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'Covid-19 Reaffirmed India’s Caste, Class Inequalities': Author Suraj Yengde on Learning Inclusion from Ambedkar

Suraj Yengde

Suraj Yengde

"In India we do not have the habit of saying thank you to someone who has done a service for us especially if the person belongs to 'lower jobs'," Suraj Yengde says.

The lockdown to check the spread of the novel coronavirus disease sparked a mass exodus of migrant labourers.

The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown saw transport services coming to a halt, forcing workers and their families to cover long distances by foot.

With disturbing images of migrants stranded on highways and being sprayed with disinfectants surfacing, many have criticised the state's handling of the situation.

There is also increasing concern about the long-term effects of the pandemic on the marginalised, who are often worst-hit by disasters.

Writer-activist Suraj Yengde, the author of 'Caste Matters', says that coronavirus has reaffirmed India’s caste and class inequalities.

In an exclusive interview with News18, Yengde talks about the apathy of the ruling class towards workers and the privilege of 'social distancing'.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q) The lockdown announcement sparked a mass exodus of migrant labourers. Did the ruling class fail to anticipate the needs of the vulnerable in times of crisis, or does this reflect the state's apathy?

A) Images of migrant workers and their children walking long distances, with their feet covered in blisters should shock the conscience of any individual.

These workers are agricultural migrants, most of whom are Dalits or Adivasis. Seventy-one per cent Scheduled Caste farmworkers reported having lost jobs for 43 days on average due to discrimination.

So where do they then go to escape poverty? The urban areas. Thus, the major chunk of lower-paying, casual and regular worker positions are filled by the Scheduled Castes.

During the lockdown, several contractual workers have been fired, and many of them are not eligible for the relief package as they don't have construction worker welfare board cards.

I would not just call this apathy; it is the insensitivity of the ruling class who can never understand what it's like to live in their skin. There is no representation; a vote, after all, does not guarantee representation.

The economic advisors are Brahmins. In institutions like the judiciary, too, most High Court judges are Brahmins, who hear cases concerning Adivasis. They may be senior judges, with a lot of experience, but they don't know what living through generations of trauma feels like. The coronavirus has been called a great leveller, and to some extent it is true, but in India, it has reaffirmed caste and class inequalities.

Q) While we see reportage on doctors and medical professionals battling the coronavirus pandemic, there is hardly any mention of hospital sanitation workers and ward boys. What does this say about who India views as ‘frontline warriors’?

A) It says what it has been saying thus far. That the labour and the dignity given to the labourer is intrinsically connected with the caste-ascribed occupational norms and rituals.

It is the British colonial mentality wherein the work of the colonised was not warranted, continued by the neo-colonisers – the caste Brahmins who are invested in regulating the job hierarchy. Thus, if they give respect then it would mean disagreeing with Varna hierarchy which they're not courageous to do so.

In India we do not have the habit of saying thank you to someone who has done a service for us especially if the person belongs to a 'lower jobs'. Have we ever said thank you to the cobblers for tending our shoes, or applying a polish to it? Or to the sanitation worker for ensuring cleanliness remains in our society.

On the other hand, some Bania sitting on the cash counter scoots all kinds of thank yous.

Even in the appreciation of doctors and medical practitioners, there is a slanderous tirade against reservation doctors as opposed to the general doctors. Meaning even in the profession of saving lives, disgraceful people have found ways to denigrate the Dalit community.

How can one stoop so low to get this creativity of insulting an entire community amid a pandemic? They will create more problems that would hinder collective efforts in battling an enemy that would eventually absorb all of us.

And in the line of death warrant, they will push the poor, vulnerable Dalit girls and boys first.

In the current times, the proper credit should be given to the sanitation workers and more facilities need to be given to them beyond thank yous. They need social protection and far better, advanced perks like those we give to the army ranks.

NYT opinion columnist Nicholas Kristoff did a story on the New York health workers and medical practitioners. I am yet to see such a coverage that grants respectable recognition to the actual workers who're leading this battle.

However, I saw a video clip from India where an early morning garbage picker was honored with garland and some people even hugged. I felt so emotional. I had never seen such a thing in my life. So I guess people are also realising about the hard word and riskier jobs sanitation workers do in their life. Because of their caste they do not ascend to the class of 'frontline warriors'.

Q) ‘Social distancing’ has been termed as the only effective way of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. In India’s context, has it given caste apologists another reason to defend untouchability?

A) WHO also realised this mistake and it's advocating against the usage of the phrase ‘social distancing’ and is recommended ‘physical distancing’ and ‘social solidarity, instead.

In his Easter sermon, Pope Francis also called for the need for social solidarity across the globe. But for there to be social distancing, there need to be social or familial ties from which you choose to actively distance yourself.

India, however, has not yet reached a stage where we see social ties cutting across caste and class. The way domestic workers are treated in middle-class households, for example, it’s all indicative of the distancing we have been following, long before the pandemic.

So, in India, not a lot will change by a mere change in terminologies. 'Social distancing' or not we won't have an immediate change of hearts by the same people who have heavy stakes in maintaining the social distancing in a normal society of abnormals.

Q) A sharp spike in hate, communal content on social media over the coronavirus outbreak has been noted by police in several states. Does this indicate an overall lack of scientific temperament in the country?

A) A Hindu man is deeply superstitious, and superstition and scientific temperament don’t go together. This is a problem across communities in India, be it Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and even Muslims. So it’s not surprising that the upper caste, middle-class sensibility is pinning blame on Tablighi Jamaat or sharing videos of Muslims getting beaten up by the police.

So, calling on the need for a scientific temperament is asking for too much. The Muslims are also deeply religious people which would make them aversive from seeking scientific mediation. The belief in faith over science goes alongside every middle-age religion.

Similarly, the Christians have shown their disbelief in science by choosing to follow Indianised superstitious practices of Christendom as opposed to medical interventions.

This is all to say that if we start believing in science, we follow the mold of rationality and in rational thinking we find wisdom. Wisdom is directional that has the ability to absorb hate and madness of establishing one's non-existing religious superiority.

Q) Everybody is talking about the post-coronavirus world being different from the 'old normal'. What could this 'new normal' mean for the Bahujan in India?

A) I am excited about the possibility of this new world, but to step into this new world, we must leave behind all the problems of the present. So what should the post-apocalypse world look like? That new world should feel like your grandmother's warm and secure embrace. Her love is pure, unconditional.

Your parents also love you and introduce you to many ideas, but as you grow up, you see them betraying their own lessons. You're conditioned to believe that your mother approving your choices and your father living comfortably is all that matters.

They begin asking you who your friends are; they try to control your sexuality. They start acting as the caste police, asking you not to sit too long with the drivers or the workers. If you rebel and ask why, they feel a sense of betrayal because of the choices you've made.

With everybody feeling a strong sense of betrayal all the time, we have built a nation that's incredibly frustrated. So, this new world should not have any cheap morals and materialistic ideas.

Much like your grandmother's hug, the resilience, and compassion of Dalit love is the only healing touch. But even though your grandmother loves you unconditionally, she is also wedded to her old-traditions. In this new world, there should be room for you to question all her beliefs, without you, or her, feeling betrayed.

Q) The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown have halted economic activity. Some now say that growth for growth's sake isn't sustainable. What kind of an economic order would Ambedkar have envisioned for India had he been with us today?

A) Ambedkar, I feel, would have first nationalised all key sectors, including healthcare and agriculture. He would have refused to bail out big banks and ensured crony capitalists don't swindle money, declare bankruptcy while continuing to lead lavish lives.

People's money would not have been used to bail out these banks that are controlled by the elites, while the poor struggle to make ends meet.

Even today, most of these banks continued to be owned by Brahmins. We are now seeing how the Reserve Bank of India has been rendered virtually powerless.

Ambedkar would not have let that happen; he would have met with RBI officials, asked them to open the files and would have made sure that the money is recovered by those who owe it, and not by the government.

Ambedkar created certain systems, but he wouldn't be afraid to dismantle them if they’re not serving the intended purpose. He would have closely monitored the developments taking place across the world, especially in economies like Greece where the European Union cut bad loans, and would've ensured that these mistakes are not repeated here.

Ambedkar would have also worked towards a just economy. The political weight of the Prime Minister and an autowala may not be the same, but their social worth is the same.

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