We need social solidarity, not social distancing

Published on May 03, 2020 01:45 PM IST
In a deeply hierarchical society with traditional prejudices, social exclusion may masquerade as social distancing. It must not get an opportunity to pull us down
Socially marginalised and racially segregated people unequivocally discarded the term ‘social distancing’. Rising international concerns eventually made the WHO advocate for the use of the term ‘physical distancing’(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Socially marginalised and racially segregated people unequivocally discarded the term ‘social distancing’. Rising international concerns eventually made the WHO advocate for the use of the term ‘physical distancing’(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
ByGuru Prakash

Leadership plays a crucial role in times of crises. In confronting unprecedented challenges such as the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), proper messaging is essential to galvanise people. In the Indian context, apart from region, language and faith, social diversity also plays an important role. The growing consciousness on social diversity is a significant step in dealing with exclusion and incidents of discrimination on the basis of birth. Therefore, any strategy to contain a crisis of this proportion must be inclusive.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi used “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” in Mann Ki Baat, it started a debate in India. In a deeply hierarchical society with traditional prejudices, social exclusion may masquerade as “social distancing”. That made intellectual leaders from the subaltern communities across the country question the term “social distancing”.

Not only in India, but voices from across the world challenged the usage of the term. Socially marginalised and racially segregated people, who are unfortunately at the bottom of the pyramid, unequivocally discarded the term “social distancing”. Rising international concerns eventually made the World Health Organization advocate for the use of the term “physical distancing”.

Caste still remains a fundamental component of the national conversation. It plays an instrumental role in shaping the structures of power and influence. Government data on social atrocities, published by the National Crime Records Bureau, recognises it as a cardinal source of tension in both rural and urban areas. The term “social distancing”, therefore, smells of archaic practices perpetuating casteism.

Noted thinker on Dalit issues and professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Vivek Kumar, says, “There is absolutely nothing as a pristine, pure and universal culture. Terms are culturally-specific and, therefore, cultural constructs should also be society-specific. Social distancing in India was maintained during birth, death and menstruation. Social distance is the totality of interactional distancing barring all cultural and physical engagements. Hence, we must not even unconsciously legitimise anything that ends up intensifying social cleavages and conflicts.”

There is an imminent threat of social distancing gaining traction in society. Regressive sections might choose to justify traditional social distancing as an effective tool to counter the pandemic. It will be a big dent to the efforts of those who have dedicated their lives for the cause of fairness and equality. Social reform movements against caste and its privileges are as old as Savitri Bai Phule and BR Ambedkar, and that struggle for equality still continues. We must go back to the Constitution’s preamble, which seeks to achieve social justice as the nation’s ultimate virtue.

Empathy, sense of compassion and efforts aimed at achieving social solidarity to challenge Covid-19 must be acknowledged and encouraged at all levels. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, too, in his address to the nation, promoted the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing”. The leadership, both at the government- and the civil society-level, has shown that the crisis needs a socially cohesive and comprehensive strategy.

India has made substantial progress, with a Dalit in the Rashtrapati Bhawan and a person from a socially-backward community as the country’s prime minister. The collective conscience of the country is at an all-time high. The march towards social justice and equality must compliment the efforts to contain the pandemic without losing credence. To crush the virus, this crisis must be transformed into an opportunity that coalesces the collective will of every Indian – irrespective of caste, creed, gender, and religion.

Guru Prakash is assistant professor, Patna University, and fellow, India Foundation

The views expressed are personal

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