American abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, in a speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1852, said, “Revolutions are not made; they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back.”
India’s past is a cacophony of privilege versus deprivation. In 1947 we inherited a system based on the politically enforced presumption of superior versus inferior. Colonialism’s foundations are based on looking down on the natives, and those who can adopt the coloniser’s language and cultural standards rise above their lowly status. Although we gained political independence from the British yoke, it is indeed a cliché to repeat that for average Indians nothing changed in their lives. The English speaking nobility retained power for decades much like the British colonialists. The watershed point was in 1984 when Kanshi Ram, unlike Ambedkar who wanted the removal of the caste system, used caste to galvanise Dalits to push for political power. Until that point the script was dominated by kismat and karma to account for their dismal economic and social degradation. The traditional acceptance of their fate was ferociously replaced with justifiable aspirations for equality. Caste catalysed into a new political meaning with the power of a vote bank. There has been a cultural and social reversion where now those who are not fluent in Hindi or regional languages are the class clowns. It is conspicuous that our present Prime Minister is not from the English speaking high caste cabal. But political power is an intrinsically strange commodity. Its very nature means that a handful of people will take decisions (or not take decisions required) that can send millions into abject misery.
The coronavirus pandemic has catapulted India into a trajectory that has exposed like never before the humongous gap between the privileged and those who live at a subsistence level. Abandoned by their employers, the horrific stories, heart breaking images and footage that makes one cringe in disbelief, of daily wagers grappling with even worse new realities, ensures a deep seated hatred and resentment towards those whose problems with the lockdown are the choice of workouts, recipes, dealing with children themselves 24/7 and how to pass time. The gargantuan chasm could not be more conspicuous. Can we, who do not have to fathom where our next meal will come from, do not have to walk hundreds of kilometres to get home, do not live in one room with eight people where one person is COVID positive, and have no hope of medical treatment, do anything at all about such gaping disparities? Do we even want to? Yes, thousands of people with means have poured out to help. But, it only helps the momentary situation. It does not change the cause of it.
India has about 450 million or roughly 90 per cent of its work force in the unorganised economy. India also has an estimated floating population of about 120 million migrant workers who travel from villages to cities for work. The sheer numbers of those made destitute by the coronavirus lockdown cannot be a page we turn over after one reading.
According to a BBC report, “Large companies across various sectors — media, aviation, retail, hospitality, automobiles — have announced massive layoffs in recent weeks. And experts predict that many small and medium businesses are likely to shut shop altogether.
A closer look at Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy’s data shows the devastating effect the lockdown has had on India’s organised economy. Of the 122 million who have lost their jobs, 91.3 millions were small traders and labourers. But a fairly significant number of salaried workers — 17.8 million — and self-employed people — 18.2 million — have also lost work.”
Consider the number of people with no livelihood. It is not only the unorganised sector but also those working in businesses and industries, so it includes the middle class. In 2008, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post, “Iran has the ingredients for a revolution. More than half of the population is younger than 30, many youths are educated yet unemployed, almost 50 million Iranians have smartphones with which they can learn about the world, and reformers have consistently raised expectations yet never delivered on their promises.” This should ring an alarm bell.
Reams have been written about the varying ingredients that make for a country ripe for a revolution. Historically, each country, that did galvanise a revolution, had many different factors at play. But in almost all of them there stands one common incendiary element. Poverty ridden and unemployed citizens versus a wealthy, powerful, privileged minority. When the dam of anger and frustration breaks from people who have nothing, the lulled privileged are then surprised.
Wendell Phillips said in 1852, “What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind, and the statesman is no longer clad in the steel of special education, but every reading man is his judge.” Today it is, of course, what the Internet and social media platforms have done for the previously unheard masses, the statesman is no longer clad in the steel of imperviousness, but every person with a smartphone is a judge. This is a bonfire waiting to be lit.
We have seen the rage and frustration expressed by those who were summarily dumped with no salaries, no homes, no transport, no food. That sense of betrayal has planted a seed of emotional dislocation and desperation. WhatsApp messages of warning have been circulated to watch out for thieves and gangs on streets. When your children are hungry that person feels he has nothing left to lose. When millions are unemployed, there are millions who have nothing left to lose. The neglected and suffering are no longer in a mood of submission to their kismat and karma. It is even no longer a matter of aspirations. It is a matter of essential rights. It is telling indeed that when donations of food packages were being made to distribute to daily wagers, even in their hunger, biscuits were rejected as, “Are we dogs to be given biscuits?” The fracture in their dignity remains with deep scars.
We see hunger and poverty every day but we have developed blind eyes. The beggars on the street, the clusters of slums we drive by, homeless people sleeping on pavements, a mother bathing two little children in cold water from a fountain in freezing winter, two adults and three children piled on a motorcycle; we have stopped seeing the unfairness of it all. All this has been around so long that it has become a dead background scenery to us. A normal backdrop as we get on with our privileged lives.
There is a trace of arrogance and ego in us giving charity (with the motivation often being to feed good karma) that really is a drop in an ocean of misery. There has to be a deep overhaul of entrenched systems. Marie Antoinette reportedly said (though debunked by some historians), “Let them eat cake” when hungry citizens shouted for bread outside the palace gates. We have, metaphorically, been saying, “Let them eat cake” for centuries. Obviously, we, the privileged, are not smarter in any way. Yes, we too have worked hard to achieve whatever we did. But let it not be forgotten, we had a start that others did not. We took education and healthcare for granted. The issue of food is only addressed in eating too much. We as journalists only write for people like us. Do the daily wage earners watch or read the stories about them? We have become a nation stuck in an existential cognitive dissonance.
What can be done? First, decent housing must be provided for all daily wagers. It could be the state governments, it could be builders with construction sites, it could be factory and industry owners. Yes, their costs will go up but it has to be factored in. Business and industry must get support from the government to restart their businesses and employ labour. Access to healthcare and education must be a priority. This is the moment to seize a recalibration and choose how we can help change the systems that have let the majority of Indians so steeply down. In every profession there is an area where we can pay attention to how we can spend a portion of our time to strive for change. Strong lobbies have to advocate change from those in power. If not for the responsibility of it and the humanitarian need, then for selfish reasons. Otherwise we can expect tremors at the palace gates.
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe”.
— Frantz Fanon
Trehan is a journalist
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