Social distancing being used to reinforce caste bias, justify Manusmriti, says Dalit activist Ramesh Nathan

Social distancing being used to reinforce caste bias, justify Manusmriti, says Dalit activist Ramesh Nathan

The COVID-19 continues to spread in India, with latest death toll figures close to over 20,000. While many reports and studies have commented on India’s response to the outbreak, it seems that once again, the caste angle has been ignored by both mainstream media and even alternate media to a large extent.

The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) has been monitoring the impact of the COVID-19 and the lockdown on the Dalit, Adivasi and other marginalized community members. NCDHR has pointed out that the usage of the term ‘social distancing’ as a prevention strategy to stay safe from contracting the ‘Virus’ has bred into the caste practice of untouchability in many nuanced ways during this pandemic. NCDHR rejects the usage of the term “social distancing” to using the more appropriate terminology of “physical distancing”.

The sudden enforcement of the strict lockdown led to chaos, fear and loss of livelihood of the daily wage earners, mainly Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim community members who worked as rickshaw pullers, labourers, vendors, workers in small factories or as agricultural labourers who are majorly engaged in the unorganized sector. There have been cases where the Dalit and other marginalized communities have had very less or no access to rations. Many of whom were labourers stranded in different parts of the country. Thus, the situation has further pushed the Dalit and Adivasi communities into vulnerability due to “non-availability or accessibility of essentials”.

The pandemic has also exposed the system of untouchability, casteist and patriarchal attitude at work that still exists in the country; with surging cases of caste and gender-based atrocities and discriminatory acts being perpetrated even while the country was under lockdown.

NCDHR has intervened in more than 80 cases of caste and gender-based atrocities during the pandemic and lockdown. The nature of these cases reveals a surge in cases of layered untouchability through socio-economic boycott and physical assault, violence against Dalit women, the murder of Dalit community members, brutal attacks and casteiest abuse, violence against children, desecration of Babasaheb’s statue, domestic violence etc.

Sanitation workers, part of the frontline workforce suffered due to inadequate availability of healthcare essentials. Lack of protective gear makes sanitation work difficult during normal times, and the pandemic made the situation worse and made them far more susceptible to the virus. Despite being at the frontlines, sanitation workers are still at the bottom of priorities. Estimates say that 40-60% of the six million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in sanitation work. The sanitation workers at this point of time are only provided with some pairs of gloves and few masks. The lack of prioritizing and inhuman treatment is a matter of concern and needs to be addressed by policymakers.

In an attempt to address these issues, the NCDHR in collaboration with various other Dalit organisations organised a webinar to address these concerns. Joining us to shed light on the webinar and the discussions around the topic is Dr VA Ramesh Nathan, General Secretary, National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ).

TCN: When did it become clear that the marginalised people of the country were going to be affected by the pandemic and the lockdown?

Dr Ramesh: The National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) has been involved in monitoring human rights violations against Dalit and Adivasis since 2000. We regularly monitor such activities through our trained human rights partners and defenders and ensure that we provide all kinds of support from helping to file the FIRs and fighting through legal means. Since the lockdown, our team has been involved in monitoring both human rights violations as well as looking into the relief (both health and financial) packages announced by state and central governments. We thought during the curfew, violence wouldn’t take place but our ground workers showed us otherwise: our reports show that in fact, in around 10 states, we have seen cases of violence against Dalits during the lockdown.

TCN: How hard was it to collate data and get ground reports at a time when the lockdown was in full effect?

Dr Ramesh: Initially, it was really difficult reaching the places where the incidents were taking place. But our human rights defenders were able to get information via phones, calling police officials, through WhatsApp and other online mediums. When lockdown eased it became a little easier for our people to travel in their districts at least to get as much information as possible.

TCN: NCDHR has rejected the term social distancing. Do you believe that the pandemic and the subsequent nature of our “fight” against the pandemic has hurt years and years of work against caste?

Dr Ramesh: Yes, it is true. The World Health Organization (WHO) introduced this term was essentially to protect against the coronavirus. It was introduced positively by the medical community, and also by our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But what happened was that the Hindu fundamentalist organisations gradually started using this to justify Manusmriti. They did a lot of propaganda in the social media and other media, saying “this is what we have been saying” and “we should not let people in our homes, we should not touch other people, we should not shake hands”. They started to reinforce the caste system. For us, the term social distancing has already prevailed in our society due to the caste system. The Dalits have been presented as unseen-able, unapproachable and untouchable. These are the major elements of the caste system. Social distancing reinforced these ideas. We are hurt that the dominant caste system is taking advantage of the situation to once again push for casteist ideas.

TCN: What are the most disturbing patterns seen during this period?

Dr Ramesh: If we analyse the atrocities, in many places Dalits have been humiliated by being called caste names and being attacked. The Dalit women who cooked food were rejected by dominant castes, gang rapes and murders are increasing. These are some of the most disturbing things to emerge out of this pandemic. Recently, in Tamil Nadu, a tribal leader who was elected to the panchayat was made to dig a funeral pit by members of the dominant caste. Since he comes from a poor community he was treated like bonded labour. The vice president of the Panchayat is now effectively in charge. Similarly, the Arundathiyar community has been facing extreme discrimination. Four Dalits died cleaning a septic tank in Thoothukudi district, which was also in news due to the custodial killing of two people. The disturbing factor is that while the custodial killings were highlighted, the Dalits who died in septic tanks weren’t talked about. The democratic voices raised against the murder of George Floyd in America is a good thing but the same thing is never seen in India when Dalits are at the receiving end of such violence.

TCN: What according to you are the most important points that must be addressed to tackle violence against the marginalised?

Dr Ramesh: The migrant labourers have faced tremendous challenges, with over 500 dead due to walking for thousands of kilometres. Sanitary workers have been treated unfairly and they have been made to work without proper safeguards like gloves and masks and others. They remain underpaid and continue to work as contract labourers. One of our demands has been to turn them into permanent workers and be paid a fair salary that acknowledges the kind of work that they are doing. The government schemes and packages announced have not reached SC/ST communities and we can say this because we are monitoring this through an App called ‘We Claim’. We have organisations like the International Dalit Solidarity Network that are trying to highlight these issues at an international stage.

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