A monumental and unprecedented exercise such as the nation allock down that began on March 25, and is still continuing, is bound to have unexpected and unforeseen consequences. This is more so in a country such as India where, apart from its sheer size and physical and social diversity, human occupations and economic practices aren’t fully documented. Compared to countries in the West and the developed East which are compact and even codified and documented, there are patches of life in India that exist in a twilight zone between modernity and something else.
The lockdown, to cite the most prominent example, brought to the forefront the sheer scale of the migrant labour issue. Despite the progress made over the past few years in creating the architecture of welfarism — voter cards, Aadhar cards and Jandhan bank accounts — there are large numbers of people whose livelihood patterns, which include migration within India, are still undocumented. Many businesses too are completely out of range of the regulatory framework—a reason why the implementation of the GST was marked with so many unforeseen hiccups.
Migrant labour belongs to this category of people whose livelihood is often linked to both the urban and rural economies and seasonal. The formalising of this informal sector will take a very long time. There are even those who insist that formalising in the Indian context is unnecessary. In any case, despite the well-publicised human problems associated with migrant labour who were stranded in cities and unable to make the journey back to their families, it can be said that the Indian response to the challenge has been phenomenal.
Where the government machinery hasn’t been able to penetrate, voluntary organisations of citizens have stepped in to provide food and shelter to the migrant workers. True, this hasn’t resolved their emotional distress and their anxiety, but if the interplay of state and society hadn’t been in place, things would have become controllable. It is impossible at present to say whether the lockdown that ends on May 4 will persist in some or be repeated if the spread of coronavirus continues. However, assuming some breaking the present phase of the lockdown, all state governments will be better placed to handle this social issue the next occasion.
The same can hardly be said for the second social problem that surfaced in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic: the rise in communal tensions involving Muslims and others. The tensions undoubtedly have their origins in the wilful defiance of official instructions and abdication of common sense by the Tablighi Jamaat leadership in hosting a convention in Delhi’s Nizamuddin last month, where large numbers of coronavirus-infected foreigners were present.
It was bad enough that the convention became the epicentre of the spread of coronavirus in India. What compounded the offence was the persisting defiance of the Tablighi members, many of whom are continuing to evade all medical tests and merrily spreading the infection to all those who come in contact with them.
There are estimates that the Tablighi gathering in Delhi was in some way responsible for nearly 34 per cent of all coronavirus cases in India. To further compound matters, this unwillingness to seek medical advice has been accompanied by incidents of medical workers being viciously attacked and seriously injured for the ‘crime’ of entering Muslim-dominated zones. This has happened in Indore, Ahmedabad, Moradabad and elsewhere.
Ina state such as West Bengal, where itis believed the numbers of those who attended the Tablighi convention exceeded 300, the state authorities have, fearing political and other retribution, not even bothered to locate them. Reports indicate that apart from foreigners who came on tourist visas, there were a number of Rohingyas who have disappeared inside ghettos and can’t be traced except by undertaking drastic steps, which in turn will trigger a political storm. Finally, the response of many Muslim communities to social distancing has been one of wilful defiance unless coerced. This criminal behaviour has jeopardised the national effort seriously. Itis quite understandable that in view of this non-cooperation and unwillingness to be part of the national community, there has been a sharp deterioration in communal relations.
More than anything else, Muslims have become objects of suspicion. This is unfortunate. However, the only way the fears of Muslims actually inviting the coronavirus into the country could have been disabused would have been for the Muslim leadership at different levels to undertake consciousness-raising programmes inside the community. Unfortunately, this has happened very patchily. Instead, the anti-government feelings that were generated during the anti-CAA mobilisation has been allowed to spill over into the war against the coronavirus.
What is particularly galling is that a section of the Muslim middle classes who should have played a role in seeing that the community stayed safe from coronavirus have instead directed their ire at the government and, worse, their Hindu neighbours — blaming them for Islamophobia for expressing their anger at the Tablighi bigo try. In particular, the role of some Muslims in media and academia have been absolutely disgraceful. Hopefully, the global concern over coronavirus will recede by the second half of 2020 and the focus will shift to repairing the devastated economies.
However, the task of reconstruction is certain to get vitiated if the communal strains aren’t immediately attended. I believe every Indian has a part to play in this social reconciliation, but the Muslim leadership has to initiate the process inside their own communities. It is hoped that good sense will prevail. The writer is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.