(Round Table India is doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu Ramdas: I would like to ask two questions. First, the updates you posted on the callousness exhibited by India in terms of not checking and isolating incoming travelers, can you please elaborate on them?
Kuffir: No, it is not callous. There is a structural problem. It basically means that the structures don’t enable the rulers to function outside the frames they have set for themselves. It’s like a machine, it’s programmed to function in a certain way. Even though it might seem like it is programmed to function for everyone, equally and with fairness, that is not the way it actually works.
‘The burden of a myth’: illustration by Nidhin Shobhana
Look at the exodus of migrant workers from Delhi. Do they have any rights? They’re supposedly in their own country, but forget the rights of citizens, they don’t even seem to deserve the protections offered to even illegal migrants residing in any country, internationally, especially in such extraordinary circumstances as during disasters, etc.
They lost their right to livelihood. It seemed plain that they never had it in the first place, not in the place they migrated from, nor in the place they currently worked. Their right to expression, protest, assembly, nothing exists, obviously. They just had to pack their meager belongings in bags or rags converted to sacks, and leave. Their right to life isn’t there. Not here, nor in their homes.
Conceptually itself, India was not meant to address the concerns of all those who reside here… The British transferred power to the Brahmins, upper castes of British India who co-opted similar ruling castes from the princely states. Where do the others come in, figure in this power-sharing arrangement?
There is a reason why Indian independence meant transfer of power from the ‘British to the Brahmins and Baniyas’ to Periyar. And why Babasaheb felt the so-called freedom struggle was an upper caste project. The vast majority, the Bahujans, were never a part of the imagined Indian community that the nationalist movement was constructing… how could they become a part of it, magically, after 1947?
So, right from the first government, they never said, we will promote universal education, or healthcare or employment. Nehru specifically had said, we cannot afford universal healthcare or education, or education specifically. So, even though the Preamble makes all the large promises, asserts universal principles, is very egalitarian, the government itself is not supposed to cater to everyone.
They have built institutions which cater to only 15-20% of the population. The 85-15 ratio that Manyawar Kanshiram Saheb talks about, it is very real. It is not just a piece of rhetoric. Beyond the 15% what they do is always random, never intentional or planned. If they have the political will and generosity of soul, that section of the ruling class at a particular moment, they might try to do something extra, but they will never reach all. They will never plan for all.
So how can we expect the government to test incoming travelers, especially if the overwhelming majority of them belong to their own class—the Brahmins, upper castes?
Anu: A related question is, disease has always been associated with the poor, the other, the dehumanized. Going back to the point where you say, the upper castes or elite, saw themselves as invincible, now they find themselves to be the disease bearers, transmitters …
Kuffir: They thought of themselves as invincible, because they thought they had pure eating habits, social habits, living habits. They associated the non-vegetarian diet or meatarian diet, with impurity, with pollution, with the lower castes. So, they thought they were free. Whatever they consumed was pure. Whatever they did, wherever they lived, it was pure. And the professions and work they engaged in, they’re pure.
What they ate, their work, their lifestyle, their comforts..their traditional status, in short. Their consumption has been the key driving factor in India’s political economy, right from the beginning. They were the purpose of all production in India since the so-called socialist era. All production was geared towards meeting the needs of the few at the top. This naturally resulted in the stunted growth of the manufacturing sector in India, which could never resolve the problem of huge underemployment and unemployment in the countryside. Therefore, there was no real growth in the industrial working class (unlike countries that had become independent around the same time, like China, Korea, Japan, etc), but population growth led to the rise of a highly informalised services sector in urban India. This is the background of the emergence of these migrant workers in Delhi, in every metro—a class of people who belong to neither the agricultural society nor the industrial class, neither to the past nor the present.
Their only purpose in the city was to serve the Brahmins, upper castes: build homes and fancy buildings for them (to be hoarded like gold, like a miser’s savings, not to fill any real housing need), cook and clean for them etc etc. This is how caste mode of production works: production geared to meet the consumption needs of a minority elite so that they can reproduce themselves as a minority elite the next day.
So when this elite class of consumers constituted the majority of international travelers coming in, the government naturally got very alarmed. They had thought they were immune to all kinds of diseases, right from SARS to swine flu, to everything else. They thought, as the ruling class, they were immune to these kinds of transmitted diseases. The notion of purity also comes into this, the Sangh Parivar, and all the Brahmin ideologues of the left, liberal, and all the irreligious color that meat is doused in, and that vegetarian food is very pure. They thought that all these diseases only attack those who were impure, were of impure eating habits, of impure diets, those who ate meat.
Therefore, this came as a shock to them that their own people, much celebrated and cause of a lot of pride—their students, their doctors, their software engineers, and their entrepreneurs who were settling, earning laurels all across the world—suddenly were transmitting this disease. They were also surprised that so many Europeans were getting it. Italy has come as a much bigger shock. I think, subconsciously, it always seemed like the idyllic western spot. Many [Indian] film stars and others have conducted their weddings there in the last 2-3 years, it seems like that perfect blend of picturesque beauty and also of modern efficiency.
They were shocked and they reacted late, I think. Even one of their chief ‘intellectuals’, Subramanian Swamy, is asking: why weren’t international travelers stopped around February 1? Of course, his focus is more on the Tablighi Jamaat followers, but it’d have been a very practical preventive measure to start sincerely screening all incoming visitors, including upper caste desis, from February itself, considering the fact that the first positive case in India was reported on January 30th.
If the virus were to initially attack the lower classes, the ruling class would’ve gone through the rituals of saving some, but this was different. For the first time it became very clear that their own people had to be seen as the pollution, as the pollutants, it is not the lower classes or the lower castes. So, they reacted late, and I think it affected them, a lot more than we think, psychologically. The Modi government was riding high, you can see it all in the first Janata Curfew, how they were clapping and banging, and whatever. A sense of, you know, hubris, that they can’t be in any way pulled down. They thought that in some ways, even though the economy was going down in the last 3-4 years, they thought they were invincible in their own world. They thought they had made their mark as ‘Hindus’ across the world, as a potential superpower, at least in the world of imagination.
But that’s only the first of inequalities in India. The caste divide. All other inequalities—between states/regions, between cities and villages, between geographies, within villages, towns, cities etc—all these are derived from or determined to a great degree by the caste divide.
Second, you can look at the various ways in which the state governments have responded, from Kerala to Bihar. In Bihar they say they can’t even find a doctor after calling prominent babus and leaders in office. This was made apparent by one senior opposition leader. He has been in the Indian government, the Bihar government, and various parties for nearly 35 years. So, if he can’t get through, nobody can get through.
In Kerala it seems like everyone is probably getting through. So, how does that look like? It looked like they are a better breed of people, better race of people, and Biharis are a worse race of people, and others are in other ways, different kinds of people. Are there better races of people? There aren’t, of course. In the same country, if you’ve such stark differences in how each region/state is affected by this virus and how they respond to it—we do need to critically look at their particular histories, political economies, societies, and not be blinded by the idea of one nation, which is perhaps the major factor always overlooked when we examine inequality in India. In all aspects.
For instance, some states have been less affected by the outbreak, even though they’ve large populations. Like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha etc..Even Andhra until a few days ago. By clubbing them all together, one could be making fatal mistakes in understanding the ground situation in each place, and offering generalised solutions.
In Andhra, even though they have the resources, they have so many doctors from there in the US and across the world. Go anywhere, you’ll find an Andhra doctor, from Fiji to Alaska. But suddenly, they don’t want to use these resources.
In this case also, you can see that the origin of the virus and its transmission into India is through only one mode, primarily through international travelers coming in from abroad. From various Western countries, and also from Australia, the Middle East, from London, Paris, New York, Washington. I am taking these names not out of my head, but out of news I have heard—this boy has come in from France, this man has come in from London, this man has come in from Washington, this woman has come in from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, all of them came from outside India, first. These are the primary transmitters, or vectors, I think they call them. They could’ve been identified right in the beginning. They weren’t, for the reasons I talked about earlier.
This disease was noticed first in China in December, now it is 3.5-4 months. Here, the first person tested positive on January 30 in Kerala, in Alleppey district. After that, some 5 students came into Kerala and they tested positive, and they recovered. So the Kerala government, which had announced a state of calamity, withdrew that and kind of relaxed for one month or so, until March 8. In the interim, we don’t know how many actually got through that, how good was the screening at airports in Kerala, and at other southern airports in Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Chennai. And in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata.
So, it came as a shock, and whatever happened later, they all reacted very inefficiently. In Kerala too, I think they had acted late. Now it seems like a huge exercise to hide all those inefficiencies, do things massively, shut down everything, clamp down on everything. The rat has already escaped. In the one month or so that they didn’t do any screening properly. It had already gone beyond the big cities, farmhouses, grand weddings, parties of big politicians and industrialists and filmstars, perhaps. They had locked the door too late.
That is the situation right now. Now we can only depend on how efficiently they can render service to those who have not yet been infected, and also isolate [those who are infected]. This is a very important decision, to isolate their own people. That will come as a very big trauma to them, to isolate their own children. Both processes are important, to keep the lower castes away from the infected people. The lower castes usually live in denser localities, spatially also it is very visibly distinct. This I said in ‘Hatred in the belly’ also, spatially we get only 15-20% of the living space, in cities especially. So, the lower castes have to be kept away from the major space-occupying upper castes. Which is very difficult, because the lower castes have to serve these upper castes in their everyday economic life. The second part is to keep cities away from the villages. In Kerala, the city and village are indistinguishable, the borders between them and the area between them, so it has a bigger problem, which they are not disclosing as yet. The city has to be kept away from the village. Because the Delhi, Central governments will not take care of the migrant laborers, the village society is safer, possibly.
These things have to be kept very clear in our minds. First, who are the transmitters? Second, who is going to suffer the most when they come into contact? The best relief the government can provide is to keep these classes apart.
Anu: And they had gained the markers of high civilization, of having services, being in clean areas, clean workspaces. The disease seems to have broken all those myths. How quickly will they reverse the story and say the disease carriers are the poor? That the disease transmitters are the lower castes?
Kuffir: Yeah, blaming the lower castes and spinning some stale narratives. Like stats on the number of doctors: less than one per 1000 people in India. But it is not the same across India. If you look at some states, they have more doctors per 1000, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, they have more doctors. Some like Kerala or Tamil Nadu are comparable to Sweden or Norway, per 1000 people. But these are all deceptive figures. This is one kind of inequality: that not all states in India have the same average of doctors per 1000 people.
Even among the states which have more doctors than the Western European or Scandinavian norm, those doctors are clustered in very urban areas. The spatial difference I’ve spoken about previously. I live in this city, Hyderabad, where within 2-3 kms, I can have cosmetic surgery, I can have a test tube baby, I can get a liver transplant, I can get a kidney transplant, I can have very critical heart surgery. All this is available to me within 3 kms maximum, and more than one option for each need. Whereas, as you step outside of Hyderabad city into the villages, that’s where the ratio falls so much, it is a joke even to think of 1 doctor per 100,000 or 10,00,000 people.
The government does not even envisage such a scenario, there’s no scope in its healthcare agenda for even thinking of employing a doctor per village. There is no such thing, there is no scope in the government plans for employing a fully qualified doctor, just one doctor for every village. This is the India that was never part of the ‘imagined community’ of the nationalist movement, of this empire’s ‘founding fathers’.
Here in Telangana, some villages could be 3000-4000 people, in Andhra and Tamil Nadu it’s more, Maharashtra it’s much more, population per village on average. The government never had this plan. That’s why I said, structurally, they never had any plan for the rest of India, over and above this 15-20%. Only ‘schemes’ to buy legitimacy for their domination. Therefore any minor heath emergency can ruin a Bahujan family for years, for life sometimes.
But the top 15-20%, their healthcare is also borne 80-90% through private expenditure. They do it on their own. But they’re insured, in several ways. Many Indians who go abroad don’t come back, because they cannot afford healthcare here. There, in Europe, Canada, Australia healthcare is assured, even in America to an extent. With the same kind of money, you can’t get anything in India. One day of the hospital can cost you 1 lakh rupees or 10 lakh rupees, you don’t know how much it will cost. There are absolutely no standards in measuring, what operation, what treatment, what therapy should cost how much. It’s a joke to compare on these universal yardsticks, like how many doctors per thousand, it is useless to use that in India. All the doctors, nearly 50-70% would be settled in 6-7 cities in India—Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata. And Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Indore, Chandigarh, these kinds of places, next. Where is the space for 6,00,000 villages?
So they have no plans whatsoever. I’ve been watching videos of Indian doctors in America, who are working in hotspots, saying to calls from the local media, that ‘it is very difficult here, in America!’ To take care of so many people, it is very dangerous if it goes beyond a certain level, India can’t handle this. That is very obvious. We can’t even talk in the same terms. We are living outside all frames.
And it’s not just the question of money in India. In the organized sector, to some extent, the government gives you some insurance, your employers assure you some insurance, but all that is useless. And this does not require very high-cost care, basically ventilators and isolation. Doesn’t even require much surgery, or much longer treatment. So this equipment, even that is unaffordable. Like the CM said, there are only 650 ventilators in Hyderabad, and there are already around 44 people as of now (over a week ago), confined and quarantined as of now, in a government hospital 3 kms away, and at another old hospital, called fever hospital. But these don’t have many ventilators. Even though they are serving their best until now there are no complaints from these two places. But if it spreads beyond a couple of thousand people, we know that the government can’t even handle Hyderabad city, forget all of Telangana. And Hyderabad city provides healthcare to lots of people not just in Telangana, also in parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra, usually. It’s stupid to think of whether we can handle it. The only way that is possible is to honestly think of who is transmitting it, identify them, isolate them. And to see that these kinds of public functions that Indians are famous for: social, religious gatherings where 1000s of people attend, those are totally controlled. Offhand, these are some measures I can think of.
With the migrant workers, I think the clampdown is like a very blunt instrument to deal with the problem. As I said, they were shocked out of their wits, at their own people getting admitted to hospitals, getting infected. So they brought down a very heavy hand. It could have been done much more intelligently, but they were not thinking of the majority. The majority they thought could be dispensed with for some days, or they can be provided with, as is happening now, some cash transfers, some rations. They were never on their radar. It is only now, after clamping down, that they are thinking about all that.
This interview was transcribed by Sundeep Pattem.