Let’s face it. The coronavirus emergency that has dislocated our world will not go away any time soon. Before it does, it will have changed our ideas of life and living. Abandoning the usual practice of hugging friends to show our regards for them is merely an outward sign of the changes overtaking us. The very opposite of hugging, social distancing, is the new norm.
There is a political angle to the coronavirus crisis which is more worrying. Any kind of crisis gives unlimited powers to ruling elites who, for that reason, welcome crises and emergencies. A national emergency helps elected leaders to turn into autocrats without attracting the stigma of autocracy. India’s first two emergencies were necessitated by the China war (1962) and the Pakistan war (1971). But the Indira Gandhi emergency of 1975 was politics all the way through; she wanted to overcome a court ruling that made her election invalid. That emergency led to one man, Sanjay Gandhi, exercising power according to his whims. The present emergency, though not declared as such, gives the prime minister of the day the same privilege.
The temptation to exercise power beyond constitutional limitations is strong among politicians irrespective of party labels. The clever ones do it without attracting condemnation. China is a good example of this. Today people in China can pretty much do what they please, including the airing of a fair amount of criticism of those in power. This flows from the perceptible improvement in the quality of life in China. Although the Government allowed prosperity to develop, it never gave up its police-state character. In Turkey, people are happily irresponsible if Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is to be believed. His forthcoming novel ‘Nights of Plague’ says that “even during major plague pandemics, mosques in Istanbul conducted funerals, mourners still visited one another to offer condolences and tearful embraces.” But, Turkey remains “the world leader in jailing journalists”.
It is clear that countries do what they want but pretend to be otherwise. Typically, they have adapted themselves to social distancing. But is this not a reworking of our time-tested caste distancing? When it was a legally protected privilege, the caste system was rampantly misused. Inhuman punishments of the lower castes for presumed offences were all too common. Originally, it was justified as a means to protect occupational skills and to identify people by the skills they cultivated. It became birth-based and discriminatory under the British policy of divide and rule. The privileged in India took advantage of colonial policies and turned casteism into an excusable practice.
I had once mentioned in this column my childhood playmate, Konnan. That was a contemptuous abbreviation of his name, Govindan. He was the grandson of a slave. Yes, a slave, a human being whom another human being could legally own in our village in those days. Konnan and I never understood the ramifications of the word as we played games. No one told us about it either. Clearly all discriminations, caste-wise or otherwise, are in the mind. If you feel it inside you, it is there. If you don’t, it doesn’t exist.
The same applies to religious differences as well. Most of the time we hear about this religious group clashing with that religious group. Occasionally, we also hear heart-warming stories. The other day West Bengal’s Imams’ Association asked Muslims to donate their Zakat fund in such a way that household necessities could be distributed to the poor, whether Hindu and Muslim. In a Rajasthan district, Hindu youth arranged roza-iftar for Muslims admitted to the local hospital during Ramzan. Again, if you feel communal inside you, it is there, otherwise it doesn’t exist.
Vayalar Rama Varma, an acutely sensitive poet, put it in words that were beautiful and fearsome at the same time. Man created religions / Religions created gods / Man, religions and gods together / shared the earth / shared the mind of man / We became Hindu, Mussalman, Christian / We became strangers to ourselves / India became a lunatic asylum. Religion has become the most profitable business in the world today, money-wise and power-wise. That’s one reason why communally oriented political parties do well in power games. Caste distancing may have acquired a fashionable face as social distancing. But the basics remain unchanged. If it takes a pandemic to create a political atmosphere favourable to the ruling class, they will welcome it. Life’s unalterable principle is: The ruling class must rule on. If it is over the dead bodies of you and me, so be it.
T J S George