(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Anu: How are the people at home and the neighbourhood responding, and preparing for the prolonged lockdown due to the pandemic?
Pradnya: I would say, uncertainty prevails. First of all, there is no clear communication between the authorities and the people. It is neither about the gravity nor about how the authorities themselves are preparing to respond to the needs of the people. It is no different than what we are witnessing at the pan-India level. The lockdown was abruptly announced giving no window for us to prepare ourselves.
In fact, the preparation is a lot more about having the capacity to afford it, with the majority of the people in my neighbourhood working as daily wage labourers. A few of them work at the sawmills, and a few as domestic helpers, security guards, sweepers, etc. The foremost concern, to survive during this lockdown, is to have enough groceries at home which not many of them have been able to purchase. The supermarkets are unaffordable, in each lane of the locality there are small kirana shops, and the owners keep daily essentials at their homes, from milk to the grains. As of now, most of them are buying groceries on credit from these kirana shops, this is an adjustment for the time being and not a long term solution. The PDS shops are far from here, going outside is risky since the police will beat them up and later the long queue waits at the shop.
It is very interesting to note, earlier very few and regular vegetable vendors used to come in our neighbourhood, and each of them had their fixed buyers but after the lockdown was announced there has been an increase in the number of vegetable vendors coming in.. these are the vendors who had never come to this side ever before and a majority of them are Muslims. Not only vegetable vendors but also the meat sellers, they bring dry fish too.
If I say for some time, it is good, we are not in a panic and we are not feeling the harshness of the lockdown because we are getting the needed things at our doorstep. But it is also a question of safety and protection now, from the invisible virus and the most visible consequences of the failure of the State and the local authorities, that it is pushing people to put their lives at risk. No one wants to take such steps, to come outside of their homes and search for possible earnings. No one wants to die due to hunger; no one deserves untimely death.
As we are seeing, the media is reporting and questioning how people roam freely on the roads without wearing any protective measures, without any masks and gathering together in the markets. Also, we are seeing in some places civilians getting severely beaten up for no reason by the police. The reports about the indulgence of religions, and its role in a pandemic- and before reaching any judgemental conclusion let us also ask, can each of us be able to have access to the authentic news, authentic information? If I were to limit this to my neighbourhood, not many have that liberty. They are consistently taking efforts to search for ways to pass through this bizarre phase.
It is very easy to blame the people as to claim how irresponsible they are, but is there a slightest clue on why are they doing so? Can we say they are unafraid about the disease?
It is paradoxical, to save themselves and their family from hunger they are ready to take the risk of getting infected. Because, they are seriously having a hard time believing people can fall sick because of the tiniest virus, which is not noticeable. Their vulnerability is noticeable, and it is much bigger than the virus.
Are we asking if the seriousness of the issue has reached them? The answer to this is a big No!
The police do not come patrolling inside the lanes, and therefore the vendors are able to easily move around. What does this indicate? Their earnings are affected, their goods are not sold completely and the usual daily sum of amount is not collected.
This is about the vendors, but if I am to talk about the environment in the neighbourhood, not many things for most have changed, they remain without work for days and months in normal times too, the lockdown has exposed them to more vulnerability because now their movement to search for work itself has been restricted. The quarantine is practically impossible for us.
Government has appealed to the employers to support the labourers by providing them at least minimum wages but leaving them at the mercy of the employers is not a good decision, will the savarna employers care for the Dalit-bahujan labourers is a big question. The Dalit bahujans have no safety net to survive in this crisis.
People in my neighbourhood, however, have decided to buy in little amounts from the vendors who come to sell their products, this is the least of the preparation they can do. A few days back, they were also thinking to have community meals so that no one stays without food. There is no idea how long the lockdown will last. This lockdown is completely against the Dalit-Bahujans, the government did not have any plan before its imposition.
Anu: Tell us about how the Ambedkarites in Aurangabad are responding to the pandemic, given that April is the month when we celebrate and come together as a community?
Pradnya: The month of April is very special, given that, the birth anniversaries of our leaders Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar fall in this month. The celebration plans are thought about at least 6-7 months before the events. This pandemic is unexpected, something that none had ever imagined would happen.
Jayanti is the biggest celebration for the Ambedkarites, people gather in thousands to greet each other, rejoice and pay tribute to Babasaheb and they are consciously making efforts to come up with unique ideas about how we can celebrate the Jayanti.
The lockdown is bringing many issues to the surface, the Ambedkarites are appealing through social media that it is a time and opportunity for us to live up to the real meaning of what Ambedkarism stands for, to live up to the values of modernity, compassion and maintain scientific temperament.
Discussions are going on about building institutions, like educational institutions, research institutions, hospitals, there are discussions and plans being prepared to think over how we can reach out to our people and create a better health care system for them. Can we rely on the state alone when we are continuously witnessing their dismissive approach towards the vulnerable marginalised communities- our people? They realise few among them can lend a hand and contribute to the collective effort to bring this dream of having our own institutions, infrastructure to reality.
There are calls being put up by the young Ambedkarites that this Jayanti is not a one-time event, but a consistent process of keeping our consciousness alive, strengthen as a community and empower ourselves.
In my neighbourhood, they have decided to not have the usual celebration this year and share what would have been their contribution instead to help the people who have lost their jobs and are facing difficulties in feeding their families. They have already started doing this work, not out of the pity but with a sense of being a responsible Ambedkarite community.
There is another interesting revelation that is how people in my neighbourhood are responding to this lockdown. Many times they are exposed to police brutality and the state’s apathy over the issue of caste violence. This time, the lockdown is for a completely different reason, all of them are battling against the invisible enemy, everyone by now understands that this enemy can attack irrespective of anyone’s caste, religion or gender.
My aunt was talking to me and she said, do these bamans (brahmins) understand why is the distancing essential? They are learned people no, why can’t they follow the rules? Do they realise how we have lived through such conditions facing the cruelty over social distancing for generations? Sarkar should decide now who to keep locked. She said, she likes the idea of how currently everyone is made to follow the distance. The ghee stinking bamans should be kept isolated inside their homes, they have brought the disease to us, that virus is not to be blamed. Our people don’t go to foreign lands much, but these baman-marwadis do, and they are untruthful therefore the virus cursed them.
The other day, the police came chasing a few young boys who were standing in front of the Buddha Vihara, as the boys saw the police walking towards them they ran towards their homes. Two-three police entered the lane, as soon as they entered the lane everyone came outside and stood in their verandas looking at the police. Few of the residents mixed their voice with the police and started to shout at the boys telling them, it is inappropriate to stand in front of the Vihara if they had no work there.. Police left after a while and some of them said, it feels like the time when Bhima koregaon violence took place, the police used to often come to our area. Few memories can never fade away.
We have a spacious Buddha Vihara here, but given the current situation, they have decided not to celebrate the Jayanti, we will be staying at home, do the cooking, place the Panchasheel and Blue flag, do the decorations and read the preamble on that day.
As it is shown and projected, the virus has not yet changed the outlook of the Dalit-bahujans, more than the virus they are still grappling with the intricacies of their daily life. The world may not be the same anymore once the intensity of the virus’ spread reduces, but their questions will remain the same for all time.
Pradnya Jadhav is a Doctoral student at JNU, freelance research, and policy analysis consultant. She is the founder-editor of Lekhani.