COVID: An allegory of Dalitness?

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By Valson Thampu

The COVID-19 pandemic is tremulous with ironies. They should not be lost sight of. If they are to be reckoned, we must agree at the outset that events like pandemics, natural disasters and social upheavals, though random, or chance, events, are not devoid of any logic or meaning. Admittedly, what happens only ‘by chance’–if such a thing exists—has no intent, and what lacks intent is meaningless. But, the fact that we are unaware of, or unable to read, any patterns in events is no guarantee that they are wholly meaningless. 

A particularly poignant aspect of the human condition under the pandemic is the compulsion to keep ‘distance’. Human beings, we have grown up parroting, are social creatures. For that reason, they need to be together. The alternative to togetherness is aloneness. In aloneness, human beings languish and wither away. As the Bible says, ‘It is not good that man be alone.’

But humankind nearly in all parts of the world did not think so. The more privileged in the human species assumed and insisted that separation, or social distance, was a matter of pride and prestige. The social elite advertised their worth largely by distancing itself from the so-called low and worthless. ‘Distance’ denoted prestige. Even today, a political or religious leader makes others feel the heat of his importance by widening the social gulf between him and others. You are as mystical as you are unapproachable. You are as worthy as you are ‘un-touchable’, in the filmy sense of the term.

In the meanwhile, the world of science and technology moved in the opposite direction. It endeavoured to mitigate the human deprivation embedded in the distance. So, it revelled in ‘tele’ means and gadgets. ‘Tele’ means distance. But for the distance that human beings create between themselves, the value of telephone–literally, speaking from afar—would have been insignificant. But for the craving to see what is at a distance, television would not have become a craze. By now ‘tele’ has penetrated every aspect of life, including medicine, education, governance, shopping and, now, worship. We have moved quietly from ‘offering worship’ to ‘seeing’ the worship ‘streamed’ into our homes.

‘Distance’ has an atavistic ring for the Dalits. Distance has been the social affliction inflicted on them for centuries. They were required to be at a distance from their socio-religious superiors. The duty to maintain distance was the opprobrium they were branded and degraded with. In Kerala, for instance, the Dalits had to be at a distance of 64 feet from the upper caste Hindus. For decades they were not allowed to walk the public thoroughfares. Even gods shared this aversion to Dalits. So, they were not allowed into the temples of upper caste deities.

In our times, ‘temple’ has become a metaphor. In its metaphoric sense ‘temple’ means a location of privilege. The real temple in the religious context is marked, not by the presence of God, but by the pre-eminence of the socially superior and glossy. That is so, even in Christian circles. There are many Dalit priests, but Dalit bishops and archbishops are rare, if not wholly absent. There are denominations in Kerala in which even today a bishop has to hail from a family of prestige. Only the highest from among this purest are deemed good enough to be Jesus’ deputies in the church.

Distance is not a category invented by the virus. It is a typical human invention. The virus is only showing a mirror to it; though with a subtle, significant, distinction. If, before the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping those presumed to be inferior at a distance was a personal choice, in the present context, all are under the obligation to be at a distance from each other. Consider huge symbolism of it.

The virus is telling us that human beings have become deadly threats to each other. The precise route and nature of this threat are nebulous because it involves an ‘invisible’ enemy. But let us not forget: all elements of social distinction and prejudice are invisible. They are arbitrary inventions, created in the lab of human perversity. History, we are told, is the story of man’s cruelty to man. What is this cruelty about? Is not ‘cruelty’ a function of ‘distance’, and vice versa?

Distance has been the quintessence of Dalitness. It still is. This ‘distance’ has been not merely a matter of having to keep the prescribed distance from non-Dalits. More tragically, it has been a compulsion to be distanced, or alienated, from oneself. Who is a Dalit? Who decides you, or I, are a Dalit? Not you, surely! It is decided by others. They stick the label on you. A Dalit is seen and treated as a Dalit by non-Dalits.

Now consider what this implies. Why is the Dalit identity created at all? Surely, not to indicate the human essence of the persons bracketed thus. Rather, the label is created to alienate Dalits from themselves; in particular, from who they can be. Consider the plight of the Negros in the past, in the Southern states of the US. They were degraded over some time. Based merely on the fact that they could be degraded, the prejudice was created that they were inherently inferior to the whites. This was done to justify and perpetuate the inequality of treatment meted out to them. So, the situation worked as follows. The Dalits–the Negros in the American context—are deprived of the opportunities to grow and develop like the rest of society. This very inhuman treatment then becomes the logic for assuming that the Dalits are an inferior lot. So, there need to be no spiritual qualms about treating them unjustly and unequally.

A mode of divine punishment, I believe, is that the unjust and inhuman conditions we create for others become our condition too in due course. That is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching that we will be measured by the measure with which we measure others. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced everyone, in terms of social needs, to Dalits. Or, Dalitness has come home to roost.

The pandemic is not only about ‘distance,’ but also about ‘suffocation’. Dearth, or deprivation, is the essence of suffocation. We have seen thousands of patients gasping for oxygen in diverse hospitals all over India. They were ‘deprived of’ oxygen. Many died of this deprivation. It is unbearably sad that any human being has to be in such a condition. But the fact remains that millions of Dalits have been metaphorically in this condition for centuries.

Today, the heart-rending words, ‘I cannot breathe’ are associated with George Floyd and, generally, with the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Americans have been saying this for decades. But their cry could not be heard. They had to endure their suffocation in silence. It is only in recent times that the Dalits in diverse societies, including India, earned, at least in theory, the right to be heard. Today, at least, we can cry, ‘I cannot breathe; but, not long ago, a Dalit could not do so. Millions have withered away in social, economic, and religious suffocation. Even today the supply of social oxygen is sparse and fitful in the case of Indian Dalits.

I cannot help connecting the COVID-19 pandemic to the Karma theory in Hinduism and the doctrine of retribution in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The essence of this spiritual insight is that the effect of a cause cannot be escaped. The effect may not be felt immediately, like your finger burning directly after touching fire. The karmic debt accumulates. It has to be paid for in the fullness of time. How the price is exacted is not predictable. But there will be consequences.

Humankind has been accumulating its karmic debt for a period. Consider the cruelty that has been perpetrated on nature. Nature is resilient and forbearing. But there is a limit. It is like the organic range about the endurance threshold of the human body. The level of sugar in our blood can vary between two the upper and lower limits. If the upper limit is breached, the viability of the body is endangered. The same principle applies to the social body. The spiritual insight is that humankind as a whole comprises one corporate body. All human beings are members of this one body. What is done to a member or several members happens to the body as a whole. But, because the corporate body has a vast range of resilience, it absorbs a lot of atrocities and cruelties. But, all the while, the cosmic debt (on the analogy of the karmic debt) continues to mount. Sporadically, the limits are reached. Nature reacts. Disasters follow. Earthquakes resulting from the gradual shift of tectonic plates, unseen by us, are an illustration of this principle. 

The final Dalit aspect of the pandemic I would mark here is the body blow that it has dealt with the specious assumptions on which social structures and global presumptions–streaked with elite hubris—have been erected. The pandemic seems far more democratic than the political systems of the world. It treats the elite and the Dalits alike. The former, admittedly, have better access to health care facilities, but they are not more immune to the infection. The virus has demonstrated, besides, the incapacity of the State to care for its citizens. For far too long the Dalits had to fend for themselves, even as they broke their backs working for the comfort and prosperity of the upper castes. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, nearly everyone has to fend for himself or herself.

The myth that the fruits of ‘development’ will mitigate your misery in a crisis stands exploded. The virus, more than any politician in history, has bridged the impassable gulf between Dalits and the rest of the society. Tragically, this is done negatively–via ubiquitous deprivation. Through the pandemic, deprivation, which marked the plight of Dalits mostly, has become a general metaphor of the human condition.

If so, the conclusion is irresistible: all man-made labels of alienation and discrimination are a perversity. They are fraudulent inventions. Humanity is one body. In it, we shall suffer or stay healthy together. The alternative is to languish and suffocate in ‘social distancing’ and ‘double masking oneself’; forfeiting the freedom to live freely and naturally.

The ultimate Dalit is the individual who has to live masked and socially distanced even from the near and dear ones.

(Valson Thampu is a former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi).

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