Dalitality: The caste factor in social distancing

Written by Suraj Yengde

Published: April 5, 2020 2:00:32 am

Social distancing in India comes with an edge, of caste. (Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

THE measures to handle the COVID-19 pandemic proposed by the WHO were directed at everyone. It was up to respective countries to introduce regulatory measures to encourage physical distancing. The Indian government got far too excited and hastily implemented “social distancing” by force, leaving a heavy-handed police to enforce an overnight curfew that left thousands stranded.

Plus, social distancing in India comes with an edge, of caste. Unsurprisingly, the moneyed, whether it’s here or in the US, profited. In India, prices of sanitisers soared. In America, the Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill largely rescuing corporates. However, while it is important to take care of the economy and healthcare of a country, let’s not lose sight of the cultural and political after-effects that coronavirus will leave.

One of the images that came out of India last week was of a girl child of about 6 years of age walking with her worldly possessions tied in a small piece of cloth on her head. Parents trekked with infants, even the elderly — all devastating evidence of the government’s inability to govern. Perhaps, surrounded by cronies, the premier is unaware of this horror show.

Unlike China and South Korea, India had the advantage of time and lessons from other countries to prepare. But, even as the pandemic was building up, it was caught up in the machinations in Madhya Pradesh.

What makes the injustice to migrant workers even more acute is the fact that many of them are Dalits or Adivasis. Of the 395 million inter-state migrants in India, 62 million are estimated to be Dalits and 31 million Adivasis. They moved to cities from their homes precisely on account of caste violence, atrocities, poverty or loss of ownership over forests and land. Post-COVID-19, they have been left again at their mercy of violence and exploitation.

The total lack of empathy of the middle class towards migrant workers is seated in their place in the labour hierarchy, which is right at the bottom, with them engaged in low-paying jobs as masons, helpers or cleaners. The women work at construction sites laying bricks or labouring in farms, or as domestic helps. Many are reduced to begging on the streets with their children.

While those belonging to the dominant castes undertake migration for upward mobility, the Dalits and Adivasis are unable to gain benefits as the system further disadvantages them in the urban spatiality, according to a research published in 2019 by S Chandrashekhar and Arup Mitra.

We need solid social welfare programmes. A country can’t claim any value if it doesn’t protect its weakest sections. The recent exodus of migrant workers is the outcome of an inefficient administration and the insensitivity of policy advisors, including the Prime Minister, towards the poor, Dalits and Adivasis.

Images of many of them who returned to villages kept quarantined in abysmal quarters is reminiscent of “cordon sanitaire” or “putting the impure people inside a barbed wire, into a sort of a cage”, as Ambedkar described in his magisterial treatise The Untouchables. The latter live in permanent segregation.

The ramifications of coronavirus will outlast the pandemic’s threat. Bigots may get scientific validation to adjudicate untouchability.

The administration should make immediate arrangements for the rehabilitation of displaced migrants and create opportunities for them to survive.

Crisis tests humanity in its worst form. Not just the poor, even the minorities have been targeted by those trying to give COVID-19 a communal colour. Let’s hope this pandemic unites us beyond the vestiges of caste divides and class hatred. If we are able to overcome the pandemic by burning down the regime of caste, we will have truly defeated coronavirus. After all, this pandemic has successfully made us across the world untouchables of modern times.

Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

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