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Viruses Eating Into The Indian Society And Polity

Viruses Eating Into The Indian Society And Polity

It is disturbing and depressing to learn that the coronavirus cases worldwide as of now has crossed 2 million or in Indian parlance is 20 lacs. This includes more than 5 lacs in the United States, a country which boasts of upholding of every life, leading in technology worldwide, serious about human rights and protects the lives of its citizens from both internal and external crisis. If this is the state of affairs of the world super power what would be the plight of some of the third and fourth world countries who cannot even provide two square meals for most of its citizens.

The numbers given in the table below is frightening and   terrifying to say the least. Epidemics have been part of the human history. No one would deny this. But in a modern society, technologically boasting globe, to see and hear that over 20 lac population is affected as of now is not just alarming but horrifying. We human beings are good in giving names. From epidemics we have upgraded our plight into pandemic. But we seem to be totally not bothered by the fact that more than 1 lac people have died. That too those cases which are reported. There is fear that if we include the unreported cases, it would be horrendous.

It is heartening to see that the number of recoveries has increased to 4,91,599. But it is perturbing to see that even now over 71.82 per cent of cases are still pending. It is hoped that even these affected persons would recover and return back to their families and carry out normal life. It is really very encouraging that the cases reported in India are not that overwhelming. May be as reported that we are moving into third phase and more cases are reported and the number may move higher. But from the data provided by Worldometers, the death in India is more than at the global level. While it is 21% in the world and in India it is 24%. Similarly, the pending cases are also high in India.

It is really very encouraging that the cases reported in India are not that overwhelming. May be as reported that we are moving into third phase and more cases are reported and the number may move higher. But from the data provided by Worldometers, the death in India is more than at the global level. While it is 21% in the world and in India it is 24%. Similarly, the pending cases are also high in India.

As the number of cases began to increase it was feared by many Indians and others that with lack of health facilities, lack of space for social distancing, lack of reserve funds for taking care of needs of families, lack of provisions for home delivery of essential items, etc., the virus could spread and the pandemic can affect vast segment of Indian population. According to International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2018 report there are over 19.5 crore Indian population who are wage earners and about 12.1 crore population are casual labourers, that is, those who are not sure if they  will be employed that day or not. Among these the majority are women. It is there plight which is catching not only domestic attention but international attention. Not only following strictly ‘social distancing’ is impossible for them and also due to lockdown they cannot earn wages and due to this the entire family is at high risk.

These common masses of India are only considered as voting machines and not citizens whose rights and dignities need to be upheld and protected. It is an undeniable fact that these excluded and exploited citizens form the foundation of Indian polity and society. To their good luck it appears that coronavirus is a rich man’s bane. Forced to live in poverty and misery, the poor of India have greater stamina and resilience due to which many of them have not been affected badly. But if community spread of this virus takes place in India, possibly this segment of the population will pay heavy price. Whether this virus is affecting them or not but many viruses are affecting the Indian polity and society. It is time to take note of them and address them.

Dr. Ambedkar on Indian Society and Polity

Dr. Ambedkar being a keen observer of the Indian polity and society had made many profound and prophetic articulations. One of his major contributions to political thinking was to focus on the relevance of social democracy over political democracy. He believed that political progress would be impossible without a reformed and enlightened society. He also argued that only achieving political democracy is not sufficient but it should be taken a step ahead to the social level. Thus, the achievement of social democracy is more important and imperative if political democracy has to play its role for the country.

Spelling out this concern of his in the Constituent Assembly Debate he declared, “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life, which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life… On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value”.

Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar then went onto pose a basic and fundamental question that he had been agonised about. He asked: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?” Realising the dangers involved in the denial of equality in social, economic and cultural life of the citizens of a country, even though formal equality is dispensed in political realm, Ambedkar went on to caution: “If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

He finally, advocated that “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up” (Speech by B.R. Ambedkar on 25th November 1949, published in Constituent Assembly Debates, New Delhi, Vol. IX, p 979).

Being rooted in his time and with the data available to him, he further highlighted the behaviour of society and polity. According to him, “Most people do not realise that society can practice tyranny and oppression against any individual in a far greater degree than a government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those open to the government, also they are far more effective.”

But later realising the fact that the government itself is a product of the society at a given time, he argued that a government which is not for the people will only be an instrument in the hands of the exploiters and oppressors of the society. Hence, Dr. Ambedkar had warned: “There is great danger of things going wrong. Times are fast changing. People including our own are being moved by new ideologies. They are getting tired of government by the people. They are prepared to have Government for the people and are indifferent whether it is Government of the people and by the people.” It is becoming clear that if Dr. Ambedkar were to live today, he would have moved from government to espousing governance as central in a country like India.

In the light of the crisis that is unleashed by the coronavirus in India, the prophetic statements of Dr. Ambedkar expressed on March 1947 stands out as a precursor of the violation of the rights of the citizens of the country, especially of the most marginalized, vulnerable and excluded segment. “Political Democracy rests on four premises which may be set out in the following terms: i) The Individual is an end in himself; ii) That the individual has certain inalienable rights which must be guaranteed to him by the Constitution; iii) That the individual shall not be required to relinquish any of his constitutional rights as a condition precedent to the receipt of a privilege; iv) that the State shall not delegate powers to private persons to govern others”.

Even a cursory glance at the happenings in this country, highlight the fact that the framers of the constitution held us national ideals are discarded for personal and party interests. Slowly and steadily, the national ethos, national interests, national well being were subjected to selfish interests of the politicians. Thus, over the years, viruses of many types have been eating into the polity and society of India. This is all the more the case in the last one decade.

What has been witnessed in the last few days and weeks in India by the rulers of the country that too in the name of ‘protection of the country’ the inalienable rights of a vast majority of the common citizens are thrown to the winds. Day after day, one continues to hear the cry and agony the common citizens are forced to undergo in various parts of the country. While the social, political, economic and cultural elite are enjoying all the rights even in the lockdown imposed in the name of preventing the spread of coronavirus, the ‘weaker sections’ continue pay for the success of the lockdown as well as the protection and safety of those who can afford to follow the ‘social distancing’.

National and International Institutions Denigrated and Destroyed

The conscious and concerned citizens of the country have been repeatedly raising their voice that the national institutions like the National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Women, National Commission for Minorities,  National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, National Commission on Labour, etc., have been degraded if not destroyed by the present regime. Some of the other regimes at least paid lip service to these constitutional bodies, the present regime totally finished them.

It is interesting to note that the present Prime Minister was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when the Gujarat pogrom was unleashed on the Muslim communities in Gujarat in 2002. When the state machinery was used and abused to carry out communal carnage, the then National Human Rights Commission played the governance role to save the citizens and the country. But that remains the past history of this country. Now all the national institutions have been totally sidelined and silenced. The slogan of ‘One Country, One Culture, One Leader’ has become a reality. One is not sure if India continues to be one country but one leader has become a reality and all the institutions are destroyed.

Take for example, if the National Commission on Labour was existing and had the independence to operate as a constitutional body, it would have interfered in the plight of the migrant workers. In the absence of a body like this, activists were forced to go to Supreme Court to seek justice. The Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices S K Kaul and Deepak Gupta who heard the plea declined to give any judgement on this issue saying that the government is attending to this. But what is disappointing is that the Chief Justice S.A. Bobde is reported to have stated that why should the migrants get paid during this pandemic? This is very unfortunate. The lawyer arguing in favour of the PIL stated that the migrant labourers not only need just food and shelter during the lockdown but they need money to reach home when the lockdown is lifted and also take care of their families. It is not strange for a high ranking judge to make this statement because he gets paid Rs. 2,80,000/- per month. Possibly he is also making this statement hoping like his predecessor he would also get a plum post. In this situation, the common masses of this country have lost trust in the judicial system. If in normal times, the upholders of justice are not seen as unbiased, in a crisis time, not much of justice can be expected. Thus, viruses are eating into the administrative and judicial system too.

Obscure and Obscurantist Acts

In human history over the years and centuries, three factors have resulted in the destruction of human beings. They are: religious conflicts, war and epidemics. All these three were and are even now directly and indirectly related to religion. Epidemic  is a term that is often broadly used to describe any problem that has grown out of control. This is the outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. Pandemic is the outbreak of a disease which has occurred in several countries and continents. Pandemic even poses a threat to the entire humanity.

If this is the case, it is absolutely necessary and expected of us to respond to the corona virus pandemic in a scientific manner than taking recourse to some obscure and obscurantist acts. On 22nd March, when the Prime Minister forced on the citizens of the country ‘Janta Curfew’ and asked them to ‘beat plates’, there were some who went to the extent of gathering in big numbers and not only beating the plates but also engaged in beating drums and even lighting fire crackers. The Prime Minister himself when he addressed the nation forgot to remind ‘social distancing’. More and more, our leaders are leading the people in andh vishvas (superstitions) and andh bhakti (blind following).

Similarly, on April 5th the Prime Minister demanded that all the citizens switch off lights at their homes and lit candles and diyas or turned on mobile phone torches. This he claimed would result in two things: 1) It would exhibit the nation’s “collective resolve and solidarity” in its fight against coronavirus with this symbolic gesture; 2) It would also show the force of the light and a sense that we are not alone. Again some of the blind followers did put of the light and lit candles. Some once again showed either their bhaktai or used this as a chance to light crackers once again leading to noise and air pollution. Adherence to obscurantist acts are so strong that one of the politicians fired in the air, hoping to frighten corona virus from entering her or her house.

What is deplorable is that instead of leading the citizens to scientifically tested means and methods of prevention taking recourse to obscure and obscurantist acts has made this country once again a laughing stock. Further, it has led the masses from addressing real issues to obscure practices. One is forced to compare the leaders of our country with the despotic ruler of North Korea. Whenever it has faced a crisis, Kim's regime has responded with deceit, aggression, arms testing and militarism. Similarly, whenever in the recent past, the government of India was questioned about his omission and commission resulting into crisis, it has taken to some obscurantist acts. This once again eats into the democratic polity which is supposed to be based on facts and realities than myths.

Image Building and Ego Boosting

Irrespective of the Prime Minister being engaged in many obscurantist acts, his blind followers keep talking even other countries are following some of his ‘symbolic gestures’. This is how right from assuming the office in 2014, the Prime Minister has been leaving no stone unturned in image building and ego boosting. The citizens of India will surely remember the ‘Howdy Modi’ show organized in the United States of America on September 22nd, 2019. As reported Howdy Modi was a community summit hosted by Texas India Forum (TIF) for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of the United States Donald Trump on Sunday, at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, which was supposed to have been attended by over 50,000 people.

Howdy Modi event was very crucial to Trump. The political premise is that Trump needs to show up and woo an important electoral minority, that is, the Indian diaspora ahead of a tough re-election campaign for 2020. Mr. Modi even reiterated this fact by his slogan, “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar” [This time it is Trump’s government]. For Mr. Modi too this was an event to be organized in his favour as he begins the second year of his second term as the Prime Minister of India [The Wire. 21/09/2019].

It is exactly at this time that Varanasi town and many parts of Uttar Pradesh were reeling under incessant rains and flood. As Financial Express reported on 20th September, 2019, “The water level of river Ganga continues to rise in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  Lok Sabha constituency, mounting trouble for the locals. Incessant rainfall has caused the river Ganga to overflow at many places. The water level in the river has breached the danger mark of 71.26 metres in Varanasi”. The poor of Varanasi were left to fend for themselves and no relief worth its name was carried out by the government.

On the other hand, every Indian is living in fear and doubt. Indians over the year have become progressively polarized and frightened. Liberal Hindus, activists, minorities, Dalits, tribals, women, labour unions, were harassed and brutalized by the thugs representing the Hindutva forces. Even the government officials who followed the rule of law were not spared. Naked show of strength by those who beat up the officials sent shivers into the common masses. They lost trust in the polity of the country. Those who are already excluded in the Indian society are further pushed to the periphery.

Arrogant Posture Devoid of Progressive Actions

The subtle and sinister plan of the present regime to impose National Register of Citizens (NRC), Citizens’ Amendment Act (CAA) and National Population Register (NPR), etc., had already brought in total despair resulting in total distrust in the ruling elite. The arrogant manner in which these anti-people legislations were being introduced showed enormous political will in the part of the present regime. Irrespective of uninterrupted and nationwide protest, the present government refused to even look into the validity and utility of legislations like these. 

That type of political will is totally absent in the government’s response to coronavirus crisis. The Relief Package of the Government of India as announced by the Finance Minister of India on 26th March, 2020, is yet to take concrete shape. The 1.70 lakh crore rupees help that was primarily to benefit the nation's poor to tackle the financial difficulties arising from Covid-19 outbreak remains once again on paper. Compared to the central government, some of the state governments have done extremely well in responding to the crisis. Many of them are assessing the situation and are either changing their strategy or planning new strategies. But in some states, the people are left to fend for themselves.

Some of the politicians are already projecting an ‘empty victory’ over the crisis. Since they are in no way affected by the present disaster, they can live in make belief myths. This is the case with the American President who due to his arrogant behaviour and business interest has led the country into disaster. As of today, coronavirus cases reported are 435,160, deaths are 14,797 and affected people recovered are 22,891. But this is only an initial impact and what would be final count is not known. Similar is the tendency of our own leaders who till date have not made statements which would rally around the entire country to face one of the biggest crisis that India has ever faced.

Symbolic Gestures Devoid of Political Will

According to a NDTV report, over 3 lac trucks with goods worth 35,000 crores is stuck on the roads. Most of these trucks have no drivers and no workers to unload if the lockdown will be lifted. But till date there is no proactive statement from the government about the manner in which these would be handled in the eventuality of the lifting of the lockdown. If some camps were set up and some provisions were made, most of these drivers and workers would have remained and would have reached things even within the limitations of the lockdown.

The following depressing report was published by Anjana Pasricha on April 8th, 2020, ‘Indian Farmers Struggle to Harvest, Sell Crops During COVID Restrictions’. Summer fruits and vegetables have ripened, a bumper crop of wheat is ready for harvest in India, but hobbled by severe labour shortages, transport bottlenecks and plummeting demand due to a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, millions of farmers are staring at huge losses. The setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will plunge the country’s struggling rural economy that supports nearly half its population into further distress, according to farm economists. If agriculture is affected, food shortage leading to starvation is a reality.

Another sector is badly affected is the education. India declared a countrywide lock-down of schools and colleges. On 19 March, the University Grants Commission asked universities to postpone exams till March 31st, which was postponed further. The board exams conducted by the CBSE and ICSE boards have also been postponed until March 31st and further. There is uncertainty looing large about the lifting of the lockdown after 14th or extending it further. But what is disturbing is that there is no plan for progressively and proactively engaging the students and teachers into education whenever the educational institutions open up. One such plan could be to utilise the university students in a planned manner as volunteers to help out in many areas so that the teachers are not used for non-academic works. Also, teachers and schools should also be prepared in advance to use the first few days to speak about the pandemic, its impact, the necessary precautions even now and the readiness to sacrifice some of our leisure and wants.

Plan Lockdown Exit Strategy

In conclusion, it needs to be stated in addition to all that is being done by the government it is equally imperative to proactively and progressively reflect, call for suggestions, plan and implement a phased and well drawn out lockdown exit strategy. First of all appoint knowledgeable and concerned persons of various sectors into committees to propose exit strategy for their particular sector and combine all that and make an unified exit strategy for the country. Let each state and district also come out with their own exit strategy.

The following can be some of its components: utilise the already existing social platforms like village committees, peace committees, inter-religious committees, youth clubs, labour unions, etc., to bring back to normalcy once the lockdown is lifted; bring into use both formal and informal people’ organisations to accept and implement the exit strategy; address the health needs of the coronavirus affected people but also of the others; create a scientific temper among the citizens by desisting from engaging in obscurantist acts; reduce government interference and operate on the principles of good governance; bring into fore the civil society organisations and self-help groups of women, adolescent girls’ groups to build common concern as primary way of life now; build interface between the local governance units like PRI, Gram Sabhas and other layers of governance and civil society organisations, educational institutions and private sector; desist from divisive politics to a politics of solidarity of Indians; through all these move towards a crisis free India and coronavirus free India and an India that is democratic, secular, republic and socialist as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)