On Tuesday Mar 24, prime minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day total lockdown across India to “break the chain” of the coronavirus spread. The lockdown kind of a feeling has been slowly sinking in for most Indians. Many people sensed the oncoming bad times and stocked up on all manner of goods they could lay their hands on, emptying grocery shelves from more than a week ago. For others, first there was the cheerful facade of Janata Curfew which included performances by Janta Gong & Thali Choirs. It was hoped that such a sincere show of solidarity and obedience would be taken into consideration to roll out a well-planned series of measures to “flatten the curve,” and “break the cycle.”

None of that. The Janta Curfew turned out to be a Janta Eyewash (different from Janta Handwash) as right after the curfew’s end as many as 80 districts had imposed their own lockdowns without as much as a by your leave. Since when had they been planning it and why had the people not been taken into confidence about its concrete possibility? But, in such times, as in times of all national emergencies, real or fabricated, such as post-Pulwama, Kashmir’s lockdown etc, questioning motives of government actions is a strict no-no.

Interestingly, right after the 80-district lockdown, which took effect almost surreptitiously on the night of Sunday Mar 22, Modi tweeted on Monday Mar 23, expressing his displeasure with several of those who were not taking the lockdown seriously.

So, just a day after a partial lockdown, which was announced in a hasty manner in a first place, not in any well-coordinated way with general public announcements, the prime minister had already decided that the adherence to the lockdown was not sincere enough. Most people came to know of the Sunday lockdown via social media or some second-hand source. Is the government running on Whatsapp?

Almost expectedly but still catching everyone by surprise, the Sunday lockdown was followed by another hammer blow, the 21-day lockdown. Why could the 21-day lockdown not be announced on Sunday Mar 22 itself instead of the sham of a Janta curfew?

Asking such questions is probably forbidden right now since even the most perceptive of people will somehow be lulled into feeling that any step that ostensibly seeks to enforce measures to halt the spread of the pandemic is justified.

But we have the example of the way the lockdown was imposed on Kashmir, in stealth, under the pretext of staving off another cross-border attack. And of course, once normal life had been halted, once the Amarnath yatra had been annulled, Article 370 was abrogated – and the Kashmir lockdown, including internet shutoff, was instituted, to save Kashmiris from themselves, as the narrative went.

The unannounced message to them was something like, if you can’t stay home for an indefinite period of time, then you will be set back by an indefinite period of time, on the lines of the  reference on Tuesday Mar 24 – “We will be set back by 21 years if we do not stay in for 21 days.”

For the rest of us in “mainland India,” it was almost distressing to try to understand how the Kashmiris were managing with the brutal lockdown, the checkposts, the hostile military – and the communications blockade on top of all that. How did they get their groceries? Milk? Medicines? How were they getting around? We got fragments of answers from the rare news reports – and for the rest, it was too painful to even know the details. We just closed our eyes to their difficulties. “They are managing…somehow…I don’t want to know how,” we told ourselves.

To many, who had a different view of things, the Kashmiris deserved the hardships imposed on them. The state had brought its suffering on itself by being hostile to the Indian government, by pelting stones, by harboring militants – so they must be put under lockdown to deal with their recalcitrant ways once and for all. Such people did not care about the actual details of the everyday hardships that the Kashmiris faced, how hospitals were treating the very sick with limited resources, how businesses, just recently blossoming, were shutting down, how people were managing everyday lives…

In the process of “othering,” it is said that we first dehumanize the other. We have dehumanized the common Kashmiri time and again now, not ever trying to understand her difficulties in leading a normal life. To humanize someone, one has to be able to hold some manner of empathy for them.

Maybe it is too much to hope, but maybe the total lockdown, the sense of reduced control over our circumstances, the feeling of slight discomfort at not having access to all we take for granted in our daily lives, might engender in us some strain of understanding for the suffering of others.

Maybe this Kashmir-style lockdown – minus the communication shutdown and the boots-and-bayonets on the streets – will be a glimpse into the situation we avert our eyes from. It would be too insensitive to call the coronavirus a blessing in disguise, but the fight against it might throw up collateral experiences that might allow us to empathize with others, like the Kashmiris,  from whose sufferings we have turned away till now.

Aviral Anand is a socially-concerned citizen, based in Delhi. He believes in solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.


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