Coronavirus Pandemic

Why India doesn’t seem to care about its poor even during a pandemic

ByMehraj D Lone

In his new book, Sebastian & Sons, TM Krishna tells of Parlandu, the “greatest mrdangam maker ever”. Parlandu was Dalit, as all makers of the mrdangam, a percussion instrument made with cow hide which is integral to Carnatic music, are. He was employed by Vaidyanatha Ayyar and, later, by his legendary pupil, the revered Carnatic musician Palghat Mani Iyer. Both teacher and disciple, as almost all mrdangam players, were Brahmin. They were in awe of Parlandu’s craft, so much so that Mani Iyer left his hometown in Palakkad, Kerala, for Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, because the master craftsman was based there.

Yet, Ayyar wouldn’t even pay Parlandu’s full wages, meagre as they were, lest his family acquire a modicum of socioeconomic power. Instead, the Dalit man had to be content that his Brahmin overlord allowed him certain social “privileges” – he could walk up to his porch – that his community was deemed unworthy of. It was compensation enough, gratitude enough.

It is a similar sentiment, rooted in upper caste, upper class Hindu privilege, that animated the clapping and clanging of utensils with which Narendra Modi’s “janta curfew” climaxed on Sunday.

Instead of ensuring, say, that sanitation workers get living wages, safety gear, and legal protections so they don’t die miserable deaths in sewers, the prime minister commands the citizenry to give them a clap. It would be a joke if it wasn’t so tragic.

Similarly, over the last few days, several news reports and testimonies by healthcare workers have laid out in grim detail the lack of preparedness to tackle the gravest crisis of our time. Medical staff are risking their lives treating coronavirus patients because they don’t even have protective equipment. The Modi government’s response has been to complicate problems, through incompetence and “malintention”.

India’s spending on healthcare, at just over one percent of the GDP, is far below the global average. Public healthcare facilities across much of the country are in a shambles. The private healthcare sector is almost entirely “self-regulated” and, thus, unaffordable for the vast majority of the population.

A civilised and actually meaningful way of showing gratitude to essential services personnel – and the working class generally – would be to provide them living wages, safe working conditions, strong labour protections, and dignity. Not a cacophony. Which, in any case, may have done more harm than good, going by a surfeit of visuals of people making a public celebration of it, defeating the very purpose of the exercise: social distancing. It was inevitable when the government’s messaging was predicated, as it has often been, on headline management rather than the minutiae of policy.

This is common sense, one would think. Why then did so many people suspend their critical faculties and partake in the circus?

One explanation, as in Parlandu and Ayyar’s story, is the Brahmanical conception of “service”. That “life must be devoted to selfless service, without desire for its fruits”, as Ramesh Gampat puts it in Sanatana Dharma and Plantation Hinduism, and, crucially, “without agency”.

It’s a message Modi reiterated in his address last night. Deploying the same language of service and sacrifice, he warned people “everywhere” not to leave their homes. But while he announced a fund of Rs 15,000 crore to equip hospitals and healthcare workers with essential supplies, he only had vague promises to offer the poor and marginalised who will bear the brunt of the lockdown. “The central government is working with states and civil society groups to lessen the suffering of the poor,” Modi said, as if he were doing charity.

That he did not find it necessary to announce concrete measures for the poor, the vast majority of the population, to tide over the loss of already precarious livelihoods speaks to the same idea of “service”: suffer for the “nation”, they were told implicitly, “without agency”.

The only practical way you can persuade a person not to venture out in search of sustenance, other than coercion or violence by the state, is to ensure they are provided for. For the poor and the lower middle class, that would mean immediate income support, free rations, clean water, a moratorium on rent and loan collection, provision of healthcare closer to their homes – through mobile hospitals, testing centres – a guarantee that they would keep their jobs and receive generous unemployment allowances if they don’t. That’s not yet happened nationally. In fact, even the laudable measures announced by states such as Kerala and Delhi are far from adequate, and even if they were, concerns about implementation would still hang heavy.

And there appears to be no plan in place for the homeless or the migrant workers stranded by the lockdown who have no place to stay and no way home. Not surprisingly, heartbreaking stories of suffering are already emerging.

Removed from this suffering, though hurting in their own way, are those who populate highrises and balconied “housing societies”. It’s no coincidence this segment of society – predominantly upper caste, upper class Hindus – furnished the most enthusiastic clappers and “bartan bangers”. And it’s primarily them that Modi was talking to in his March 19 speech calling for the “janta curfew” and, far the most part, last night as well.

If you listen carefully, you will realise the first speech wasn’t an “address to the nation”, much less a plan of action to tackle the pandemic. It was an appeal to the Brahmanical sensibilities of this sliver of the citizenry, which has monopolised socioeconomic and intellectual capital and, therefore, drives “public opinion”. They are the people to flatter whose national and cultural vanities public wealth is burned through to build giant statues, mega stadiums, bullet trains, and high walls around slums.

These people are, thus, critical not only to sustaining Modi’s hold on power but also his ideological project – which is founded on the same vanities – equipped as they are to generate consensus, the lifeblood of authority, especially in a democracy. They, in turn, draw from Hindutva’s political ascendancy validation for their worldview. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Sadly, because this Brahmanical conception of selfless service has enjoyed social sanction for so long, it has purchase even among the people that it actively harms, those engaged in “lowly work”. Parlandu, remember, was forever loyal to Ayyar. “When Ayyar died, Parlandu wouldn’t leave the cremation ground and kept vigil all night,” Krishna writes. “Was it loyalty, gratitude, dependence, love or a complex web of emotions entrenched and normalised in the socialisation of both men?”

As Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd notes, even the Shudras, traditionally the producers of essential resources – food, housing, clothing – have long subscribed to the “Brahminical theory that the work of production is spiritually polluting”. “What Shudras do, what they make and even what they eat is shown in Hindu religious and philosophical texts as unworthy of divine respect,” he writes. “Historically, they have been so diffident in the face of this assault that they have been convinced that they do not have a culture of their own. But just because this culture has not been written into books does not mean that it is not there.”

Today, social sanction for such “values” is sustained through the patchwork of political, social, economic, cultural, legal, and civic institutions that undergirds the Indian republic, most visibly the media and the entertainment industry, which are, of course, both heavily dominated by upper caste Hindus.

One of these values is conformity, as expressed in unquestioning loyalty to whatever notion of nationhood is in fashion and all its trappings – the military, cultural knowledge, political leadership. And where conformity is a value, dissent is a crime. There must have been many people clapping in their balconies, or in the shanties they overlooked, not because they thought it meaningful, but because standing out from the herd might invite opprobrium from their neighbours and relatives, or worse. For the rich and famous who advertised their participation in the circus, it was probably also the thought of being watched by a vindictive regime – or benevolent as the case may be – and the online mobs at its command.

This ties in with another, more earthly explanation: the circus, as the Romans understood, is cheap.

Making empty noises to show gratitude doesn’t cost anything, in social or material privilege. Ask the denizens of housing societies and highrises to pay a bit more in income tax, so their garbage collector could have a decent home, let alone a house with a balcony, and you might have a revolt on your hands, even though they enjoy some of the lowest average income tax rates across major economies. It gets phonier. Some of the prominent noisemakers have built mansions on land allegedly usurped from an orphanage, stashed their monies in tax havens, defrauded banks, and sought to smash the gods of the poor for profit.

In the imagination of this segment of society – and Modi reinforced it through his allusions to charity – the rest of the citizenry exists solely to serve them. Cook and clean for them, drive them around, wait on them, grow food for them, abandon ancestral forestlands so they could be mined for their benefit, even shed their blood and kill for them.

As to how grateful they actually are of those who serve them, including members of their own class, doctors have been threatened with eviction, servants warned of dismissal, airline crew taunted.

At their circuses, the Romans at least threw around a few loaves of bread. Here, the wretched of the earth are being told to make do with the circus alone, even in a pandemic. Cruelty disguised as compassion.

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