Our country is in the grips of the Coronavirus pandemic. Where a large section of the population is poor, where millions leave their homes every day to struggle to earn their daily bread, the moment news of this epidemic broke—the instant the coming of a crisis was apparent—the government should have started working immediately to keep citizens safe. People needed to be protected from the virus while they kept the home fires burning. It should have been the government’s priority to protect the poorest, the weakest and most vulnerable from the pandemic and all its steps should have been directed their way.
It is on 30 January that the first Coronavirus patient was detected in India. He had returned to Kerala from Wuhan, China, and the government of Kerala immediately decided to face the disease on a war footing. By 3 February, the number of Covid-19 patients in Kerala reached three, and 3,400 people who had come in contact with them had been quarantined.
The knocking on the door was loud and clear, but the priorities of the people running the central government were elsewhere—it was not gearing up to face the disease. Trump had to be given a grand welcome, revenge had to be taken for losing the Delhi Assembly election at any cost, even by “identifying people by the clothes they wear” or proving people “anti-national”, the government of Madhya Pradesh had to be toppled and a BJP government installed in its place—there were so many priorities, and none of them included saving people from the disease or protecting the poor.
Not only did the government’s real priorities become crystal clear, the developments after 30 January also revealed the true face of our society.
Trump was to have his grand reception in Ahmedabad on 24 February. How Gujarat and the Centre prepared for this visit are an apt example of the real nature of our government and society. The route from Ahmedabad airport to the city passes through a locality where about 5,000 of the poor live. They are not only poor, they also belong to a tribal community called Saraniya. There is no school in their area and the people who live here are looked upon by the urban people with malice and contempt, so their children do not even go out to study. They are afraid of being ridiculed and insulted. The men of this area sharpen knives and instruments for a living, while the women are domestic help in the neighbourhoods of the wealthy.
The drains in this locality are supplied water for only an hour a day. There are toilets, but there is no sewer line. So the settlement is dirty. People living in the township are also dirty. Therefore it was necessary to hide the sight of these residents from Trump and the other guests who accompanied him. Therefore, when we should have started thinking about Coronavirus, a six feet high wall was been erected around this basti. The wall was also brightly painted over. Every effort was made to conceal the reality of this dirty slum of dirty people from the world behind this gleaming beautiful new wall—just the way we weave a web of beautiful words such as equality and parity to conceal, even from ourselves, the filth of untouchability that pollutes our country.
Somewhere behind a wall, somewhere behind the barren web of lies, an old and deadly epidemic keeps hunting the people of our country. With great cruelty, with new experiments that inflict more violence, this epidemic prowls the country, and nothing can stop it. Before it, the cholera, tuberculosis and plague pandemics are no obstacle. It is even ignoring the Coronavirus pandemic, and spreading without a stop. The hallmark of this epidemic is that it is still marking out ‘special’ people, on whom are to be inflicted violent attacks, and new ways to disrespect them found, and unimaginable barbarity to be applied on entire groups of people.
Corona, as we just noted, does not have any effect on this epidemic. Social distancing, empathy and brotherhood for one another, the clarion cries of patriotism, and the desire to see the rate of sickness fall, all of these have no effect on the non-stop, panic-ridden prowl of this epidemic.
On 30 January, Corona entered our country as the first patient and in the first two weeks of February, hundreds of crores of rupees and hundreds of labourers were employed in Ahmedabad to build a wall to hide the settlement of the tribal tribals.
On 16 February, 15 Forest Department officials were accused of shooting and killing a Dalit man in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh. The deceased’s wife, Saroj Balmik, said that two of her daughters were filling water at a hand pump when a forest ranger arrived to fill a water bottle. Water from the girl’s hands touched the officer. Then, another forest official arrived at the spot, and started beating both the girls. The girls’ father, Madan, came to the place with his brother Pankaj. They were also beaten. When they tried to escape, the rangers (one of them was a woman) shot at them. Madan died on the way to the hospital, Pankaj is injured. The rangers abscondedn.
On 26 February, during a sporting event at Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu, upper caste boys sparred with Dalit girls, to which some Dalit boys objected. They were attacked badly and one of them, Kalairesan, was killed.
On 27 March, Sudhakar, a youth who belongs to a most-backward community of Tamil Nadu, was killed in the same Tiruvannamalai district. He had married a woman from a slightly higher caste OBC girl six months ago. The caste panchayat of the woman’s community had declared the marriage void and Sudhakar was beaten, then banished from the village. He moved to Chennai. After the countrywide lockdown, he stopped getting work and and survival in Chennai became difficult. He returned to the village, where he also tried to meet his wife. His wife’s father and relatives beat him to death with iron bars.
An 11-year-old child of Musahar Tola of Ara district of Bihar died of hunger on 27 March. His father is a daily-wage labourer who had not got work since the lockdown. The district administration claimed that his son had died of some disease. Is any disease worse than hunger?
On the same day, news came from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, which is also the Prime Minister’s constituency, that children of a Koiripur village in the Bargaon block were forced to eat grass to fill their empty stomachs. Picture of this travesty were also printed in the newspapers. To this, the District Collector of Varanasi replied that this kind of grass is eaten and that he eats it himself.
It is obvious that whatever effect the lockdown may have on the control of Coronavirus, it has no effect on the big epidemic of untouchability. In the midst of this lockdown, on 2 April, this huge epidemic bared its fangs again. That day, again in Tiruvannamalai, Easwaran, a policeman, beat a Dalit boy with a cable wire from his belt for talking to a non-Dalit girl at Kuppanatham bus station. The policeman is absconding.
On the same day, Dalit youth Roshan Lal of Lakhimpur district of Uttar Pradesh committed suicide. He used to work as a daily-wager in Gurugram and had returned to his home in Fariya Pipariya village on the sixth day of the lockdown. He was placed in a quarantine in the village school. On 2 April, the police caught him and beat him terribly, even breaking his hand. Before taking his life, Roshan recorded his statement in an audio note. In it, he has said: “I want to tell you, if after my death someone says that I was tested Covid-19 positive, that is wrong. I tested negative and I have the result also. I want to end my life. But I want that action must be taken against Anoop Kumar Singh. Anoop Kumar has done grave injustice. I am feeling very helpless... Friends, if someone does not believe then take off my pants and see. You will not find anything but blood-clotting all over my back. I am going to commit suicide after this as I do not want to live any more. My hand has been broken. What will I do now in my life?”
Roshan Lal’s family’s complaint against the policeman has not been recorded by the police.
On the same day, 2 April, Abhishek from Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh was burnt to death. Six years ago he had eloped with a ‘high’ caste woman. The woman was forcefully brought back. That day, he was caught with the woman and burnt alive. Subsequently, his mother died of a heart attack.
On 5 April, a Dalit youth named Jignesh Solanki committed suicide inside a police station in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. His housemates say that he was badly beaten by the police and other people and that he had been held on false charges.
On 5 April again, a Dalit woman was murdered after being raped in Jalandhar district of Punjab.
On 6 April, a minor Dalit child was raped and murdered in Hamirpur district of Uttar Pradesh.
On the morning of 6 April, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh congratulated the people of the state for showing goodwill and unity by lighting a candle on the night of 5 April.
On the same day, a group of labourers who were spending quarantine in a village school in Basti district, adjacent to their home district, Gorakhpur, refused to eat the food that had been cooked by the Dalit woman. They have been sent to another centre.
This is a very chronic disease, a very old epidemic. During the 1857 war, there was a fierce battle between the British and the rebels at Basiratganj in Unnao district near Kanpur. The British were surprised by the bravery and cleverness they had witnessed of the Indian soldiers. The British won this battle with great difficulty. After that one of them wrote that many Indian soldiers were killed in battle and many lay injured in the field. It was a hot day and the injured were suffering even more from thirst than their injuries. But when the villagers brought water for them, they refused to drink it. They thought it was better they died than accept water offered by a member of another caste. And many did perish.
Who knows how many more this epidemic has devoured. Coronavirus will be gone, but this epidemic is not about to leave us very soon.
The author is a former Member of Parliament and chairperson of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). The views are personal.