Long after the coronavirus has been vanquished or vanishes by itself, heated debates will rage and laments will continue about devastation and loss caused by it. It is impossible to share the grief of those who have lost their near and dear ones in the pandemic but it is not so difficult to focus on what we have already lost—maybe forever—as a nation and society during the lockdown. The heartrending pictures of migrant jobless workers marching back ‘homewards’ have exposed the fragility of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Not a fig leaf remains in place to ensure that the government can hide its shame. Judiciary, the last hope of the wretched and the meek, has sadly chosen to wait and watch without interfering in mysterious ways of the executive.
One is reminded of the title of an old book edited by eminent jurist Rajeev Dhavan on the apex court: Supreme but not Infallible. It will be a very long time indeed before the higher judiciary recovers from its self-inflicted wounds. Flip-flops by those at the helm, both at the Centre and in the states, have left the people utterly confused and what we have witnessed is blundering babudom unleashing its minions to beat the dissenters and protestors into submission and silence. It is not surprising that the abjectly poor have been at the receiving end of well-led lathis and polished jackboots.
Enough has been said and written about the bared fangs of rulers not responsible to anyone—elected representatives or judiciary. And, we needn’t waste our breath on the rise of authoritarianism and intolerance of criticism of the powerful and their protégés. What has escaped attention—in the urgency merely to survive—the shambles our federal system has been rendered by the virus. To be precise, not the Covid-19 virus but the communal and politically partisan virus. The writer of these lines has always thought that the ‘reorganisation’ of states on linguistic basis and creation of states under pressure of political contingencies was a bad idea. All tall claims about cooperative and competitive federalism lie tattered. Parochial states have become paranoid and have run amok. State borders have been arbitrarily sealed at short notice with imposition of draconian restrictions infringing the fundamental and human rights of the citizen.
Most confusing have been the decisions of the honourable home minister of Haryana—often on a different wave length than his CM. What is the logic of creating a National Capital Region (NCR) if any participating state can hold those who dwell and work in it to ransom? It was bad enough before the pandemic hit us to change buses/scooters/taxis at interstate barriers when metro could bypass all these man-made hurdles. It’s time that NCR was liberated from whims of politicians who couldn’t think beyond their nose. If the states are reluctant than it’s time to suggest another reorganisation and carve out a new NCR.
Make no mistake: we are coping with an unprecedented situation akin to a war. But please don’t forget that to declare a war or impose an Emergency is the prerogative of the Central government. And so far except the use of War against Corona metaphorically, there has been no declaration of War or Emergency—even economic. It is amazing that some nitwits have taken the term War literally and dug out their well-hidden weapons and jumped into the battle (without any fitness test or training) to annihilate the invisible microbe and any unfortunate human who seems (to them) obstructing their way.
How far can the Central government intrude into the domain of states in the Indian Union is another serious question. Of course, the governors can conveniently report a breakdown of constitutional machinery and recommend President’s Rule. But this has not been done in a single delinquent’s case. What is bothering us is the dictates that mark out Red, Orange and Green Zones arbitrarily and without consultations with the State governments. Obviously the only consideration is the calculus of electoral gains or losses. Drawing of a new blue print of Centre-state relations can’t be deferred indefinitely.
Finally, we must face the reality of living and working in virtual space. The digital divide in the country exacerbates the rich and poor, urban and rural divide. Be it education or telemedicine, the access to computers, laptops and smart phones is not the same for all. This is what creates complex challenge of holding exams online and virtual classes. We would like to submit that these pressing concerns of upwardly mobile middle class can’t be the priority when life and death issues are before us. Lives and livelihoods both have to be saved but in the process those at the helm will have to prioritise national interest.