Abhishek Juneja & Veeravenghai Vinith Kumar
(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu Ramdas: Thank you for taking the time. The first question that I want to ask is about the lockdown, the way it came about, and your reaction to that.
Vinith Kumar: I don’t think the lockdown came as much of a surprise to me. In fact, I was only shocked that it came this late in the sense that I thought when the numbers in Delhi sort of started growing, the state would immediately take some sort of cognizance of this and some measure would be implemented.
It sank in or hit me when news of the number of migrant workers who are stuck and wanted to go back and scenes from Delhi started coming out. That’s when it really kicked in, what the lockdown can do on bahujan lives. That’s when I was shocked by the fact that we didn’t think about what it actually would do for Bahujan. Yeah. Mostly. I mean mostly how we did not think in that direction.
Anu: The other thing is we have been hearing about lockdowns in different parts of the world and nowhere did we see people put out like the way they were in India every day. It seems like the state in all countries was actually taking care through the lockdown. It was taking people’s safety and concern as the reasons for why the lockdown was being placed. We never saw these images from any other country, regressive countries to dictatorships. And in brute capitalist countries, you did not see homeless people heading out with anywhere to go. The contrast was very, very visible for me given that I was seeing what happened to the people here and what was happening in India.
Abhishek Juneja: Like you wrote in a status update, that no other country was calling their workers as migrant laborers. You can be in your own country and those subtle differences between intrastate and interstate migration don’t really matter because when we say migrant laborers, we actually imagine people from other countries than your own. So, if a country can term its own people working in different parts as migrant workers, I think, it has been normalized to a point where it’s a part of our vocabulary to call them migrants. And because that is how we were trying to identify people throughout those three phases of ARG’s relief distribution, we would ask them, UP walle kahan rahte hain, aur Chhattisgarh walle kahan rahte hain..
And of course, the way to track them was also to look for the so-called migrant. The whole language thing also makes sense because no other country had pictures of people being stranded and being asked to be deported like this. No other country’s PM asked the citizens of that country to help their neighborhoods, you know, to show your charitable sides, and the fact that he can say it and people can believe that it is their job. It is their duty as citizens to take care of the needy. I think we have a very flawed sense of citizenship. I don’t think people understand the kind of relationship a modern state has with its citizens. They still think it is a patron-client sort of a relationship. Like in the feudal nations, the Lord would command something and the serfs had to do it.
And this is the sort of communication that was happening on TV. It happened throughout navaratri and the whole idiom around nine, that you take care of nine families and a sense of piety that got generated that we must take care of the poor. And the kind of language which the people used while giving out money to ARG, and most of them are apparently anti-Modi people. None of the people who contributed to our distribution fund are Modi bhakt of any kind. And yet the act of state appealing to the well-off people to take care of the not-so-well off people, it made so much sense to them.
Anu: I’ve been thinking about that even with respect to the Western countries. ‘Western countries’ is a confusing phrase, it hides their religious nature. These are Christian countries. The structures which guide state and philanthropy are very much about religion. So it’s a very biblical thing to take care of your neighbor. That is the ethos of the people. Not in a good sense or it to be pious or something. But it is the fabric of society. So the Salvation Army, the church, will be feeding people, distress or no distress. It is fairly easy to appeal to that morality.
Vinith: I think this migrant labor status had gotten me thinking as well, but I disagree with the terminology that it’s inhuman and so on, but I feel like at the core of it, the Bahujan know that they are a different nationality. However strong the notion of India is, but at the end of it, the working class realizes that if you are from UP, you are from UP. You can’t go and say I am Indian or a Bihari. For the migrant laborer, it becomes essential to state that you’re either from UP or Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan or wherever the hell in India. So, this notion of being Indian then becomes very clearly upper caste and therefore the usage also becomes very clearly upper caste. There is no India in the life of migrant laborer.
I think that we’ve constantly been anti-India in its idea and its conception and so on, but to have it actually reflect in the lives of Bahujan is something that I had not, at least in this scale imagined. I find that there is a fundamental difference between charity in Western countries or in the capitalist model versus a charity in a Brahmin state that the state can essentially dictate charity. It is not even leaving it to people to volunteer and for people to decide and so on, or for religion to make it a principle. But instead, the state literally dictates that this can be the only way that the state reaches out to its most vulnerable citizens.
So this difference can only be attributed to the fact that it is a Brahman state and therefore all Bahujan are essentially left to the charity of the upper caste in a situation like this where the state has to take responsibility for all citizens. And this is why this makes it even clearer that Bahujan are not citizens of India. To expect anything from India, anything different from India, doesn’t make sense.
Abhishek: It’s not just the Brahman state that dictates charity. Now you have Ramayana and Mahabharata being constantly played simultaneously while the lockdown is happening and you have the poor Brahmin coming to seek alms on the television every day. So the poor Brahmin can also dictate charity, you know, because he will curse you if you don’t give alms. Because those are the scenes of the Brahmin coming to Sita and all other mythological characters every day on television. And it’s not with a sense of desperation that the poor brahmin in Ramayana and Mahabarata asks for charity, it’s a threat. So the state also threatens, and the poor are threatened.
And we too were threatened. I didn’t tell you that the first day we went for relief work, we went to identify the locality where daily wagers live, those who were out of work. So after we started collecting names, there were some dissatisfied people, who actually started to mob around Vinith and one of them threatened to call the police and they actually did call the police. They were Brahmins who were looking, living on the outskirts of that locality where all the migrant laborer lives, and all the migrant laborers were from UP and Bihar. And of course, we had all their names. They’re all Bahujan. And this guy, one of those threatening us was flaunting a janeu. The two guys who came wanted to call the police because we did not include their names or we were probably not a respectable NGO or a recognized one. And he did that. He called the police. So I had to talk to the police to assure him that we were legit. So those men were very angry with what we were doing. They didn’t know us.
All of these localities had the vote of the local BJP MLA who is a Brahmin, Ganesh Joshi, I think we should have used that trick to identify all these areas. I think we should have gone looking for places with a plaque saying Ganesh Joshi had inaugurated here, it would have been easier for us to identify where to distribute all the rations. So maybe this brahmin was one of the local stooges of MLA and who wanted all this to be done through the MLA or through the local councilor.
Anu: But those are typical relief politics, right? During the Chennai floods, local people mobilized food, but by adding some state or party symbols to the relief packs it was made to appear like the relief was actually coming from the state.
Abhishek: I don’t know. We’ve been going to these clusters now for distribution, we had their names, the most amusing thing to see was that people were living in their own state clusters. So we went looking for reliable locals and we found them and even the distribution that happened on that pattern was good. In some areas, people told us that only Bihar people had received ration from the state and others hadn’t. So people don’t live together despite being from the same class and similar castes, but the fact that they’re linguistically and culturally so different, there was no real sense of intermingling.
Anu: That’s why Kuffir says each caste is its own country. Also, Castes are networks, information, and resource distribution happens through these caste networks. If you’re from a different caste but you’re from the same class and you speak a different language, the information flow is not going to be there. You’re not going to be part of a network that allows for helping or sharing. It has to be natural networks from within the caste network. So they are going to cluster. So information is the first thing, whether it is for survival or whether it is for any other interaction. You need information and information from your own linguistic community and from your own caste is going to be, the first access point for you. So where is the food available, how will the food reach you is also through that.
I wanted to ask a bit about, you know, is it revolutionary to be hungry and it leads to somewhere or is it revolutionary to mitigate hunger at the moment? I want you to elaborate, Vinith obviously has been thinking about it.
Abhishek: I think every time we passed by a mall, Vinith would say that his dream is to have all the daily wagers occupy these malls.
Anu: Yes. And it has happened. This COVID lockdown has actually done these things, within a week UK put thousands of homeless people in hotels in London, whereas all their life they have said we don’t know how to manage homelessness. How can we provide housing for them? Or, you know, some kind of crappy housing outside the city or something. But as soon as it seemed like the disease was going to affect the ruling class and social distancing was the only way, they found a solution and put them in the hotels. In New York city, the homeless were accommodated. So this is the most radical time for govts to become radical and for people to demand, whatever Vinith is asking is the most natural thing. That is why I felt one Bahujan voice could have stopped the exodus. If they had said, this is your place occupy all the bungalows, those huge bungalows over there. That’s where you should be. And they should be provided for right there.
Abhishek: And you’re talking about London and New York hotels. OYO probably has the biggest chain of hotels anywhere in South Asia, probably in the whole of Asia. And now they’ve been acquiring properties left, right and center in the west in UK and US. And I didn’t read a single story of an OYO home or this whole network of OYO hotels opening up their places and they’ve been absolutely empty for at least six, seven weeks now. Delhi alone has around one lakh rooms or beds, I don’t remember. So that alone would have taken care of the number of people who were left behind. It could have happened voluntarily. It could have happened at the behest of the state or at the behest of civil society or the opposition.
I was just saying that I think this need to self-destruct and get away with it, is the very nature of this Brahmin state. I think they realize that it’s not possible to restrict economic prosperity to their own class or caste anymore. So I think these regular pandemics will only help them consolidate things better. This is the way our economy functions. With disruptions of this nature, for one, of course, their whole business of religion goes up with it. The fact that even at a time like this, they’re managing to completely puncture whatever little sense of amity that existed between communities, religious amity. Those fault lines are very nicely drawn now. I was talking to Pradnya, she told me that her place is facing this communal tension and it has absolutely no history of anti-Muslim sentiment. And we heard these stories in Dehra Dun. Dehra Dun of course is at the heart of the cow belt. The brahmin state is using the pandemic to consolidate its empire.
Anu: The next question. So when you started this work, you must have seen multiple civil society groups, and other political groups, that would have been thinking along and acting similarly. Vinith, you specifically mentioned that it was shocking for you, did you not run into those groups?
Vinith: It was extremely shocking that Left groups that call themselves radical and so on also had only distributed. People who have tried to mobilize people in all sorts of spaces be it the CAA protest, whatever protests, and demonstrations, we’ve seen these people have constantly tried to mobilize, even if it was a class mobilization, they were mobilizing against the state. But I was seeing that even these people who are now starting to distribute supplies, it was the game. I mean, I don’t know if I should have been shocked by this, but I was, I was shocked that even these people have been limited to the roles of NGOs and charitable trusts.
I think I saw this as a success of how the state had tried to play with saving human life, forget about the economy, or the fact that we haven’t been prepared for this. We are taking this measure to save human lives. So this sort of image that this state has successfully managed to create, making it appear as though the Bahujan have not suffered medical crises before. In fact, everybody I know around them, in our own lives, there are instances where one medical crisis and then it wreaks havoc on people’s lives. One, because we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the social capital to deal with them. We don’t have any support structure to deal with any, any of the medical cases, you know, that one can think of.
So for instance, thousands of people have been dying of TB in the last decade, but the state doesn’t seem to care about it. The state doesn’t want to talk about it. It becomes really clear that when the Brahmin’s life is at risk, even when there’s the slightest anxiety of the risk, the Bahujan has to bear the burden of saving brahmin’s lives. Therefore the whole country just immediately agreed that the lockdown was necessary and so on. And so, yeah, I think this was the most shocking thing about the lockdown for me.
To be Continued.
Abhishek Juneja is a researcher and founder member of Ambedkar Reading Group, Dehradun.
Veeravenghai Vinith Kumar works as a documentary filmmaker and is currently based out of Dehradun. He is one of the founding members of Ambedkar Reading Group, Dehradun.
Anu Ramdas is the founding Editor of Round Table India.