Investigating the Visual Spectre of Covid-19 in India 

coronavirus migrants 1

In days to come, social scientists will write varied accounts on the responses of the Indian state to the ongoing pandemic called Covid-19. Academicians will deploy the visible categories of class, caste, race, gender, religion, economy, centre, state, region, demography and many more to enquire and weave multiple narratives. Each study would offer us new perspectives to look into ourselves, to ask and answer how we responded, and to know that it impacted each of us, differently. While thinking about Covid-19, three themes came to my mind. The first theme is the visual spectre of stillness and movement; the second theme is the visual spectre of disciplining and punishing; and the third theme is the visual spectre of philanthropy and heartlessness. I feel that these three themes when combined together can be used as a window to most studies that investigates the visual spectre of Covid-19 in India.

But before discussing on these three themes, let me explain to you about the term ‘visual spectre’. By visual spectre, I mean the circulation of images that can excite as well as shock, images that can invoke fear, fill you with suspense, thrill and at the same time, generate relief. Looking at how history has unfolded, one can argue that before our era, no historical era had the capability of producing such powerful spectacles. Our era has access to wide range of ‘information’. These set of ‘information’ reach to us through the machinery called print and the visual media, and of the two, the latter stands out. Visual media has mastery over images. It has the power to excite us in a fraction of second, and leave us shattered. It makes us converse. It knows the ways to convince you – by showing moving images, by invoking emotions of varied kinds, and by casting a spell. Thus it has both the authority and the legitimacy to create and present the most powerful spectacles. Therefore, our era is distinct from all other historical periods. This makes the pandemic even more distinct. Thus, anything that travels to us, reaches us, ‘informs’ or ‘misinforms’, gets magnified. Having defined what a visual spectre is, let me introduce you to the intricacies of the three themes.

  1. Spectre of Stillness and Movement:

How did the image of the present pandemic reach the subcontinent? It reached us through the visual media. Under this visual spectre, the first image that we get to see is the image of India moving in masks. The images show the people in the airports, railway stations, and other means of transport: are moving with masks. But the movement of people is seen as a symbol of infectiousness. Therefore, the next image we get is that of stillness which came to us in the form of lockdown. Lockdown has the power to cast a spell of shock. We get to see the visuals of locked factories, locked institutions, locked commercial establishments and locked homes. This moment of stillness is presented as a universal answer to the crisis. The elite and the middle class legitimise it. Very soon, we have visuals of celebration. For most elites and middle class, it gives them the required time to think, read, and write. For many others, it allows them the opportunity to focus on their physique, engage in gardening, spend time with their families, the superstars of cinema teach us to cook, to sweep and to wash. The television and the world of internet fill our loneliness by presenting to us a sea of theatrical performances with varied emotions. India in stillness is worth observing. It teaches us to abide by fear and to be atomic beings.

On the other hand, the same stillness celebrated by the elite and the middle class as an opportunity for self-discovery also shows that all is not well with the visual spectre of stillness. The stillness meant putting locks on all formal and informal modes of the economy. In other words, it meant that this stillness sealed the stomach, i.e., the life and livelihood of millions and millions of people. Very soon, we see movement, people who have nothing to lose (for they have already lost everything) come out. They come out to board buses, to board trains so that they could go from where they came. So, we have another spectre, the visual spectre of movement. The spectre of movement shatters the mirror of stillness. Many decide to walk. Hopeless, homeless, and dejected: India moves. This movement of millions generates another shock.

Amidst these, we have another visual spectre: the spectre of a religious congregation at the national capital. The new visuals show ‘congregators’ moving. The fear of movement that had shaped the psyche of the elite and the middle class is automatically revived. The visuals show fear moving; it shows ‘explosion’ of Covid-19. The already fearing elite and middle classes get agitated by this image of the fear of disease moving. It is a visual spectre of movement: a movement seen as ‘illegal’. Now, we are fed with the images of ‘carriers’ and ‘super spreaders’ of the virus, i.e., the religious congregators, foreigners, the workers, the vegetable sellers, the barbers, and every day the figure keeps expanding. Social networking sites become sites of battle. Some say, “these people, they are spreading the virus”, others say “they should be chased and punished,” still others say, “how can they put the nation to risk.” Opinions are polarised. These powerful visuals continue to excite us, polarise us. Most states, try to locate them, chase them, find them, social networking sites circulate messages about their whereabouts. The state and the people are not at rest until those who move are ‘quarantined’. By this time, we have the spectacle of numbers. We get the digital figures of a rising number of patients. I, therefore, believe that both these visuals of stillness and movement have the power of shock. It shocks and shakes our imagination. It constructs and at the same time, leads to cracks.

  1. Spectre of Disciplining and Punishing:

If one has to ask – how was the state visible to us during the pandemic, then, what will be our answer. Any laymen shall say that we saw the state in uniform. Men in uniform were there to ensure discipline during this stillness. Stillness meant that even a single movement could generate ripples. So, people flocking in the market, to purchase essentials was another spectre of movement. This movement had to be within the limits of the law, there were specific terms and conditions, such as there was to be ‘physical distancing’, people had to cover their face with masks, they were not allowed to spit in public, they were to use soaps and sanitisers. To ensure this limited movement which was guided by the principle of stillness, the forces moved. They moved to restore the balance of stillness. So we had another visual spectre – the spectre of the police personnel disciplining the crowd, i.e., using force to ensure that there was no unlawful gathering. We again had the elites and the middle classes responding. Most of them were agitated and aghast with the visuals of a breach in the discipline. They fear that because of mistakes of the undisciplined people, the virus would reach them. Social networking sites were filled with visuals of people violating lockdown and the crackdown by the forces. These visuals were debated. Most criticised and mocked the masses and praised the men in uniform.

Another aspect of discipline is the ongoing regulations to which we all have to abide by. The videos of our superstars teaching us how to wash hands were imitated by households who were glued to the visual media. Sneezing and coughing become reasons enough to cause panic in society and disciplining got further entrenched through community surveillance. All those who had come before the lockdown from other states to their home towns were required to stand still, and those coming during lockdown also had to stand still. ‘Quarantine’ becomes the norm, or the norm is to ‘quarantine’. We get to see ‘corona warriors’ all around. They are there to ensure stillness. To most people, corona is understood as arising from movement. Movement is seen as a threat. Under the given circumstances, stillness becomes the solution.

The visuals of disciplining and punishing have the power to cast the spell of fear. Gradually, fear acquires a life of its own. Even those acting as saviours become victims of the fear. In most localities, most doctors and nurses begin to be feared, many are denied entry to households, to the colonies where they stay, even hospitals and quarantine centres and medical kits are feared. Moreover, the daily updates of increasing numbers continue to shock. The dead become the ‘untouchable’, and many bodies go unclaimed. The visuals of disciplining casts such a spell that not just the diseased, even the dead are feared.

  1. Spectre of Philanthropy and Heartlessness:

During the times of Covid-19, the most striking images are not those of the diseased; instead, it is of the helplessness and hopelessness of people who lost their livelihood and decided to march back home. Hunger of such scale is unprecedented. Maybe we can map the number of workers who lost livelihood in the formal sectors, but most workers who are part of an informal economy: how do we map them. Moreover, what would have happened to those who sold their traditional skills such as the cobblers, the washer men, the barbers and many such professionals who sold their skills to earn a livelihood. Will we be able to know? As the images or starvation cannot be hidden for long, we, therefore, get to see the visuals of hunger. The spectre of starvation and hunger shocks the nation. People crying and begging for food, people standing in a queue to get food – all these images shatters the image of the celebration of the lockdown done by the middle classes and the elites. The same people who were teaching us how to do gardening, cook, sweep, exercise – are also shaken to some degree. They are moved by the visuals of hunger and turn philanthropic. Some arrange for rations, some for a medical kit, some arrange for medicines, some arrange for buses. We get to see the images of donation. Every day in the digital space, the term ‘care’ gets a new life. The figures of voluntary donations continue to grow. The patients continue to rise, and gradually, the philanthropist realises that there is a limit to philanthropy.

By this time, the migrant workers realise that the visuals of philanthropy do not fill their stomach. Stillness continues to be the norm, the middle classes and the elites continue to celebrate stillness, and amidst all this, the migrant workers defy stillness and continue to move.

The spectacle cast by the clanging of utensils, the lighting of candles, the showering of petals are measures that will be contrasted against the visuals of people walking a thousand miles and dying of dehydration, pregnant women delivering child on the road, people being beaten and chased by police for walking, and above all the spraying water and sanitiser on those who march to their home districts. These visuals show brutality, fear, and heartlessness. Heartlessness is further revealed when the principles of a free-market economy is utilised to resolve the ongoing crisis. Now, the state asserts that the present crisis should be seen as an ‘opportunity’. Amidst the visuals of workers flocking trains, buses and walking, our statesman argue that they should lay the foundations to attract and lure the global companies that might be exiting our neighbour country. This idea is based on the hypothesis that because of the pandemic, incessant campaigns have negatively impacted the global image of one of our neighbouring countries; therefore, the global capitalist class are not willing to further risk their capital. As they might withdraw and are looking for virgin territories, so our statesmen see this as an opportunity to woo the withdrawing capitalists and ‘lure’ them to India. By ‘luring’ capitalist class, our statesman hopes that all our woes of unemployment and poverty would be resolved.

In this imagination, our country is projected as an untapped and unutilised virgin territory which is ripe with raw materials. The raw materials are to be tapped by employing migrant workers, who will have nothing but labour to sell. Now there is another spectacle, the spectacle of labour reforms. Suspension of labour rights is announced with great pomp and show, and the resistance of the trade unions is cornered to make way for a self-celebratory model that reduces labour into mere means of production. The visuals of indigenous entrepreneurs debating on the new reforms show a new face of ‘opportunities’ at the cost of labour laws. By increasing the working hours, and by dispensing with the trade unions, they argue that we are facilitating for the flow of capital.

Should capital be allowed to flow at the cost of labour? Work is one aspect of life, maybe a dominant aspect, but work is not life. While working on the life of workers, I have learnt that people migrate in search of life and livelihood. I have learnt that even amidst adversities, the workers have tried to imagine a better life both for themselves and their children. It has also taught me that every worker aspires for the reduction in working hours, they aspire for a decent wage, better access to health facilities and rest. No worker expects to be devalued, they value their honour, and they expect that the managers and the employers treat the workers with respect and dignity. I have also learnt that the establishment of labour courts and trade unions, demand for inspection of industrial units through inspectors and welfare officers, have been part of global labour movements through which the workers were able to negotiate for their economic, political, social and cultural rights. In addition to all these aspects, I also learnt that after spending their time in the workplace, the workers expect that they get ample time to speak to themselves, to introspect, to dream, to aspire and to imagine that work is one aspect, maybe a dominant aspect, but work is not life.

But the moment one erases these aspirations, these histories of struggles and rights, the workers get reduced from citizens to mere means of production. You erase these aspirations: you see subjects, you suspend labour rights, and you see humans in chains. The exponents of the free market theory argue that a capitalist should be allowed free access to resources. If capital is allowed to flow, it will spread its branches and expand. They argue that labourers should abide by the rhythm of capital, and if they do so and they shall be rewarded. This idea was dominant in the 18th and 19th century. This unrestricted flow of capital allowed several European countries like England, France, Germany, and also countries like America, and Japan to flourish, and expand. But at what cost? We all know the cost. I hope we have not forgotten the drudgery and dungeon of the industrial revolution. The visuals of ships and steamers laden with slaves and indentured labourers, I hope we have read the books that taught us about the pains of being a subject of empire. The unregulated capital gave us the most heartless system called imperialism that thrived on colonialism. I hope our generation is aware of the fight for colonies, the bloodied battles of history, the rise and fall of totalitarian states, and the worst economic crisis.

In the age of imperialism, the movement and migration of people, the flow of capital and goods, was unprecedented. The anti-colonial struggles across the world exposed the limits of capitalism. It exposed how capitalism thrives on colonies, how the prosperity of the mother country is inversely proportional to the pauperisation of the periphery. Simultaneously, the struggles of the workers throughout the world and their demands shaped and still continue to shape the reforms in working hours, wages, housing, health, education, etc. The journey of subjects to citizens, the journey from slaves, serfs, bonded labourers, and indentured labourers to workers is a journey of how social, economic, and political rights got entrenched into the framework of the state. But during the times of Covid-19, we get to hear and see about the rants of national economic reconstruction, the need to rebuild the economy, and we also hear about economic packages which appear as magical numbers. This package is celebrated by the middle classes and the elites and remains mostly incomprehensible to the workers.

These three dominant and contrasting visual spectres inform us o f how we responded when a crisis hit us. It brings to light the biases of the elites, their philanthropy and the limits of philanthropic ideas. It shows how fragile is our economic and political system and how it is ready to exploit even amidst crisis, it also shows how insecure we are as a village, town, society, state and nation that resorts to numerous binaries and invents new enemies to guard itself. It exposed our moral values and ugliness that decorates the many constructs which we human being have ‘collectively’ invented. By paraphrasing George Orwell, one can argue that under the leadership of the present political class, be it any crisis – some people would be more equal than many, some would be more secure than many, and some who would decide, dictate, and govern on behalf of many. The crisis reminds me of one of the talisman of one of the most debated thinkers of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi. He used to say that whenever you are in doubt, or in crisis, “recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?” Thinking within the frame of this talisman, one can argue that during the visual spectre of Covid-19, we as citizens suspended our reason, fear filled our hearts, the state distanced itself from its citizens, our political class ran away from their responsibilities, and we as individuals forgot to introspect on even the questions of what constitutes a human being.

Raj Kumar Thakur is a Junior Fellow of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.



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