While I fortify myself against the coronavirus, my heart goes out to Avinash, Usman and scores of young men and women like them who don’t have the luxury to home quarantine themselves. In the past four weeks, they have moved from one camp to another, and one lane to another, in Chand Bagh, Khajuri, Chaman Park, Mustafabad and Shiv Vihar. These young men and women have been responding to distress calls from those who were uprooted and displaced from their homes by the communal violence that wrecked several parts of Northeast Delhi last month.
How do I ask Avinash to withdraw to his room? He is looking for an alternative space to store relief material. The space he had in the university is not available anymore because of the coronavirus scare. Avinash needs a space that would be easily accessible to volunteers and donors. The number of volunteers is decreasing because hostels are being shut down, and students are being forced to move out of Delhi. Yet, the valiant effort continues. These youngsters are doing what is called relief work. Relief from what? From the violence which pushed many people into destitution? From the indifference of their neighbours, which forces them to accept relief from strangers? Relief from the cruel state apparatus, which hates them for being what they are? From the police which looks at them as an unnecessary nuisance?
These young relief workers are not enforcing any state mandate. They are trying to bridge the social distance which led to the violence in the first place and remove the animosities stoked by the riots. But while doing their work, they are noticing that the rift between communities is actually widening.
A relief seeker is a diminished person, in her own eyes and the eyes of her neighbours, whether from the same community or what is now deemed as the “other” community. Relief is not treated as the right of those who have been wronged. It is seen as an unnecessary burden on the state, which tries its best to evade it. All claims are regarded with suspicion and people are asked to fit their claims in slots prepared by the state.
The youth responded to the call of their inner voice and risked their lives while arranging relief. They had to face the wrath of the police and the hostility of their neighbours. They were detained by the police, even insulted, but this did not deter them. They have become sociologists, ethnographers and quasi-legal hands while helping the victims of the violence register FIRs and negotiating with government officials to verify the compensation claims. They have shown amazing grit, determination and patience — qualities we badly need in the times of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many people have stressed the need for greater solidarity to face this new crisis. How do we do that if we don’t spare a moment for those who are being othered and denied their humanity every moment? They are the most vulnerable people in these times. They have been effectively invisiblised under the pretext of confronting the pandemic. A doctor friend had warned that the virus can cause havoc in crowded places like relief camps. But we didn’t know where to move these roofless people. Now many of them have moved back to their charred and violated homes while many more have been refused re-entry by their landlords and are being forced to look for accommodation within their community. Such people are being told to not live in a perpetual state of victimhood.
In conversations on compensation for the riot victims, the BPL line is mentioned several times. This makes me think of the impact the pandemic would have on our lives. Philosophers have, in fact, talked about the state of exception created by the pandemic and have warned that this could become the new normal.
I pray that our brave comrades remain safe from this virus. Their souls have taken much, they have been coarsened and softened at the same time.
The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University. This article first appeared in the March 25 print edition under the title ‘Solidarity and distancing’
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