‘Social distancing’ in India is turning a crisis into an opportunity to widen societal inequalities. Recently, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India to issue directions to discontinue the use of the term ‘social distancing’ in government circulars because of its connotation to the centuries-old practice of ‘untouchability’, and replace it with ‘physical distancing’, ‘individual distancing’ or ‘disease distancing’. However, the Supreme Court disposed of the petition without making any order on the plea and thus, chose to be insensitive and apathetic towards those in the lower rung of the society. Social distancing finds familiarity in India as it mirrors the age-old custom of social stratification of lower caste people – the Dalits. It reaffirms the Brahmanical (upper caste) belief of social ostracisation and non-intermingling with those in the lower end of the graded hierarchy.
In the absence of a vaccine or cure, when keeping a safe distance between individuals is the only known deterrent to curb the spread of the COVID-19, we have to be mindful of the terminology we use to effectuate such a measure. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested using the term ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing’ to showcase social solidarity. The novel coronavirus is stated to be a great leveller as it impacts all equally and does not discriminate on the basis of caste, sex, class or race, but in the Indian context, it only reasserts the already existing social divide.
Health professionals and security personnel are hailed as frontline warriors of COVID-19 but sanitation workers who are invisibly working day-in-day-out amidst the lockdown and whose services are considered as essential services are not given the same dignity. According to a study undertaken by Dalberg Advisors (2017) and supported by the Gates Foundation, 90% of the five million people engaged in sanitation work belong to the lower caste community. They have not been provided with any protective gear to carry out their work and are, therefore, exposed to a greater risk of catching the virus. They have always been traditionally seen as ‘unclean’ or ‘dirty’ and in current times are easily stigmatized as potential virus spreaders. It is disheartening to see reports of people in quarantine, refusing to eat food cooked by a lower caste person. There have also been instances where chemical disinfectants were sprayed on migrant labourers (a majority of whom belong to lower caste) before they were allowed to enter their districts in an attempt to purge them of the virus. Dalits are also being denied access to food rations and are being beaten up on raising their voices.
No sooner did the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India issue an advisory on social distancing, twitter was filled with posts comparing the said measure with untouchability. Notable mythologist and author of many books – Devdutt Pattnaik – also equated social distancing to untouchability. Brahmins are being hailed for discovering the cure to the spread of the virus centuries ago in their practice of socially excluding some people. Untouchability in India manifests in different forms. Amidst the pandemic, a Dalit couple was beaten mercilessly and casteist slurs were hurled at them because they refused to sell the land which was rightfully theirs. The domestic helpers in Indian households, who usually belong to the lower caste, are seldom allowed to sit on the same furniture or eat in the same utensils as other members of the households. In a country like India, where caste-based traditional prejudices and beliefs are so deeply entrenched, discriminatory practices which are otherwise prohibited under Art. 17 and 15 of the constitution of India can easily resurface under the garb of social distancing. What is required of us to control the spread of the virus is to maintain a distance of 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people irrespective of their caste – which can easily be translated into ‘physical distancing’ or ‘disease distancing’ and are more appropriate terms which should have been used to disperse the idea.
‘Social endosmosis’ is what is needed right now. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – a social reformer and leader of the Dalit movement in India – popularized the term in his book Annihilation of Caste. We need a free exchange of ideas and experiences of all social groups and their coming together for a common agenda to fight the disease. Empathy and solidarity are the cornerstones of social endosmosis. This pandemic should not be taken as an opportunity to buttress the gaping chasm between different caste groups. Supreme Court is not blind to the deeper levels of distancing being practised in India since millennia and should have directed a policy framework in line with the social realities prevalent in the country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shubhangi Agarwal is a final year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) student at National Law University, Lucknow with a specialization in Constitutional Law. She takes an active interest in public policy and constitutional issues. She can be reached at email@example.com for any queries.