IN THE PAST, pandemics have spread far and wide and have killed many. The deadly Coronavirus, similarly, has been causing havoc. It is, however, unique in a sense that it has engulfed almost every part of the world, killing hundreds of people with each passing day. The mighty states of the world appear helpless before this ephemeral virus.
The virus, which was first reported in winter, remains uncontrolled during the pick of summer. People, locked up in rooms, are getting more and more frustrated. Some of them are even feeling suffocated. The destitution and starvation have immeasurably escalated.
To put it briefly, the scenario today is unimaginably grim. Yet, I feel more worried about the post-corona world.In the aftermath of the virus, the world may witness a different political habitat. People, particularly those consisting of the working classes and the marginalised groups, would find it difficult to hold rallies and gatherings. The space for them to express their grievances may shrink further.
To curb their voices, the authorities may borrow the language of Corona pandemic. They may put up several hurdles to holding popular gatherings and demonstrations.
Nonetheless, Whatever I am visualizing amounts by no means to say that the movements by people would be completely banned and crushed. It has only to say that there would be the issuance of stringent orders in order to discourage big gatherings. In the name of maintaining public health and hygiene, norms, aimed at diluting the principles of equality, might be formulated and put in place. Apart from coercion, the government may seek the support of citizens. It is likely that a large number of middle-classes would come out in supporting the government once the bogey of threat to public safety is invoked.
A current period of lockdown has already served several purposes. Though the claims have been made that the lockdown is in place to break the chain of the spread of virus, it is hardly discussed how it is violently disciplining the people. For example, even the narrow and busy allays of a slum-like locality of the yesterdays in south Delhi now wear a deserted look. Earlier, the same place was brimming with the flow of people. Within a month of lockdown, the disciplinary impact could easily be marked out.
A large number of self-appointed volunteers are seen holding up dandas (batons) in their hands, instructing the passers-by to put on mask properly. They were also seen asking the people to be locked up and to behave as “responsible” ones and to follow the instructions of the government. In some bizarre and outrageous instances, they have also been interrogating the vegetable vendors whether or not they have ‘locality-specific’ Aadhar card in order to sell the vegetables.
Democracy can’t be imagined w¬ithout the active participation of people. Strikes, gatherings, rallies, protests, demonstrations are sign of its vibrancy. The rulers and their allies, such as the social conservatives and the businessmen, have always tried to control the movements of people. The restrictions on forming the trade unions and conducting students’ elections reflect their discomfort. Putting several guidelines and prohibitions during the election campaigns is supposed to curb the people’s movements. In political philosophy, it has been found that the conservative thinkers have always shown their great fear against the rise of plebian from below.
The democratic regime cannot afford to openly suppress the public gatherings. To make itself distinct from the authoritarian regime, it often takes recourse to certain excuses in order to prohibit such freedoms. The rulers often resort to the discourse of public safety, law and order, national interest etc., and seek to create legitimacy before launching a crackdown. I am therefore afraid that the post-corona world might give another ideological weapon in the hands of the rulers. They may use the language of this pandemic and cite the issue of public health for creating a public opinion against people’s gathering and radical mass politics.
In the field of education too, the post-Corona world wouldn’t remain unaffected. It may see a spurt in e-learning. A large number of teachers, who survive by offering private tuition by visiting door to door, may find it difficult to get work. The big companies are entering in the business of e-learning and taking away the space of human interaction. It is quite evident that the practice of uploading video lectures has been increasing rapidly. The business of online classes would further grow.
Apart from generating the issues of employment, it would pave the way for mass surveillance. ‘Who is teaching what’ and ‘who is learning what’ would be monitored. Although the benefits of video lecture are not completely denied, it has a potential for misuse. Several teachers have already expressed their discomfort with regard to teaching under eyes of camera. They are afraid that if they express opinions against the college authority and the government, they might land up in jail.
It is all evident that the post-corona world may lead to drastic unemployment. The tourism and aviation industries would be hard hit. The miseries of workers and common people are likely to increase. Even those who are working in service sectors would not be spared. The news is already arriving that hundreds of journalists, some of them who have bagged awards until the last year, have been fired. The size of newspapers has also shrunk. Many of the newspaper vendors have said that they have no money to eat. The print media is hard hit.
It is likely that vacancies for jobs would be drastically reduced, if not completely stopped. In the name of “austerity” measures, further assault on the welfare schemes would be made. The logic of lack of resources would be abuzz.
Over and above all, perhaps, the worst manifestation of the post-corona would be in the sphere of our social relation. Several gains related to equality and fraternity may be robbed. Social distancing would further increase. Untouchability would be more practiced. Muslims may emerge as a new untouchable group. The long struggle for inter-dining and inter-marriage would be affected. The mixing of people might be seen as a ‘threat’. The caste and religious prejudices are likely to intensify. Racism would increase. Those who do not look like the people of Hindi heartland would be suspiciously seen. Muslims, Dalits, residents from the north-eastern states might be further stereotyped.
The pernicious omen is already being witnessed. The social conservatives, far more than the virus, have become super active. “Our traditions are so scientific that we fold our hands and say ‘Namaste’. This does not let the virus spread”, for instance, are the remarks being made by several upper caste Hindus. Even a qualified and experienced doctor whom I know for a long time recently told me over phone. “Muslims are very dirty. They take food off the same plat and do not consider spit of fellow Muslims as dirty”.
The prejudiced doctor made such a remark while he was convincing me that the Hindu way of maintaining a social distance was much more “scientific”. Even media, particularly Hindi, is misleading people. They carry stories on a daily basis, implying that the Indian way of life (read Hindu/Brahminical) based on nature is far more “superior” than others. The extremists are busy with organizing gau mutra party and drinking ‘cow urine’ to cure corona virus.
On the idea of inequality in Hindu social order, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (Who were the Shudras) has made a remarkable statement which seems even more relevant now than ever before. He has said that inequality as a practice is found in Hindu as well as non-Hindu societies; but the difference between them is that the former justifies inequality as its “ideal”. To substantiate his argument, Ambedkar refers to Purusha Sukta, the ninetieth hymn of the tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda that justifies inequity. Babasaheb has argued that Purusha Sukta, unlike any other religious text, has made “an ideal real”.
The fear, stigma and suspicion, born at the time of corona, may outlive this period. The political power, the corporate and the “social orthodoxy” may use them to sell inequality as an “ideal”. I think fighting against these reactionary forces would be far more difficult than that of Coronavirus.
These are some of my anxieties as to how the post-corona world might look like. Nevertheless, I do not claim to make any definite prediction about the future here. Rather, the essay is an attempt to share my apprehensions with you. Thus, I invite you for a collective thinking.
Abhay Kumar has recently submitted his PhD at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A regular contributor to newspapers and web portals, Kumar has been working on the broad theme of the Indian Muslims and Social Justice. You may read his other writings at abhaykumar.org.