The Floating Dead

In a society that routinely visits abuse and punishment on those who are deemed low, would the refusal of dignity at the moment of one’s passing on leave a scar on the social conscience?

Thousands of dead persons have been set afloat the Ganges in the northern plains. Because their families did not have the means to afford them a decent cremation or burial. Also, because there was simply no room to undertake either.

We’ve been horrified, shocked and stupefied. And the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) has stepped in to claim dignity for the dead.

Dignity resides in the living as well: whether workers, the poor or those pushed to the social and sexual margins. It inheres in our living, breathing bodies, as much as it does in our minds. In a society that routinely visits abuse and punishment on those who are deemed low, would the refusal of dignity at the moment of one’s passing on leave a scar on the social conscience? Especially when most of us do not feel any obligation towards the dying, in ‘normal’ times: think of those who die cleaning sewers, manholes, toilets; those who breathe in the foul air of the crematoriums day in and day out; or of those who quietly die, of hunger, half-hunger, illness brought about by hunger, and sheer sadness at not being able to remain human, and those who find themselves dead, because they are deemed inimical to the nation’s security.

Why should we feel anything more than a moment’s horror at those bodies washed onto the banks of rivers? Or why do we imagine that those that have let this come to pass would feel a measure of remorse? For the Indian state and its denizens, those they are willing to let die are always already non-persons. Those killed in so-called encounters. Those who die because they are dispossessed. Others who battle for justice all their lives, and find themselves incarcerated and are declared civilly dead. The state will not wonder at these deaths, in fact each such death is an occasion to further spread the contagion of hatred.

Also read: Uttar Pradesh: Rains Expose Mass Shallow Graves Along the Ganga as COVID-19 Rages

For, presiding over the floating and the other dead is an implacable leadership that has pushed a state power, always held with impunity, to the point where it is held, additionally, in a spirit of exultant relish, and without shame, in a manner that aligns the state to the official torturer. Besides, this is power that has no qualms about simulating political wisdom, week after week, in direct addresses to the people of India, while staying aligned with a cold and calculating political and economic logic. We have tried to parse this politics, whether it is fascist, authoritarian, populist. Howsoever we argue in this regard, it is evident that more than anything else, this is a politics that is animated by what the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe describes as the “fantasy of separation, and even extermination”.

Mbembe had in mind the so-called war on terror as it unfolded from the first decade of this century, but equally these words might apply to all who are disinterested in and actively do not want a world in relation. And who endlessly speculate about security and control, and about traitors and non-citizens, and Hindus and all others, but are not willing to recognise the facts. To quote Mbembe again,

“One cannot sanctuarise one’s home by fomenting chaos and death far away, in the homes of others.”

But there is another aspect to this disobligation towards the death that we appear to have cultivated, and which does not only have to do with the securitised and heartless state.

Think of the burning ghats of Varanasi, where the dead are committed to fire on ‘sacred’ ground – so to speak – and often half-burnt and decomposed bodies are claimed by the river. The passage to heaven, we are told, is assured when one is cremated thus. And that we can hope to sever definitely the ties between birth and passing on. This is not exceptional, as the bodies that have floated down, and continued to float down the river across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, were: this is every day.

Bodies buried in the sand on the banks of Ganga river, as coronavirus cases surge, in Unnao district, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Photo: PTI

The exceptional is what it is, not because it is otherwise unimaginable, but because it is not shaped so much by habit, resting on faith and legend, and held in place by social coercion, but by ethical desperation. There is a truly choiceless letting go, which points to how a large majority of people continue to make do with constantly thwarted expectations, with denuded hope, and yet do not resort to careless or anarchic anger. We see this dignified upholding of a resigned choicelessness in the acts of public care workers – be they sanitary labourers, crematorium workers or those who ferry the dead to their final resting place – they know that if they do not do this, very few will.

Also read: Now, Bodies Float Down the Ganga in UP’s Ballia and Ghazipur

Mandated by caste, and willed by society, and protected by the state, the labour of care that sustains health, hygiene and transports the dead to the elsewhere that no one knows, is held with so little bitterness. There is anger, there are assertive demands for rights, better pay and for the cessation of these tasks, or their being rendered truly ‘public’, but there is yet no hatred.

There is plenty of irony and sadness, and a sardonic awareness that the so-called dignity that is accorded the dead through the ministrations of a Brahmin pandit is often a tiresome joke. As has been reported, those who help cremate the dead sometimes also help with the final rites, though they are not meant to, and yet acute opprobrium is reserved for them, and they are accused of making money off the dead. But in truth, so does the pandit. So do all others who insist that dignity and the afterlife can only be secured by chants and caste authority.

In all this, neither our public conscience nor our social conscience is stirred: we dare not look into the eyes of those who actually grant us dignity, in life and death; rather, we anticipate our own inhumanity being held to account, and so retreat into routine casteist slurs, keep our distance, or hasten to be kind, without quite taking in the fact that to be fundamentally kind, we would need to annihilate this system of burdens and benefits that are distributed unequally, and with great brutality.

V. Geetha is a writer based in Chennai.