India has a sickness so serious, that even its response to the Covid-19 pandemic betrays a fatal infection. Nowhere in the world has a lockdown been as inhuman or imposed with such contempt for the lives of its millions of working poor. The Modi government's turning of a health challenge into a human catastrophe and the approval of a large section of India's elites can only be explained by casteism, which grades people on a hereditary hierarchy of worth, and legitimises the brutalization of 'lesser beings'.
The lockdown is in effect a caste atrocity i.e. a wilful act of violence inflicted on marginalized castes, and invisibilized in the name of halting a virus.
On March 23, PM Modi proclaimed he was locking down the country in four hours. Absent wages, work or relief, millions were pushed to the brink, sparking an exodus which is yet to let up or be officially acknowledged. When people have protested in sheer desperation, the state has responded with teargas, thrashings and detentions.
Policymakers, the judiciary, media and academia - all dominated by the upper castes - call these millions 'migrant workers'. But this anodyne term obfuscates how deeply caste is intertwined with class, and how the lockdown has unleashed a mass trauma being primarily borne by the Adivasi, Dalit and 'backward' castes of India. Cutting across religions, they are the footloose millions who keep India's farms, workshops and factories running, toil on roads and construction sites, service the homes of the rich and middle classes, care for their babies, and clear city streets and sewage lines. Among them were the Adivasi workers crushed by a goods train, Roshan Lal, a Dalit electrician who committed suicide, and 12-year-old chilly-plucker Jamlo Madkam who collapsed after walking for four days.
The very preventable saga of distress and lockdown-induced deaths of the last 60 days is apiece with the intensifying brutalisation of the lower castes over the past three decades. Year upon year of high economic growth has masked the unfreedom and fragile existence of the millions who power it, and the shoring up of upper caste dominance. Effectively, liberalization has fused with caste power, hardly an accident when caste circumscribes access to land, capital, education, justice, and healthcare.
Juxtapose the fact that India's top 10% now hold as much wealth as the bottom 70%, with the fact that India's private companies are almost exclusively upper caste-owned, with just two high caste groups, a small minority of the population, constituting 90% of corporate boards. The richest 1% has four times the wealth of the bottom 70%, in large part via a takeover and monetization of the land, waters, forests and resources that were the lifeblood of those at the bottom end of the caste spectrum. Whichever the party in power, this upward redistribution of wealth has remained uninterrupted.
Meanwhile, the joblessness which has come to characterise the economy keeps the lower castes segregated in wage-hunting and piece-work - invariably at below-minimum pay, and without benefits or protections. And so they retain one foot in the village while crisscrossing the country for work, hoping for a better life from the very processes that rob them of dignity in the first place. They end up in slums, cram into work units, or become the homeless millions - enduring immense precarity and exploitation, even through 'normal' times.
The BJP, an upper-caste party at the core, papered over these contradictions under the Brahmin Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But its 'India Shining' campaign of 2004 failed. A decade on, Modi has triumphed electorally twice, aided by relentless image-making as a bold leader, and a party-machinery flush with contributions from Big Business. What has remained unchanged are the fundamental contours of the upper caste discourse: a fevered nationalism which refuses to acknowledge systematic winners and losers in the new economy, and little security for the vulnerable, beyond the fig leaf of chronically under-funded welfare programs framed in the interregnum years of the Congress-party led governments.
This explains why Modi could slam shut the economy on March 23 and say nothing of how millions of Indians without any buffer were to survive his plan. Through April, as the exodus on foot intensified in a throwback to Partition, he glossed over the pain of migrants as a necessary sacrifice. His remarks drew little condemnation in a country that thrives on the 'sacrifice' of life, limbs and dignity of the lower castes. Even the term 'social distancing,' to which elites have taken like fish to water, is characteristically tone deaf: for the vast majority, it evokes caste humiliations and proscriptions of touch, dining and social relations.
As the economy tanks and unemployment soars, announcements in the name of pandemic relief will further squeeze the lower castes. Opening up fresh frontiers for coal mining, privatizing airports, defence deals and bizarrely, space travel, are sops to India's richest. Inter-state workers meanwhile still run helter-skelter for transport, and trains are turning into death traps.
The alacrity with which many states are extending the legal workday to 12 hours, and rolling back worker safety regulations, collective bargaining rights, and minimum wage protections won over a century of struggles, points to something ominous. As a worker abandoned in an industrial park with thousands of others said, "It feels like we have been locked up in a jail." Pleas to release trade unionists, minority-rights, Dalit, Adivasi and student activists, in light of the risk of contracting the virus in over-crowded prisons, have gone unheard. In fact, the pandemic has barely stopped the government's arrests spree.
Servitude for the lower castes, 'social distancing' for the upper, India's response to Covid-19 is resurrecting the worst excesses of its casteist past. The virus will eventually pass but there is no recovering from the collapse of values of solidarity and fraternity which were the moral inheritance of a republic born in the crucible of anti-colonial struggles. They have always only flickered in the world's largest democracy, but now their light is going out.
(Chitrangada Choudhury is an independent journalist and researcher. Aniket Aga is an academic.)
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