It’s been a year that truly made us appreciate the Annus Horribilis. Just coming out alive in 2020 is an achievement.
From the pandemic to the recession, from the anti-CAA protests to the farmers’ agitation, from the Delhi riots to ‘love jihad’ or anti-conversion laws, the year has been a string of distressing news.
It is in difficult times that heroes emerge. Here is the 2020 Hall of Fame, in my subjective opinion.
1. Migrant labourers: The superhero of India 2020 was the migrant labourer, who walked from one distant corner of this land to another. When the adopted home in the city became hostile, the Indian labourer walked back to the home in the village. Some died on train tracks and some from the speeding traffic. Drivers probably thought there was nobody on the highway amid a total lockdown. But most migrant labourers reached home on their bare feet, a heroic act that opened India’s eyes to their contribution in running our factories and moving the concrete. Their suffering and courage alike this year will hopefully result in a number of social security measures for this invisible engine of the economy.
2. Sonu Sood and the middle-class Indian: Small businesses, factories and labour contractors across India left the labourers high and dry as soon as the 21-day lockdown was announced. Across India, there was no dearth of middle-class Indians feeding them, helping them get home, making sure they don’t starve while walking hundreds of kilometres. Through NGOs or corporate social responsibility initiatives, volunteering with local administration or just putting up a stall on the road, middle-class India showed conscience. The ultimate symbol of this was Bollywood actor Sonu Sood, who kept helping people reach home day after day for months. Sonu Sood for PM, I say.
3. Health workers: Until mid-September, 382 doctors had reportedly died of Covid in India. When Covid began, hospital staff didn’t even have enough protective gear. They worked round the clock, sometimes in shifts between hospital ward and quarantine. They faced the harassment of neighbours who thought they’d spread Covid. They faced moments they never had to, dealing with the emotional trauma and personal needs of patients who couldn’t be visited by family members in Covid wards. Meanwhile, they had to keep up with the latest of Covid treatments and science. The Narendra Modi government asked us to bang pots and pans for them and showered rose petals on some hospitals, and then forgot all about them. We shouldn’t.
4. Shailaja Teacher: Kerala may not have been able to contain Covid for long, but consider this: the labourers returning home from Gulf should have made Kerala the number 1 hotspot. The coastal state could have done much, much worse on Covid. The state’s health minister, Shailaja Teacher, is the only politician in India who knew what to do from the very beginning. It’s the only state that at least attempted contact tracing with a degree of seriousness.
5. Chandrashekhar Azad: The upstart Dalit politician is one of the main reasons why the Hathras gangrape and murder of a young Dalit woman became a national story. Chandrashekhar Azad was on the case from early on, trying to help the family save her life when she was in a hospital in Aligarh. It was the pressure he created in Aligarh that made the UP government panic and move the victim to a Delhi hospital, where, alas, she did not survive.
6. Tanushree Pandey: Several journalists witnessed and reported the UP Police forcibly taking the Hathras victim’s dead body and burning it against the family’s wishes, and without their presence. But it was Tanushree Pandey’s haunting voice on India Today that brought home the depravity of the act. The reports went viral by morning, turning the UP government’s ham-handed attempts at killing a story into a much greater PR disaster for Yogi Adityanath. Doing such journalism takes great courage today, especially in Uttar Pradesh, whose government allegedly leaked a tapped phone call of Tanushree Pandey. How often do we see a reporter take on the might of an authoritarian government?
7. Prashant Bhushan: In an act of Gandhian resistance, the lawyer-activist refused to apologise to the Supreme Court of India in a contempt case. Bhushan was being forced to apologise with the threat of punishment looming on him. By displaying no fear of going to jail, Bhushan showed what a spine looks like. Ultimately he was fined a token Re 1.
8. Rhea Chakraborty: Playing on patriarchal stereotypes that blame a woman for a man’s death, actress Rhea Chakraborty was falsely accused of having a role in the death of her partner, Sushant Singh Rajput. Arrested on flimsy evidence in a drug case, slandered on hate TV as if she was Public Enemy Number 1, Rhea showed restraint in her public reactions. It is difficult to imagine what she must have gone through and must still be going through. Some day the universe must compensate her for the witch hunt she was subjected to.
9. Ashok Gehlot: How often does it happen that the BJP allegedly tries to topple a Congress government and doesn’t succeed? Never. Yet, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan showed he was no Kamal Nath or Digvijaya Singh. He managed to hold his flock together for weeks, frustrating Sachin Pilot’s attempts to make the government fall.
10. Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar: The impossible Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra survived a year — against its own contradictions, without Rahul Gandhi’s blessings, and despite the BJP’s best attempts to avenge its humiliation. Credit goes to veteran Sharad Pawar but also to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray who’s surprised everyone with his political maturity and ideological manoeuvering.
11. Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Jyotiraditya Scindia: The BJP in Madhya Pradesh, led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, had for years attacked the Congress for being led by former princes such as Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh. Now, Shivraj and Jyotiraditya had the impossible task of reconciling their contradictions, managing their mutual rebels, and making their party workers like each other after years of being on opposite polls. They managed it quite well, resoundingly defeating the Congress in by-polls and putting the stamp of the people’s mandate on their government. Jyotiraditya Scindia, in particular, can claim to have shown he’s not just another lazy babalog of the Congress party, but a leader of some popular standing in his state. Luck favours the brave.
12. Asaduddin Owaisi: A Muslim party has won five seats in the Bihar assembly. Something like that would have been unthinkable through the conventional understanding of Indian politics. But Asaduddin Owaisi is out to disrupt things, causing discomfort to the ‘secular’ elites of the opposition parties who like to take the Muslim vote for granted. Owaisi is going to make sure they can’t do that anymore. That’s his mission and in 2020, he showed it was possible. Watch out for him in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
13. Chirag Paswan: The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) may have returned to power in Bihar, but not without diminishing Nitish Kumar to a historic low. Until election dates were announced, Bihar seemed like a foregone conclusion. But it was Chirag Paswan’s rebellion that opened up the election, creating even a space in which Tejashwi Yadav saw hope. Chirag Paswan single-handedly reduced Nitish Kumar’s seats. His achievement was much greater than the lone seat his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) won. Having established his ability to damage bigger parties, Chirag Paswan is going to remain an important factor in Bihar politics.
14. The grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh: A riot in northeast Delhi evicted anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters there, but even then, the protesting grandmothers in South Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh did not move. Even when a lockdown was announced for Covid, they did not move. They had to be finally removed by the police. They didn’t lose, no. If we still don’t have CAA rules, it may have something to do with them, at least partially.
15. Umar Khalid and other youth activists: In the January cold, Umar Khalid was going around the country giving speeches against the CAA-NRC. Later in the year, in a fantastical plot, the Delhi Police arrested him under a draconian anti-terror law, claiming his speeches incited violence. For activists like Umar Khalid, Devangana Kalita and many others who dared to opposed the CAA, there was no personal gain, only jail and forgetting.
16. The Punjab Haryana farmer: The year began with protests and is ending with protests. The farmers of Punjab were punished with stopping of goods trains when they tried blocking trains in Punjab. Then they marched to Delhi, smartly occupying borders to not inconvenience anyone and still make their point. In the December cold, they bravely faced water canons and malicious propaganda about being separatists. These are people always known for their courage, but it is their restrained, smart, united protest that makes them stand out. Even when they bake pizzas at a protest site.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.