By R. Raj Rao
THERE is no gainsaying that the pandemic and the lockdowns have affected the blue-collared class more than anyone else. We, of the white-collared class, retain our monthly salaries even as we work from home. But can an auto driver work from home? Can a printer work from home? Can a barber work from home? In the circumstances, they will do anything to earn a few rupees to feed their families. Even put up posters on walls. The posters were right in referring to children. But it isn’t just vaccines that the children of the poor are deprived of. They are deprived of food, the very means of sustenance.
Though Article 19 of the Constitution of India grants our citizens freedom of speech, this is observed more in its breach than in its adherence. Not just the present dispensation, but even governments in the past have arrested citizens who have been critical of it. India, which prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, hasn’t learned lessons from other major democracies in the world, such as the USA, the UK and Canada; where citizens are not generally arrested for expressing views that are unflattering to the government.
The latest group of people in India to be arrested are neither CAA, NRC and farm law protestors; nor JNU students; nor urban Naxals. No, they are blue-collared workers in Delhi who put up posters in the city in Hindi and English, asking the Prime Minister why he had exported vaccines meant for their kids to countries like Iran, Iraq and Bangladesh. The arrests this time round are not under the infamous sedition law, but are under other sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with disobedience to orders promulgated by a public servant; negligent acts dangerous to life; defacement to property; and the Epidemic Act.
The irony, however, is that the men who put up the posters have nothing to do with writing them. They are poor printers, auto-rickshaw drivers, daily wage earners, and other such working class people, whom Covid, and the lockdowns associated with it have rendered jobless. They agreed to put up the posters only because they were offered a paltry sum of Rs. 600 for every poster that they pasted. And not all of them were young. One of them was a 61-year-old frame maker. Forget his children, it is doubtful whether he, entitled to the vaccine as a senior citizen, got it in the first place.
Even if the government intended to make arrests, shouldn’t they have attempted to find out the brains behind the posters, rather than arresting the have-nots who put them up? As it turns out, opposition parties like the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are so outraged by the arrests, that they have taken the blame for the posters, and dared the government to arrest them, instead of arresting dispossessed subaltern people.
Let me deconstruct the posters. To my mind, the wording of the posters is faulty. The government may be guilty of exporting vaccines, when there aren’t enough vaccines available for our own 100 crore adult population; to fully vaccinate whom the government would need 200 doses. But the vaccines weren’t meant for the children of those who printed the posters. Children haven’t as yet been brought under the government’s vaccination drive, though they may be later this year, with doctors warning that the third Covid wave might be detrimental to children.
The government at the centre seems to overlook the fact that the proletarian people whom they arrested may have been the very people who voted for them in 2014 and 2019, giving them an absolute majority in Parliament. They fail to realize that the men they have arrested belong to the very class of people who are so poor that they cannot even afford wood to cremate their dead; as a result of which hundreds of unburned, decomposed dead bodies have been found floating in the Ganges in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The arrested men are probably the kin of migrant workers who trekked all the way home from Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore last summer.
“We eat just once a day,” Kailash, the gardener who looks after my Lonavla home, and has two school-going sons, said to me. The plight of the working class confirms my view that communism is better than capitalism.
I may be a writer and a professor, but I have friends who are drivers, motor mechanics, technicians, barbers, delivery boys, waiters, and so on. I have had many conversations with them. And the refrain of all of them is that they are on the verge of starvation. Yet, unlike us, the bourgeoisie, they are civil enough not to bear a grudge against the government. “What can the government do?” they say. “It’s not their fault.” They don’t hold the government responsible for election rallies, religious gatherings, and strict lockdowns during the time of the pandemic. They are more apt to blame themselves, and people like them, for being careless and not following the rules. And it is such kind and considerate people who have now been arrested in Delhi.
The government would do well, however, not to tax the patience of the common man. They must not drive the common man to use the John Heywood phrase ‘Enough is enough’. They must see the writing on the wall, symbolised by the posters put up on the walls of Delhi’s streets. The phrase ‘writing on the wall’, incidentally, for those who do not know, means something that will fail, or cease to exist. A news magazine has already called India ‘The failed state’.
My friend Makarand Paranjape, Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, writing in the Hindustan Times, quoted a labourer on his campus who said to him: “Six years of the goodwill [gained by the Modi government] will be lost in six months.”
The government should reflect on the warning implicit in the labourer’s words.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- Dr. R. Raj Rao is an internationally known Indian English novelist, poet and critic. He was Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. He has also been a Visiting Professor at universities in Canada and Germany
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