID-19 and ‘corona jihad’. With no evidence, members of the Tablighi Jamaat – and by extension, all Muslims – were subject to hateful Islamophobic rhetoric and violent attacks across the country.

The precedence for this violence – both verbal and physical – was set early on this year. In February, anti-Muslim riots were orchestrated in North-East Delhi, after incendiary speeches were made by BJP’s Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur. More than 50 people, mostly Muslims, lost their lives in the killings. Many more lost their homes in fleeing from the violence in and around Jaffrabad and Maujpur. Some never returned.

Shopkeepers lost their shops to looting. School children lost their classrooms to arson. The faithful lost their mosques to plunder. Delhi Police, for its part, lost something too – it lost sight of the impartial, fair investigation it is mandated by law to conduct. Ignoring those who provoked the violence, it instead rounded up voices of dissent against the Modi government using its favourite plaything, the UAPA.

Called ‘seditious’, ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitors’, students and activists like Sharjeel Imam, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jahan, Meeran Haider, Tahir Hussain, Shifa Ur Rehman, Gulfisha Fatima, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Umar Khalid lost their freedom for expressing dissent.

Also read: The Supreme Court of India is a Court of Rights, Not of Contempt

In Maharashtra, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu and Father Stan Swamy too lost their freedom for their dissent. They joined Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavara Rao, all of whom were arrested using dubious evidence planted to implicate them in the 2018 violence at Bhima Koregaon.

This year, the Supreme Court also lost its temper a lot – at Prashant Bhushan’s tweets, Kunal Kamra’s satire and Rachita Taneja’s cartoons; at citizens’ right to protest and at any demands for physical hearings. One person, however, who did not lose the court’s favour was Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami. Convening on a holiday to release him on bail, the court emphasised its duty to protect individual liberty. For the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi Riots accused, however, the wait continues.

With Goswami’s prompt release, the government iterated its commitment to press freedom. But this commitment was perhaps lost by the time it could reach other journalists like Asif Sultan and Patricia Mukhim.

Especially in Uttar Pradesh, where all was lost by way of law and order. The UP police arrested Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan under charges of sedition while he was on his way to Hathras to report on the horrific gangrape of a young Dalit girl by Thakur men.

Her death was followed by a forced overnight cremation and subsequent intimidation of her family – all of which was an indication of what Dalits, especially women, have lost in Yogi Adityanath’s UP: their dignity and rights.

police reforms

File photo of police at the Delhi-Noida border. Photo: Special arrangement

Instead of targeting those committing crimes against women, the Yogi Adityanath government targeted young men and women, using the bogey of ‘love jihad’. As the state government promulgated the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, with the view to stop forceful conversions, several other BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana also followed suit. In 2020, young interfaith couples lost their freedom to love.

Also read: The Freedom to Disagree is Getting Harder in More and More Countries, Including India

But despite the doom and gloom of 2020, one thing, surely, has not been lost: the spirit of resistance. This year has been bookended by mass resistance. It started with one of the most vibrant protests seen in recent times. It is ending with protests that are even more dynamic. In the chill of January, elderly women of Shaheen Bagh sat under the open skies in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Right now, at the end of December, farmers – young and old – from several states spend their nights at Delhi’s borders to demand a repeal of the corporate-friendly farm laws.

Both, the struggle of January and of December, are similar fights. For survival, for rights, for equal space and equal stakes in Indian democracy, for justice, for freedom and for a country that belongs more to its citizens and less to its rulers.

Zobia Salam has a BA in political science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women and is currently an intern at The Wire