By Sanjana Krishnan and Rahul Jambhulkar | –
As we rose to another day of peaceful quarantine in the West, we received a message from India. It was an urgent plea to help 80 families of Dalit (ex-untouchable) daily wage earners in an urban slum in Nagpur city in Central India. The families had run out of money and resources to buy food in the Nationwide lockdown that had taken away their jobs and any resource that could bring in cash to their households. We reached out to the State machineries placed to help ‘poor’ communities in despair. We tweeted the Nagpur city police and Maharashtra State police to call their attention to this; they responded with a helpline number. We called it. The message said it was out of order.
Caste was abolished in India in 1950. The caste system has four main categories – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (labourers). Dalits or Scheduled Caste (SC) communities (ati-shudras/ex-untouchables), fall outside this caste hierarchy. Article 15 of the Indian constitution makes it a crime to practice untouchability and all forms of caste discrimination. But the 2000-year old draconian social system is ingrained in Indian genes and we refuse to let go of it. The SC and Scheduled Tribes (indigenous communities) form nearly 25% of India’s population today. Both these groups have suffered social isolation for centuries and the arrival of corona virus has only worsened their social and cultural segregation.
The community also tried to find helpline numbers for the Prime Minister Cares Relief Fund, but failed. The only numbers we found were those that accepted donations, none that granted any. They also wrote to the local MLA (who is also the Minister for Power in the State), to no avail. After failing every attempt to reach out to all of these public officials and welfare schemes and exhausting our personal resources, we decided to crowdsource funds for food distribution using personal networks. The ration shops were shut, and when opened, food grains like rice and wheat were being sold at doubled prices even to the Below Poverty Line card holders. There were no funds delivered to the poor as promised by the Government of India. The prices of essential commodities surged to unaffordable levels making the urban poor helpless and susceptible to greater risk of marginality. By April 4, we had raised around 50,000/- INR (650 USD) from civilian contributions. The community youth immediately bought essentials and distributed among the families they identified. It was more than what they needed and therefore were able to reach out to over 200 families with food grains and vegetables. Over the next two weeks, more funds were raised through individual donations which was enough to sustain these 200 odd families of daily wage earners, at mere subsistence.
India came to a standstill on 24th March 2020 after the PM announced complete lockdown for a population of 1.3 billion, restricting any movement of residents, except for those providing essential services. The lockdown was bereft of any announcement for the poor migrants, urban slum dwellers, homeless and other marginalised communities. These groups were in a panic due to the nature and pattern of their livelihood. However, on 26th March, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced a comprehensive relief package for the poor, to be rolled out with immediate effect. The ‘PM Cares’ fund was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last week of March 2020, to reach out to millions of daily wage labourers with no source of income during the lockdown. High profile businesses, celebrities, cricketers, actors and major corporates in addition to individual donors contributed millions of dollars to the PM Cares fund since it was announced. Many public sector employees, physicians and association workers had to donate one day’s salary for this relief fund, despite it being a voluntary call for donations. The exact amount collected in the fund, no one knows! How it can be made available to the people, no one knows!
The despair has only risen for the Dalit communities during lockdown. With social distancing measures in India extended up to 3rd May, 2020, this community that we know and those like it, are caught in a double bind. One, of being law abiding, responsible citizens who want to #StayHome for the betterment of the crisis that has hit the globe collectively; On the other hand, they fear death by hunger in the absence of any financial aid coming their way. They live on a day-to-day basis, a meagre hand to mouth existence, buying food from whatever little they manage to earn in a day. This, is the story of a vast majority of Indians in India. Having a central relief fund that can assist these millions of people in dire need is therefore, an extremely beneficial idea. But where are the funds, if it is not reaching these people right now? How does one get access to these donations that have poured in from all over the world so as to feed the needy? What is the process to apply for these funds? No one seems to know.
On 11th April, a man visited his old mother who lived alone in the same slum to give her money, from a neighbouring district. He was arrested and taken away for a 14-day quarantine by the police within 12 hours of his arrival, rather violently! How did the police know of his arrival? If the police is in fact aware of prospective Covid-19 cases from an insignificant urban slum and are acting with great efficiency to maintain the spread of the pandemic, how are they not able respond to deliberate attempts to reach out to them for financial aid or food from the exact same community? This dichotomy remains a mystery and a marvel; and nothing short of tyranny. This tyranny has created fear psychosis, accelerated by the media, which is deteriorating India’s social fabric more than ever. The marginal communities are on the verge of violence, not just with the state but amongst each other as well. Hunger does make people angry! Some Hindus on twitter with a lot of zest, memes and banter, are calling out Dalits and holding them responsible for the Covid crisis in India.
The Covid-19 crisis introduced the world to the word ‘Lockdown’, which has a culture specific meaning and is not uniform in all contexts. In European countries and even in the USA, people are free to move during lockdowns but with reasons enlisted by the respective government. Anybody violating the rules has to pay hefty fines. Cities are not in a standstill, public transportations are working with reduced frequencies, essential shops are working at their usual hours. Germany in specific and Europe in general have been acting in their respective contexts, without dehumanising the poor, realising the draconic nature of these lockdowns in democracies. Angela Merkel’s latest video press release on 15th April is testimony to the Chancellors quest to stabilise the situation and work reasonably with all sections of German society. The German Chancellor has consistently prepared the public to face the crisis with confidence and expressed her disbelief over having to impose a lockdown in the country.
One does understand the fear of the pandemic, the need to maintain physical distancing and measures taken by governments across the world to contain its spread. What one fails to understand is the Indian government’s absenteeism in connecting with the people; the absolute lack of accountability of the world’s largest democracy towards its people is appalling, to say the least. India differs significantly from the West, arguably due to its population and uniquely unequal social structure. The community we speak of needs to step out of their homes for various needs, many of whom do not have an address for home deliveries, are daily wage earners, and have no access to drinking water or toilets at home and depend on public facilities. The videos released by Indian Prime Minister did not address any of these challenges. They were only a glorification of what India and Indians did as opposed to other countries to contain the virus without presenting any facts of how and where. There was no mention of how much money his relief fund has collected or how poor people could access it. It however, did invite people to transfer more money to his relief fund so that the ‘poor brothers and sisters can be helped’.
One cannot realistically expect people to self quarantine in a 10 square metre house shared by 10 people. How does one advice physical distancing to the homeless? In a country with high numbers of tuberculosis patients and survivors, malnourishment and chronic poverty, people who struggle for one meal a day, how does one educate them about etiquettes? India and Indians across the world have been following the dominant narrative of enforcing lockdowns on one and all driven by the spectacle created by global and national politics and mass perception of reality. For Indians specifically, these come with an ingrained caste bias. Without understanding our social fabric, the current strategy used for disaster management will only address the concerns of the middle and upper classes and castes and elites; rendering the cries of inclusion by the marginalised communities redundant.
We’ve seen innumerable articles and posts, tweets, photo stories that have been celebrating medical professionals, police officials working during these hard times. But not one celebrating or even taking note of the manual scavengers and waste pickers, who are among the essential service providers in India. Each one of them belong to SC and ST groups. The lower class Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, prefer death over working in a profession like this, as they deem it beneath their honor and high caste status. The Dalits are therefore most prone to catching the virus or any other disease for that matter, with absolutely no social safety provided by the government.
A poor Brahmin or Kshatriya does not have to face social exclusion and is protected by his Caste identity, but a Dalit, poor or rich or even the First Citizen of the country is not spared, and has to face the venom of this cruel system. It therefore becomes very crucial to draw out the difference in economic and social discrimination that is exclusive to India. The coronavirus has become an excuse to reinforce Caste in India. A prime example being that of poor Dalit migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh being doused with bleach disinfectants used to kill pests, on their return to hometowns. One could write a Doctoral Thesis on the number of these instances, where Corona is used as a legitimate cause to purify and sanitize Dalits. Where does one begin, and where does one end though?
One of the news reports on Corona mentioned the story of how every time a sanitation worker stepped out of his home, his non-Dalit folks yelled ‘Corona, Corona’ at him. He said, ‘Earlier they spoke to me from a distance because I am Dalit, but today I have become the disease itself.’
The current president of India, Ramnath Kovind is a Dalit (ex-untouchable) man who was nominated by the ruling right-wing to the position. On 17th March, The Telegraph published an obnoxious headline, ‘Kovind, not Covid did it!’; it referred to the President nominating the ex-chief Justice of India to the Upper House of the parliament. It was a denigrating comment with deep seated casteist beliefs coming to display through the pun. As mentioned, many right wing Hindus blame the Dalits for the coronavirus.
The Corona virus certainly doesn’t understand discrimination, but oppressive social and political structures governed by caste biases certainly add on to the multiple vulnerabilities of the marginalized communities in India. Caste is allotted at birth, it defines the role of a Hindu at birth, defining their social position irrespective of their acquired economic status. Caste is rigid to the extent that it can never be changed, even if a Hindu choses to convert to Islam or Christianity or any other religion, the Caste identity remains. Be it in choosing life partners, jobs or now in dealing with a global ‘pandemic’, where we cannot even spare the First Citizen of our country, Caste discrimination and atrocities seem like they are here to stay, irrespective of Corona.
Sanjana Krishnan is German Chancellors Fellow, at TU Berlin.
Rahul Jambhulkar is a Visiting Fellow at TU Berlin and PhD Scholar at IIT-Bombay.