social distancing

I was born and bred in Dehra Dun. Then, in search of job and a future, for some years of my life I worked and lived in Delhi and Ahmedabad. In the twelve or so years at the time, no one in Delhi nor Ahmedabad ever called me a “migrant”. Today many young women and men, having studied engineering, medical, chartered accountancy, management, IT, take on “white collar” job and live in many urban cities in the country. And they even change jobs and cities. But no one ever called them migrants. Why, in the defence services, most of the soldiers and officers are transferred every few years and spend their entire working life in different locations. But nowhere in those different locations did anyone dare call them migrants.

So, when lakhs and lakhs of people who are leaving – on foot or whatever meagre means available – their places of work for their villages, why are we calling them “migrants”? People who are nursing our cities with the sweat of their brow, the country’s work force, without who we cannot imagine our existence; without who the multi-storied buildings with “balconies” could not have been nor the rooms within swept and mopped; without who our trade and all commercial and industrial enterprises would come to a halt; without who our lives, indeed, would not be able to move even a few inches – are we trying to tell them that they are not the residents of those cities, that they are the “outsiders”? Are we trying to establish that they are not one of us but are the “other”? Aren’t they citizens of this country? Don’t they, like the hundreds of thousands of other youth, have the right to earn their living in and live in any town and city of the country? Whereas, from their many many photographs in the media, it is clear that most of them have been living in those many different cities for many years. You can clearly realize that the children that you see in those images, most are probably born in those very town and cities that they are leaving. We may not want to call them the “nation builders” (but why not), but can’t we at least call them “workers”?

Perhaps we do not wish to call them citizens or residents, because by calling them migrants, we wish to deny them permanent residency or identity in our cities; we do not wish to share with them the rights, privileges and facilities that is due to us citiwallahs; so that we can continue to exercise control over them, so that their exploitation remains that much easier.

And so, the cities these workers chose to inhabit – for you and me, and their future, in the hope of which they had come to the cities, has actually turned out to be an elusive future. Or deliberately planned, designed and constructed elusive future.

The above questions apart, it is important to protest the term “migrant”, because in the last year or so, this term itself has taken on a new and ominous definition, which strips a person of his humanity and drives him to a meaningless identity. But that discussion some other time.

In our lexicon, many words have two or more meanings, and it is also a fact that many words may mean different from place to place and from time to time. These are very common (or deliberately used) in advertising. Here, we are not referring to such words. Here we are talking of words and phrases which are coined to define a special or specific situation and which, unknowingly or otherwise, become homonyms or double entendre. And which, in the social perspective, does or can connote a wrong interpretation.

In these times of the Corona, there are several words and phrases which have, thoughtlessly or otherwise, become part of our daily vocabulary, but which also engender suspicion, worry or even fear. It is possible that these words or phrases were coined instantly and without malice, but it is just as much possible that these were coined with a definite political intention or within a definite political scenario. Whatever the origin, it is suffice to say that these words or phrases do not mean what they normally would or, at least, they evoke unwanted imagery and may have far-reaching disturbing consequences.

“Migrant” is one such word, but there are a few more which we need to ponder over more seriously, like “lockdown”, “social distancing”, “war against Corona”,

Let me put a simple question. When or why does a “lockdown” take place? There can be several reasons for a lockdown, but our most common understanding of this term is that when a factory, facing serious labour unrest, with no resolution in sight to the workers’ demands, is locked down by the factory owner or its management. It is the decision and action taken by the owner or its management, and not by the workers or employees.

Were we in a similar situation when this “lockdown” was announced? True, the country was already going through a serious economic and employment downslide, but it had still not come to a pass that would have forced the lockdown.

In a factory lockdown, its gates are locked, but unless the “law-n-order” situation has gone out of control, the workers continue to sit-in and rally in front of the factory gate. Without judging the merits of or commenting on the nation-wide lockdown of the last two months, it was decided and enacted by the government, and the way it has been observed or enforced, is less a lockdown but more like a curfew, with free, unchallenged power to the government and the police. Indeed, “curfew” would have been the more appropriate term to use.

About the Corona virus, we are still very much in the dark, but at least so much we have come to know and understand that it is a virus that spreads with an infected individual touching or his sneeze or spit reaching another person – and so it is important to not shake hands with or hug the other person. In other words we need to maintain a “physical” distance from one another. But the term coined for this by the World Health Organization was “social distancing”, which spread like wildfire on a hot summer afternoon. So, we have circles painted outside every shop and if, per chance, you step closer, then the shopkeeper or even someone from the others standing outside would reprimand you with the words, “please maintain social distance”. Should anyone come visiting you and approaches close, you immediately move back a few steps and say “social distance…” What we actually mean to say or do is “physical” distancing, but term we use, most thoughtlessly and parrot like, is “social” distancing.

Have we, in the course of this, even for a moment paused to ask ourselves, when and from who do we maintain “social” distance? We maintain social distance from those we have bitter feud or differences with, from declared criminals, from those suffering from contagious diseases or from those ostracized by the society. The most prevalent among us, we the upper caste maintain social distance from the Dalits.

Additionally, as we now begin to see, cities and other urban places have themselves become a source or tool for maintaining social distance from those from the rural areas! Why else, even after the workers lived in and contributed for years to the cities to which they had come, the cities have observed such social distance from them that they could not keep them from leaving even for two days! And these workers are now returning to the very villages they had left or even given up, but where they realized social “nearness” continued to remain, a sense of belonging remained.

Will it be that by repeating “social distance”, “social distance” ad infintum, we all will ultimately become “untouchables” for one another? Is that what we want to state, do and see happening?

Whereas, in these tragic times of the Corona, in these times of fear, anxiety, suspicion and uncertainty, what we should have been observing and seeking to practice is the exact opposite. It is important that we maintain “social” proximity, to support, encourage and comfort one another, to share one another’s pains and pleasures, to be one another strength.

The WHO realized its error and the effect the term could engender, and officially clarified that what we need to maintain is physical and not social distancing. But our government, official organizations and people at large continue to use the term “social distancing” – as if, like in a computer, the term has entered our system which we are not able to or not even be willing to delete.

Yet another term, which should come under our scrutiny, is “war” that is being used incessantly with reference to the Corona virus and its times.

When the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced “lockdown” out-of-the-blue (which, we should realize, is his modus operandi), he made a distinct reference to the Mahabharat war. Continuing with this simili, the doctors and the health workers are the “warriors” battling on the “war front” of Corona. It is another issue that in the last two months, our efforts have fallen grossly inadequate in facing a war-like situation! But we are continuing to evoke the war imagery.

So, what is the aspect of “war” that we are referring to? What happens when a country is at war? And what is the role of the citizens or what is expected of them during a war? Before everything else, in a war, the country is placed in an “emergency”. In a war-situation, the citizens are expected (voluntarily, but also coerced or forced) to “donate” and “sacrifice”.  So, the health workers are making a “sacrifice”; the millions trudging home are also “sacrificing”!

This sacrifice is without question, without questioning.  So whatever decisions, whatever policy, programme or project decisions that the government takes, we all need to accept in good faith and for the good of the country. So, when reporters question or write against the ills or shortcomings of quarantine facilities or arrangement, immediate action is taking against them and they are arrested or otherwise detained or have case registered against them. So, when labour laws are curtailed for the sake of economy as result of Corona, we are not to question, far less protest.

And so, in a Covid-19 “war-like” situation, we have a lockdown which is more a curfew.  We have a war on hand, and there is an emergency – even if undeclared.

Biju Negi is a political commentator



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