social distancing

The word “Untouchability”, in common parlance, is arguably associated with the lowest caste people of India – the Dalits.  The pyramid of caste hierarchy is supported and regulated by the ‘Varna System’. However, there is neither scientific reason in the creation of a hierarchical division of the people nor having a moral stand to justify any corner of the existence or practice related to the treatment of the people on the basis of their caste identity. However, having the lowest or the highest identity by the people is nothing more than someone’s unintentional and unchosen place of birth.

Withstanding of natural equality and having all the quality for being called as human, the place of birth can be a tragic moment in India as it destines someone for unequal treatment in society. Historically, the stratification of people has also been regulated on the basis of their alignment to the profession they do or choose to do. The Dalits – including scavengers, sweepers, etc – have been facing subjective treatment just because of their performed activities as a profession, which make them to being considered as “untouchables”. However, India has constitutionally abolished the practice of untouchability under Article 17 and adheres to provide equal treatment irrespective of someone’s religious, caste or racial identity. Unfortunately, the dream of Dr Ambedkar is yet to complete even at his 129th birth anniversary. This is one of the most tragic blots on the image of ‘Modern India’.

Despite of having an unfortunate traditional trend of inequality, the Outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic has undergone the new phase of untouchability in the country. Since the dangerous COVID-19 does not have any vaccine till date and not having a definite oral treatment to save the lives of the people, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued many guidelines in which “social distancing” remained as a prominent strategy to tackle this virus. However, the people of India have overestimated the means of “social distancing” that, perhaps, is more or less equivalent to the traditional practice of untouchability in India. Moreover, this new phase has broadened the sphere of untouchability with the inclusion of the migrant workers, the sex workers and the Muslim.

India hardly took any definite step in stopping and tackling coronavirus until the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 a global pandemic. India concretely made the decision for the first time in the shape of “Janta Curfew” on 22nd of March 2020. Soon, the Janta Curfew converted into twenty-one days long national lockdown under the directives given by national and international health institutions. With the implementation of the national lockdown, the maximum numbers of commercial activities have been closed down that led to the static situation for all those who moved away from their native home. The people, particularly migrant workers in the metropolitan cities, like Delhi and Mumbai, also wedged. They have been desired to go home as they are unorganized daily wager workers and lockdown made them spare by which they are unable to pay rent and manage the income for their day to day survival. Returning home has remained only hope for them to survive in this pandemic situation. They desperately made the reason for violating the lockdown that “we’ll die of hunger before virus can kill us” so they just want to go home.

In spite of unavailability of any means of transport – the Bus and Train – the migrant workers, including women and children, dared to travel for home by their foot. Even after ensuring by the government for the arrangement of their food and accommodation they were unstoppable. Thousands of migrants were on the roads and railway tracks. Since they were coming from the notable ‘hotspots’ of coronavirus, the administration failed to stop them because of the fear of spreading infections. Moreover, the most tragic part of their journey, after facing starvation and homelessness, the respective state government denied the entry of the migrants into their state as they might become the means of increasing the cases of positive coronavirus. Therefore, the migrant workers have become untouchables in this pandemic. They were openly sprayed by harmful chemical for ‘disinfected’ them and then advised them to quarantine in a place away from their family and society.

The sex workers have also become new untouchables in this pandemic. These people totally rely on such a profession for their survival. Although sex works are illegal practice under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, still there is more than a million sex workers lived in different districts of India. Because of their illegal occupation, they have been considered as “informal of the informal economy”. Due to pandemic, these people have not been able to earn money as they don’t have customers so they are unable to run the brothel, pay rent and not having an alternative source of income forced them to live in a deplorable condition. The government has announced for providing foods and shelter to homeless and poor people but sex workers do not seem to fit into the category of homeless and poor and they, therefore, are unsuitable for getting benefits from the government aid.

Lastly, the people belonged to Tablighi Jamaat count as another untouchable in the epidemic of coronavirus. On the declaration of the national lockdown just after the Janta curfew on 22nd March, the Tablighi Jamaatis, like others, were stuck at the Nizamuddin Markaz, Delhi. Instead of violating the lockdown, they complied to stay away from their home at Nizamuddin Markaz. There were also many foreigners belonged to different country reported for the suspicious of corona positive. Since then, the news was flashed out on the national news channels on the television with tagging number of allegation from betrayal with the country to the ‘Coronajihad’ referring to the Tablighi People. The tragic part with the Tablighi people was that the country is on the rise of communalism. The suspiciousness of coronavirus rapidly culminated the image of the entire Muslim community into a stance of communal hatred and further ghettoisation of the Muslim in the country. After this incident, social media has also been spewing with numerous abusive communal remarks with the inelegant style of journalism. Muslims were reported for being discriminated and defamed. Muslims were reported for facing unequal treatment at the hospitals and market. A Muslim woman lost her child after denial of the treatment at the hospital due to her religious identity in Rajasthan. A hospital separated the wards for the patient on the basis of religion in Ahmedabad. Muslim hawkers, fruits and groceries sellers refused to run their shops in the market and prohibited entry into the streets of the city since the matter of Tablighi Jamaatis has been considerably dragged all the Muslim into a suspicious for the spread of coronavirus.

Dr. Ambedkar urged to establish ‘just society’ in which all people treat indiscriminately and live with full dignity in society. In the pandemic measures, the overestimated practice of ‘social distancing’ has been ruined the long process of socialisation of the country. However, this new phase of untouchability may have ended with the normalization of COVID-19 pandemic. But the price paid by these so-called ‘new untouchables’ cannot be neglected. Such a decline of socialization can deepen the social exclusion and hamper the process of social justice in society.

Mohd Shahwaiz is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. He can be contacted at



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