It is ironic that two of the strongest functioning “democracies” in the world also offer the most prominent legacies of systemic oppression. The violent realities of India’s caste-based society and racism in the US have consistently been outshadowed by globally shared trends of “inclusion” that more often than not, aim to “teach” Dalits, Black people and other racial, ethnic, religious, caste and gender minorities how to “fit into” societies that were never designed to recognise their humanity.
The brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a White police officer in Minneapolis has served as a jolting reminder of how the idea of “entitlement” plays out in our societies. As members of the social scientific community, when we think of “entitlements”, we speak about people’s rights, about justice in the form of equal access to resources, about liberation. Unfortunately, this word holds a totally different meaning in the lives of the privileged – it basically is a feeling of invincibility. For the powerful, “entitlement” is about the freedom to remain silent, to turn the other way and continue life with a sense of normalcy even when nothing about the “normal” is just.
The rising support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and ensuing discussions about various forms of exclusion and violence against Dalits, Muslims and Scheduled Tribe communities in India reminds us that sometimes, “obvious” acts of injustice and “overt” discrimination pushes people to a breaking point, compelling them to expose and challenge systemic oppression. This ability to connect the dots between people’s “individual” experiences of inequality and “systemic” injustice, however, doesn’t always come to the forefront when we observe more predictable, “normalised” forms of suffering.
When we learn about the challenges of daily-wage workers who lose everything they possess to a pandemic or cyclone, when we see migrant workers walking for days without safe transportation, water or food and when we hear that they are being made to travel with the dead bodies of fellow migrants, we don’t ask “why” these horrifying things are happening. When these visuals flash before our eyes on our phones and computers, we are filled with a sense of “pity” or hollow sadness. Sometimes, we feel so moved that we proceed to tweet about how “grateful” we are to be so “blessed” in comparison to those who are devastated during such times of crises.
Registering our protest
However, we rarely feel the need to register our protest against a society and state that has always been complicit in bringing millions of people to such situations of vulnerability. Their helplessness is accepted as the landscape of our “new normal”, just like their misery blended into the backdrop of our cities even before a deadly virus or lockdown came into our lives.
We don’t ask the difficult questions unless there is an unavoidable trigger. In many ways, the Black Lives Matter movement has set a precedent for the world to take a deep, hard look at how even in the middle of a pandemic, the historically oppressed have been systemically dehumanised within our own “democratic” societies.
This brings us to ask ourselves – do we know if the system is “failing” or if it is working exactly as planned? Are we living in an unequal world because some lives just never mattered? Why is it that a disease that could only reach people who had enough privilege to take international flights continues to take the lives and livelihoods of the poorest and most invisibilised people in our communities? Where does our moral compass vanish when people are actively denied their chance to stay alive? Whose lives matter? Whose death becomes a forgettable statistic?
Systemic injustice creates scope for all kinds of abuse of power – from allowing the privileged to commit hate crimes without having to face any real consequences to making public services inaccessible to the historically oppressed. This is evident in the US, where in many cities, Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19. Today, the protests in the US are attempting to shake up the status quo by reimagining ideas of justice and creating a movement for “radical change”. Here, the first step of protest involves “re-humanising” those who have been “dehumanised” by “saying their names”. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. And so many more who lost their lives just doing everyday things – walking out of a store, going for a run, sitting at home.
Deepening injustices under the garb of “new normal”
Meanwhile, in India, the news of the migrant crisis, the plight of daily-wage workers, the atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis, trauma inflicted on civilians in Kashmir and the arbitrary arrests of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) activists is gradually becoming a part of public discourse. In response, some sections of the privileged classes and allies have jumped into action – signing petitions, donating and holding leaders accountable for deepening injustices under the garb of the “new normal”.
However, have we really “humanised” those whom we try to support? Have we stopped to think about “who” is left to die? What are the names of the people who are losing their lives during this humanitarian crisis? What do their names reveal about the system? Was this system ever interested in protecting them? Who are the people living in the designated containment zones? What do we learn from the social configuration of the people who are most “at-risk”? Why did it take a pandemic for the privileged classes to notice the vulnerabilities of such a large majority of society? When will we care enough to know their personal challenges, histories, aspirations and stories?
Given the ever-rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and casualties, conversations about death have become an inevitable part of the “new normal”. At this point, we need to shift the conversation from “how many are dying?” to “who is dying?”. It’s time we start paying attention to the names of those who are losing their lives to sheer neglect and inaction during this period of uncertainty. Though unlike in the US, there is no cohesive movement decoding oppressive structures in India, knowing the names of people who were turned into numbers for newspaper headlines will lead us to recognise that even at the peak of the pandemic, there is a clear pattern of systemic subjugation.
We can no longer afford to look the other way when all it takes is a mere glimpse into the “names” of the vulnerable to recognise that a person’s caste, gender, religion, place of residence and socio-economic status shapes their scope to stay alive; their potential to be seen as “human enough”. This raises the question, are they really “vulnerable” or are they “oppressed”? Who has “the right to have rights”?
The blatant disregard for the value of certain lives over others is more visible now than ever before. At this point, we need to make a choice. Will we deny what we are seeing, or will we recognise that in India, the lives of the poorest and most oppressed have not even been deemed worthy of mourning? It’s time to acknowledge that in the eyes of the privileged, some lives have never been lived, that is, they were never really counted as human at all.
Manish K. Jha is a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Sneha Tatapudy is a global development practitioner based in the US.