COVID-19: The Case of an Inept State and an Empathic Civil Society

COVID-19 has once again proved that the Indian civil society is willing to fill the vacuum created by the state in times of despair. Several organisations and individuals have been offering help to victims across the country.

At this very moment, most of us are in despair because we have realised that our government is incapable of battling the current wave of the pandemic that has led to the deaths of several of our fellow citizens. But, amidst this grim reality, we have also seen magnanimous individuals and groups that have come forward to lend a helping hand to their fellow citizens through webs of associational life.

Graduates from management and technology schools and entrepreneurs have set up life-giving centres. Here patients struggling to breathe can access oxygen, medicines and health care. Religious organisations have established shelters equipped with hospital beds, ICU facilities, medicines, and, yes, that indispensable precondition of life-oxygen. Thousands of young people have launched helplines that guide families desperately seeking information on hospital beds, ambulances, funeral sites and, sadly, hearses.

Hundreds of groups provide food to COVID-19 patients who are isolated at home or in the hospital, to migrant workers who have slaved for, as Marx put it ‘a mess of pottage’ all their lives, to the homeless, and to anyone in want. A majority of these organisations do not charge for these services. People have come together to expand the space for more crematoriums and burial sites, and extend financial aid to workers who cremate/bury the dead at grave risk to their own lives.

A number of these cremation grounds have been set up in parking lots, and even on pavements. But even these makeshift arrangements ensure that the dead are treated with, admittedly, minimal respect a society owes its own people.

Also read: This Pandemic Should Help the Govt Acknowledge the Crucial Role NGOs Play

A considerable number of citizens, motivated by deep solidarity for those who have lost families and friends, are making sure that the bodies of loved ones are not thrown into the river. When we think that till recently people who have been dumped in the river after death, were living, breathing, aspiring human beings who loved the country they lived in, who contributed to its wealth, who were loyal and law-abiding citizens, and who enabled politicians – who cannot provide for either the living or the dead – to come to power, the soul shrivels.

Today the bodies of more than a hundred people have been dumped into the river Ganges because the country does not have the infrastructure to accommodate those who died in pain. “Kitna hai bad-nasib ‘Zafar’”, wrote Bahadur Shah Zafar the last Mughal emperor of India in sorrow “Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein.” This is the tragedy of a ‘new India’.

Dead bodies of those who died of COVID-19 float on the banks of Ganga river in Bihar’s Chausa town. Photo: Twitter.

And what of the mighty Ganges that is considered sacred and that washes away our sins? Will the river survive the horrors inflicted upon it? “How does a river die?” asks the poet Uddipana Goswami: “a river like Rangi?/Do you have to dam her, drain her, dig her/in order to kill her?/Do you need to tell her she is no more/Your mother, lover, sister, friend? Or do you like the ancient king choke her/With the blood of a thousand foes?” Goswami destabilises the romance of the river; she makes it bear the burden of innumerable bodies of the dead. Substitute the modern pandemic for the ancient king and we have our answer. The romance of the great Ganges has been disrupted. It has become a substitute for funeral sites, a dumping ground for those who died because our power elites have simply proved incompetent.

Yet many people have been spared the fear of being treated as if their suffering simply does not count, because fellow citizens have voluntarily, spontaneously, and fearlessly bonded to rescue them from the ravages of the pandemic. We doff our metaphorical hat to them. They stepped into the vacuum created by a government that has failed to respond adequately.

Civil society amidst the repression 

Numerous individuals and groups have once again proved that when governments falter, civil society steps in to create self-help organisations that reach out to people who have been held hostage to a malevolent fate. This is the lesson of the East European Velvet Revolutions of 1989, which witnessed the reinvention of civil society. Networks of associational life have enabled civil society to go further, and battle dictators and military regimes, monarchs and fascism in major parts of the world.

In India, the last time citizens connected with each other and formed networks of associations was in December 2019. Thousands and thousands of Indians, irrespective of their religious affiliation, their commitments to specific belief-systems, their identities, their standing in society, their caste and their gender, came together to protest an injustice that loomed over the heads of the minorities vide the Citizenship Amendment Act and the impending National Register of Citizens.

The uprising was remarkable because since 2014 the Central government has come down heavily on civil society organisations that advocate and protect the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. The government, the Enforcement Directorate, the Central Bureau of Investigation, Income Tax authorities and the police have cracked down on groups and individuals working for the benefit of the disadvantaged. Advocates of human rights were arrested on flimsy grounds, they were delegitimised in the public eye because they were castigated as anti-national, and the bank accounts of their organisations were frozen.

Also read: India’s COVID-19 Crisis Is an Injustice, Not a Misfortune

In 2020, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) was amended to ensure that any foreign funding that non-profit organisations received from their partners or funders abroad had to be deposited in the Delhi branch of the State Bank of India, to be maintained presumably under the eagle eye of auditors and income tax sleuths. The procedure is so cumbersome that a large number of organisations have not yet registered with the bank. They have lost access to funds. Their mission to help people groaning under the effect of poverty, disease and injustice has been weakened.

Harassment of civil society activists is not new either in India or in other parts of the developing world. In some countries, human rights activists are ritually executed for daring to challenge the government and its many injustices.

Corrupting power and humane civil society 

Across this part of the world, holders of political power, bent upon securing a monopoly of power, have tried to abolish mediatory structures between the citizen and the state. Let us not mistake the matter, all governments are inherently coercive, intensively intolerant and solely devoted to the pursuit of power that – to borrow Lord Acton’s famous aphorism – corrupts, and corrupts absolutely. That is why democrats have inserted mediatory levels between citizens and the government: the rule of law, a judiciary committed to democratic constitutionalism, an independent media, and civil society.

Elected governments are expected to work within the framework of constitutionalism. Very few governments do so; they relentlessly subvert constraints imposed by constitutionalism, many dismantle institutions that protect citizens from absolute power, and try to subordinate the judiciary; an institution which is expected to be in the business of protecting the constitution and not the holders of power. Above all governments that legitimise themselves by reducing democracy to elections, instill fear by stamping out all forms of dissent.

Yet in 2019, lakhs of Indians arose to protest at the abuse of power and the looming threat of disenfranchisement of their fellow citizens. Masses of people marched in protest, read aloud the Preamble of the constitution in public, held up portraits of Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, and Ambedkar, sang the national anthem, and re-appropriated the right of deciding who is a citizen of India. Citizens of India prioritised democratic constitutionalism over undemocratic governments. That is the achievement of the movement.

Representative image of anti-CAA protests in the country. Photo: PTI/Files

The government was taken aback by the scale of the protests, the creative political imaginary of young people and the peaceful nature of demonstrations. This was civil society’s finest moment in India, a moment when the spontaneous mobilisation of citizens battled the enactment of injustice. We know how these protests were countered in February 2020. The outbreak of communal riots in Delhi, and then the eruption of the pandemic, put an end to public protest.

In the middle of the pandemic, the police began to imprison young people who had inspired and led mass demonstrations, at all times peaceful, at all times civil, at all times expressing solidarity, at all times weaponising the constitution of India. They are still in jail along with civil liberty activists who had spoken for the poor and the marginalised, and who had been arrested earlier.

Also read: COVID-19: Kerala’s Muslim Woman Cremator Shows Bereaved Needs Empathy, Not Religion

But civil societies cannot be suppressed. Whenever governments lapse on their obligations, civil society arises to protect the citizens of the country. In March and April 2021, the country was overwhelmed by the pandemic. The sight of so many people dying every day, for reasons that are avoidable, has shaken every citizen.

“Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord, when men die unprepared and look not for it,” says Catesby in William Shakespeare’s Richard III to Hastings. The response of the government to mass deaths was inaudible. When it came to the provision of health services, when it came to medicines, when it came to oxygen, when it came to beds, and when it came to ICUs, the government proved wanting.

Into this yawning vacuum stepped citizens and formed self-help groups in networks of associations. Moved by the tragedy and of the sheer horror of people dying on pavements waiting for, but, a breath of oxygen, some life-saving drugs, and ventilators, individuals recreated and reinvented the domain of associational life.

We have learnt one lesson from these multiple acts of ‘coming together’ in the interests of humanity. Manufactured divisions in society on the lines of religion, caste, gender, or any other criterion that is random, and purely arbitrary simply do not matter. What matters is the recognition that we inhabit a community of fate. Our lives are linked together because we are subjected to the same injustices and the same quirks and tragedies of destiny. Sickness and death do not respect one community over another. We share grief; we share sadness at so many lives lost. We reach out to those who suffer, and we suffer.

Shared grief has forged bonds of solidarity with people we may never meet or see. This has subverted the concept of the nation state constituted on the basis of who belongs, and who does not. The nation state has been seen by many scholars as one of the major mistakes of history, for rabid nationalism divides and fragments. It is responsible for oppression, and it is responsible for excluding many for the narrow interests of a few who regard themselves as the custodians of narrow nationalism.

Solidarity, on the other hand, constitutes a democratic political community. We would do well to rethink what narrow and exclusionary forms of nationalism have done to be body politic. We would do well to rethink the very concept of a constructed nation in search of a monopoly of state power. Let us learn some lessons from the greatest tragedy that has befallen our country. It is time to reimagine what we want our political system and our community to be.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.