May 10, 2020

The Pandemic that Endures

Subhashini Ali

ON the very first day of the lockdown, March 25, a sanitation worker in Delhi, Suresh, died at a sewage treatment plant while his co-worker, Jasbir, was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.  They were not only working in extremely hazardous conditions but they were also bereft of equipment  considered essential for such work all over the world.

Sanitation workers are acknowledged as being frontline warriors in the battle against Covid-19 but the reality of their caste means that this so-called recognition makes little difference to their conditions of living and social status. As a result, sanitation workers are contracting and, often, dying of the coronavirus.

On April 6, Atma Ram Chhatrapal, a sanitation worker in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, fainted while fogging in an area just 90 km from the state capital, Lucknow. He died the next day. His wife filed a complaint with the police saying that he had not been given a mask or gloves by the village sarpanch and panchayat secretary. Registering the complaint will expose the truth already well-known that safety equipment is either non-existent or in very short supply.

A woman sanitation worker of the East Delhi Municipality died on April 24 after being admitted to a Government Hospital as a suspected coronavirus patient. Her husband said that she had been given only a mask to carry out her work but no gloves.  A co-worker of the deceased was admitted to the hospital on the same day after she tested positive. She also had no gloves.

Indore, Madhya Pradesh, has seen 76 patients succumb to the virus and, since even the relatives of the deceased are reluctant to participate in their last rites, sanitation workers are being roped in to carry the dead to cremation and burial grounds. The fact that this is endangering those who are essential to meeting the challenge of the virus has been completely forgotten. When necessary, untouchables become touchables and also expendables.

This callous neglect of the basic needs of sanitation workers is just one aspect of a pandemic that has raged over centuries in our country, the pandemic of caste-based oppression and discrimination, a pandemic that has so far defied all attempts to reduce its virulence.

It is this pandemic that is responsible for the fact that, at a time when the greatest unity, solidarity and empathy are needed to deal with what is wreaking havoc across the country, we are witnessing instead a hike in the perpetration of brutal atrocities in the name of caste-prejudice.

Two days after the lockdown, on March 27, Sudhakar, member of a most-backward caste in Tamil Nadu was killed in Tiruvannamalai because of his marriage to a higher caste woman.  On April 2, a young dalit, Roshan Lal in Lakhimpur, Uttar Pradesh, was beaten so badly by the police that he died after recording a statement “Friends, if someone does not believe me then take off my pants and see. You will not find anything but blood clots all over my back…My hand has been broken.  What will I do now in my life?” On the same day, Abhishek was burnt to death in Hardoi district by the family of an upper-caste woman with whom he had eloped six years earlier.  His mother died of shock after this.

On April 5, a dalit woman was raped and murdered in Jalandhar, Punjab.  The next day, April 6, a minor dalit child was raped and murdered in Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh.

On April 14, in a most horrific case, a sanitary worker, Kunwar Pal, who went to spray disinfectant in a village in Rampur District, Uttar Pradesh, accidentally spilt some of it on the foot of an upper caste villager.  He was then forced to drink disinfectant after the pipe used for spraying was inserted into his mouth.  He died three days later in the hospital. The police said that action would be taken after they received proper evidence.

On April 17, a lady doctor at AIIMS tried to commit suicide.  Fortunately, she could be saved and she has filed an FIR against other doctors, her own colleagues who would insult and humiliate her saying ‘Tu SC hai, apne level mein reh (you are an SC, remain at your level), Apna muh band kar (shut your mouth) and Kaali billi ki tarah mera rasta mat kaat (do not cross my path like a black cat) etc.  She has alleged that she has faced casteist abuse for two years and has regularly complained against it but was asked to withdraw her complaints.  Finally, she tried to end her life. The police and AIIMS administration say that they are conducting an enquiry.

At a time when the Supreme Court has not been taking up extremely significant cases that have been pending for months, on April 22, a SC constitution bench held that 100 per cent reservation for tribals in Fifth Schedule areas given by the state of Andhra Pradesh is unconstitutional. In its judgment, the judges made what are seen by many as uncalled for and disparaging remarks. They opined that the economically advanced classes within dalits and tribals were not allowing the benefits of reservation to ‘trickle down to the needy’ and, therefore, the central government should revise the lists of castes or classes within those castes who can avail of the benefits of reservations.  The judgment also spoke of the ‘primitive way of life’ of tribals that ‘makes them unfit to put up with the mainstream and to be governed by the ordinary laws’.  These are extraordinary statements that do much to justify the iniquities of the caste system and, in fact, to strengthen it. 

This judgment assumes greater significance because an earlier SC judgment had considerably enviscerated the POA vs SC/ST Act and the Modi government has been unhindered in its efforts to limit the access of SC/ST sections to scholarships, higher education and jobs and to strike at the right to reservations in various sectors. 

Naturally, the ideology of the ruling party is now being seen as responsible for these attacks. The often stated desire of many of its leaders, present and past, to see the constitution replaced by the Manusmriti seems to be the driving force behind them.

Nothing perhaps is more revealing of this than the Bhima-Koregaon case that has been one of the obsessions of this government for the last two years.

January 1, 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the battle of Koregaon at which the Peshwa was decisively defeated by the British army comprising mainly of a large contingent of Mahars, a dalit sub-caste to which Dr Ambedkar belonged.  This event is enthusiastically celebrated every year and Dr Ambedkar himself made a public speech at one such celebration in which he paid tribute to the martial qualities of the Mahars. 

The 2018 celebrations were planned on a grand scale and lakhs of people were expected to congregate at Bhima-Koregaon after a series of public meetings that concluded with a massive rally in Shaniwarpeth, Pune.  The situation changed suddenly, however, when the participants were attacked. Many vehicles were damaged, many people were hurt.

Senior BJP leaders like Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide (whom Modi refers to as his guru) along with others in their party had been opposed to the Shaniwar Peth rally which they considered to be an affront to their caste pride since it was to take place in what is still a centre of brahmanical political and social dominance.  It was these leaders, initially, who were held responsible for the violence at Bhima Koregaon and it was against them that FIRs were lodged.  And then, as it often happens in this regime, things were turned topsy-turvy. The actions of these leaders and the allegations against them started fading away and a new set of allegations against various human rights activists, dalit and tribal rights activists began to circulate and a conspiracy theory around a ‘Bhima-Koregaon Case’ took shape. Soon the actual attack on dalits congregating at Bhima Koregaon was completely hidden behind a concocted case that hinted at planned assassinations of national leaders, overthrow of the government, etc.  Many of these activists who were arrested in 2018-19 had had little to do with the organisation of the Bhima-Koregaon event.  Two of them, Gautam Navlakha and Dr Anand Teltumbde, a renowned scholar of dalit and class issues (who had also not participated in the event) managed to secure bail till April of this year. The government, however, was relentless in its determination to incarcerate them and, finally, they were arrested on April 14.  It was no co-incidence that Anand Teltumbde, grandson-in-law of Dr Ambedkar himself, was arrested on Ambedkar Jayanti in a case that sought to obliterate the history of the martial prowess of the Mahars, to destroy their sense of pride in this history and to blot a day of celebration for all those who battle for social justice with this black mark of arrogant disdain.  Earlier too, it was also no co-incidence that  December 6, Babasaheb’s death anniversary was selected by the same players to bring down the Babri Masjid.

The coronavirus epidemic will finally succumb to the powers of science and medical research but the pandemic of untouchability, intractable for centuries, has been given yet another lease of life by ruthless political forces that are inimical to equality and democracy.