Virus of untouchability

Updated: Mar 23, 2020, 07:16 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

COVID-19 should not become an argument to tacitly justify caste-based segregation and social distancing, as some are advocating

People wearing masks amid the Coronavirus pandemic seen at Bandra reclamation. Pic/Bipin Kokate
People wearing masks amid the Coronavirus pandemic seen at Bandra reclamation. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Ajaz AshrafCOVID-19, the illness caused by Coronavirus, has become a metaphor for the untouchability that we have practised in India for millennia. This metaphor has emerged in our public discourse because of the realisation that the surest way of slowing the community transmission of COVID-19 is to socially distance and segregate those whom the virus has infected.

Segregation and social distancing are also the defining features of the Indian caste system, which categorised certain social groups as untouchable and segregated them from the society. These were the people whose hereditary occupation was deemed polluting. Their touch, even their shadow, was thought to defile the others, particularly the upper castes. The untouchables could transgress the rule of social distancing at their own peril.

In much the same way, the world today is divided into those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected to be carrying the Coronavirus – and those who have not been infected by it. There is a social consensus that for the well-being of the second category of people, inarguably comprising almost all of the global population barring an infinitesimal percentage, it is imperative to socially distance the infected. They must voluntarily accept quarantine, else they must be forcibly plucked out from their social milieu and segregated.

The Coronavirus-infected are the world's new untouchables, socially distanced to achieve the common good.

Segregation is frightening for many, evident from several cases of people fleeing quarantine, as has happened in Mumbai, Nagpur, Jammu, and Thrissur. A suspected COVID-19 carrier jumped to death from the seventh floor of Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital.

Spare a thought for these people, the trauma they are undergoing.

Spare a thought for also all those who have to endure social distancing and segregation even when there is no invisible virus lurking around to afflict us, when children can go to school and their parents to malls, when neither use sanitisers or wash hands as if suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As India reels under COVID-19, as people shudder at the thought of quarantine, we should think of the inhuman social system we have created to permanently segregate certain social groups from the society. This system has been resistant to attempts at dismantling it, such as the incorporation of Article 17 in the Constitution abolishing untouchability, and reservation in government jobs for those earlier treated as untouchables.

Indeed, their status, in large parts of India, remains what it was decades ago. Their touch is still considered polluting; they are banished to the margins of human habitations, and are assigned separate tumblers and plates. Their social isolation is similar to that of the Coronavirus-infected, whose untouchability is at least ephemeral. They are reallocated to their social milieu as soon as it is determined they are not infected by Coronavirus. Their rights are restored; they become equal citizens.

By contrast, the untouchability imposed on people by the caste system is permanent in nature. Their attempts to live as equals to others often invite retribution. They are battered and killed for reasons ranging from drawing water from a common source to marrying a person from another caste, to sporting a moustache or riding a horse.

They are the hunted, quite like the Coronavirus-positives who flee quarantine and are scouted by the police.

Unlike those socially distanced for checking COVID-19 from spreading, there is no identifiable purpose in segregating people deemed polluting, obviously, other than to have them undertake menial tasks, to squash their hope of altering the social-scape. Our experience of COVID-19 should drive us, even more than before, to dismantle the social system that sanctions segregation.

Depressingly, quite the reverse is happening. Social media is rife with users taking pride in India having invented Namaste, the form of greeting that requires people to neither shake hands nor embrace each other. Their celebratory posts gloss over the social reality that who you touch, or who is allowed to touch you, is determined by that person's position in the caste hierarchy.

The neo-apologists of untouchability are echoing the position the January 1947 edition of Kalyan magazine, a Hindu Right publication, took on the issue. The magazine, according to Akshaya Mukul's The Gita Press And The Making of Hindu India, said, "Through their sharp eyes the Maharishis had come to the conclusion that doing the job of a bhangi [a low caste associated with cleaning] for generations leaves germs in their body and therefore there is need to persist with the system of untouchability."

The fear of COVID-19 has inspired people, in drawing room discussions, to marvel at ancient India's genius for devising caste-based segregation. They forget that COVID-19 came to India from those who had travelled abroad, or from foreigners visiting our country. Most of them are unlikely to have belonged to the so-called polluting castes, evident from the London-based singer Kanika Kapoor suspected of passing the virus to political elites. COVID-19 indicts us all for persisting with the caste-based untouchability.

The writer is a senior journalist

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