When Covid-19 started affecting the entire world, many countries globally began enforcing strict lockdowns to prevent its spread. Following suit, Indian government announced the lockdown of entire country on 23rd March. Thousands of migrants, most of them Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujans were found stranded across India without food and water. Many of the migrant workers started walking hundreds of kilometers with families consisting of wives, children and elders. Some of them travelling crammed in trucks, containers and tankers as they were left with no choice other than putting their lives in danger due to the government’s inability to ensure their safe travel back home. Amidst this chaos, police in many states resorted to heavy handedness against migrants, adding insult to injuries of migrants, with few exceptions.
Recently, author of the new book, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, while giving interview to an American weekly magazine The New Yorker said: “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.”
Here, we need to take into account the ability of society to respond to any disaster whether natural or man-made. The society’s ability to tackle this kind of pandemics not only depends upon the progress in science and technology, which is critical, but also a number of other factors like the kind of social institutions the society has. As we know, Indian society is made up of the caste system. The previous experiences of discriminations faced by the Dalit Bahujan masses during natural calamities is an eye opener. The ruling castes’, which consist mostly of brahmin-upper castes, response to this pandemic has been very arbitrary, without giving due consideration to the needs of Bahujans.
Now, the government did not respond to this global pandemic until recently. It was busy welcoming and engaging the US president Trump as well as indulging in horse trading of MLAs in Madhya Pradesh. Though, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted a couple of times, his party also failed to raise its voice in parliament and doing its duty as a strong opposition party. As Kuffir, editor of Round Table India, observes in one of his posts on social media, “There needs to be a caste census of those affected until now. I believe they’re all majorly brahmin-upper caste. I question the wisdom of the lockdown on the rest.” The net result of the government’s response was that Dalit-Adivasi-Bahujan migrants were made to suffer for no fault of theirs, thereby compromising the dignity of the individual guaranteed by the constitution.
On the other hand, the government made swift arrangements for citizens returning from abroad, instead of screening and isolating them, which would have been an effective measure to tackle this pandemic. This is ample evidence that the government lacked clear vision and effective planning. The Prime Minister announced a one day curfew and the public performance of a symbolic thanksgiving gesture three days before the event. But when it came to a complete lockdown, he announced it just four hours before it started. This shows its utter apathy and lack of consideration towards the masses.
Further, instead of coming up with an effective action plan, government ministers were busy doing ideological propaganda. Union minister Prakash Javadekar announced the repeat airing of ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ on Doordarshan. Another union minister Smriti Irani was seen playing ‘Antakshari’ on Twitter. Many other ministers were doing similar things. The electronic media was seen justifying the lockdown and police brutalities instead of questioning the government’s inability to address the plight of migrant workers across the country.
What does the current scenario suggest? Anu Ramdas, editor of Round Table India, in one of her posts on social media says, “…the virus is only exposing this city and country’s regular state—a slave kingdom, a horrendously exploitative system. The virus and lockdown are not the causes for the material state of migrants, right?” This virus shows, the morality and attitude of the ruling Brahmin-upper castes towards the working Dalit Adivasi Bahujan classes. This shows Bahujans fit nowhere into the Brahminical imagination. They do not have any common interests, rather Bahujan interests collide with Brahmanical interests. Bahujans need to ponder over the question of, “What’s more dangerous for Bahujans? The virus or ruling class response to the virus?”
Rahul Bansode is pursuing his M.A. in Urban Policy and Governance at TISS, Mumbai.