India has no dearth of intelligent people. They link the sound of conch shells and clapping with vibrations and scientific equations that can kill any virus. They can even link the 21-day nationwide lockdown to planetary constellations. But they will never be able to connect with the country’s marginalised people — the poor, migrant workers and daily labourers.
Thousands of labourers and working-class poor are being forced to move from one place to another due to the coronavirus lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with only four-hours notice. Many of them are walking hundreds of kilometres carrying their children on their shoulders. These people have already been adjudged as the casualties in the war against coronavirus. While imposing the lockdown, no one spared a thought about what would happen to them.
No one was worried for them even in February, when a wide-eyed India welcomed US President Donald Trump with open arms. At that time, the poor were seen as a cause for embarrassment, and their slums were hidden behind a wall to make sure Trump doesn’t see them.
But the upper-class was still not done. The rich returned from their travels abroad carrying the novel coronavirus. The Narendra Modi government didn’t stop them from entering the country or screen them properly. By the time the government could detect the ‘infected’, it was too late. The damage had been done. Restrictions came in, which led to thousands of Indians getting stuck in foreign countries. The Modi government promptly ordered special planes to fly and bring them back.
But within India, the government couldn’t see the millions of poor people affected by the pandemic. Not a single vehicle was arranged for them — after all the trains, buses, autos and rickshaws had been stopped. Many of these people don’t know what coronavirus, quarantine, Covid-19 or lockdown means. It’s not their fault that they don’t.
The great divide
India reported its first positive Covid-19 case on 30 January. The Modi government had all the time in the world but it didn’t wake up to the plight of India’s poor. As the days passed, the government started making some arrangements — for the rich coming from abroad. Then came the festival of Holi. Most travellers during this period were people from the poor and marginalised section. They had no way to prepare and protect themselves, no idea that a deadly virus was also on the move. The virus was being passed on by the rich and most poor people had little contact with them.
The poor didn’t even know what had happened. One day they were told to clap and bang utensils — taali and thaali — so they did. Then suddenly, they were told they can’t step out and that essential goods like rice and wheat would be home-delivered.
For people who buy one kg wheat, tea and sugar every day, this seemed like Ram Rajya. They wouldn’t have to step out for anything. But they also knew that Ram Rajya can only come in Ayodhya (where Ram was born), and not for people in Hastinapur, where life can only be a Kurukshetra. And so they walked, barefoot, without food or water, to go back to their villages. The cities had shut their doors for them. But it wasn’t going to be easy. The police they ran into at every state border, every checkpoint, treated them as if they were roaming the streets with the coronavirus.
During this period of lockdown, a section of Indian society will easily protect itself. It will spend these 21 days doing all kinds of things at home — trying out new recipes, learning new skills, reading books, watching films, taking online courses, exercising. Three days into the lockdown and this group has already set things in motion. But another section is running from pillar to post in search of rice and wheat, getting beaten up by the police for defying the government, taking blows from anyone who is unhappy to see them on the streets, having its roadside thelas — and their livelihoods — turned upside down. After 21 days, we will see a new India. On one end will be the children of Kalidas and Varāhamihira; on the other will be survivors of this crusade.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has equated the fight against coronavirus with the Mahabharata. He’s right. India’s poor are like those soldiers in the Mahabharata’s battle units — the various Akshauhinis — whom no one knew but remembered as having been of some use in the war.
Views are personal.
This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the original version here.