Our inherent and traditional prejudices resurfaced and again came to the fore during Covid-19
With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, one particular expression which has gained universal recognition is “Social Distancing.” It is a term mainly used by epidemiologists to more or less describe safe and physical distance from one another to stifle the spread of contagious ailments.
After World Health Organisation (WHO) shed the usage of the expression “social distancing,” in favour of “physical distancing,” the Government of India (GoI) followed suit. However, the former expression is yet to be junked out of mass and popular currency and the same is highly dangerous for a pluralistic, diverse and vulnerable society like India.
The Scottish philosopher, David Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) said that people ascribe value to the well-being of others. However, this value declines substantially when ‘the other’ belongs to a different socio-cultural group. Generally, people are also predisposed to perceive their own “socio-cultural–group” as superior.
Traditionally, India has always been a hierarchal society. The very much prevalent caste system, the communal, feudal and fissiparous attitudes still plague the populace even after more than 70 years of Independence. The targeted discrimination of people from the north-eastern parts in the metropolitan mainland, the regular and recurrent atrocities on the Dalits, Adivasis , lower castes, weaker sections and minorities (especially the Muslims) are cases in point.
Before Independence, however, the situation was much worse, with deeply entrenched caste biases and communal bigotry was a rampant norm. Keeping the same in view, the founding fathers of the constitution sought to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic and undertook a great ‘social-experiment’ in the form of the Constitution of India, 1950 (‘Constitution,’ for short) to shape a largely backward, communal, feudal and casteist society, ravaged by the schismatic forces of regionalism, linguism and ethnocentrism, into a modernized and scientific-tempered Mammoth and Global-Leader (Vishwa-Guru). But there still lies a long road to traverse.
The constitution framers moulded the constitution in a way to illumine and purge even the darkest fissures in the Indian society. Part III of the Constitution which envisages the Fundamental Rights accorded to each and every citizen of India, under Article 14 incorporates the ‘Equality Principle’ which posits ‘Equality before Law’ states that, “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”
Further, Article 15 supplements ‘Equality Principle’ and in a way, forms the edifice of the secular and humanistic ethos of the Indian Constitution, inter alia, lays down ‘Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’ and provides that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”
Article 17 outlaws “untouchability,” the age-old evil of treating persons of lower castes as “untouchables,” and provides for ‘Abolition of Untouchability,’ laying down that “Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”
Thus, it is conspicuous that the constitution came to Indian society as a juggernaut of social change, which to a large extent has been quite successful, but the battle is only half-won and is far from over. We, as a society, are yet to fully eschew, jettison and emerge out of our inertia of bias.
During the heat of the Covid-19 pandemic, our inherent and traditional prejudices resurfaced and again came to the fore, in the eye of one of the worst pandemics humankind has ever faced.
In March, the pilgrims from around the world, known as Tablighi Jamaat, visiting the Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque for their yearly congregations, were spitefully berated and slandered all over the country through the mainstream media and people alike, blaming them to be the chief-spreaders of ‘coronavirus’ in the country, going as far as claiming that they’re doing it purposefully as per their ‘agenda,’ with widespread usage of expressions “Corona-Jihad,” “Corona-Bombs,” etc. to refer to the clueless Tablighis.
The relentless assault of the Tablighis resulted in a nationwide furore, stigmization and backlash against the whole of the Muslim community, worst of whom to be hit, were the faultless poor – small shopkeepers, vegetable vendors, fruit sellers, etc.
In August, the Bombay High Court held all the snide bashing of the Tablighi Jamaat to be “propaganda” and that they had been made “scapegoats.” This only goes on to reinforce the ongoing discussion as to how social distance is antithetical and corrosive to the common and shared brotherhood of the people and the unity of the nation as a whole.
The coronavirus pandemic will be over some day, and it will bring a halt to the precautionary practice of ‘physical distancing’. While, social distancing, unfortunately, in all its literal connotations, may keep on rampaging. In the age of globalization, as the world gets smaller by the minute, all of us must realize that we as humans are one race, one species, and one diverse and vibrant tribe. The Earth is our only home and we have no one but ourselves. Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.”
Author is a practicing Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Allahabad High Court