Unlock Diaries: Standing on the edge of a precipice or of freedom by Aruna Roy
Covid leaves us a disputed legacy of unaddressed questions with a normal of changed values and an unsure socio-economic future. The lockdown is surreal, stirring the imagination of a stricken world into a nightmare, recalling Brave New World, 1984, On the Beach and a host of science fiction stories. History records many pandemics - the plague, cholera, Spanish flu. Holocausts and wars have claimed a huge tally. Why should a technologically-savvy world be catapulted into panic by a virus? Could it be because technology and its globalising nature have turned what may have been a localised disease in to an international trauma and, for some, an opportunity to control?
For huge numbers of the vulnerable unorganized sectors and migrants, the lockdown has been a sentence of doom much worse than the epidemic that triggered it. All known economic and constitutional predictability has been tossed aside. For the privileged, the lockdown has been manageable discomfort. A constant discomfort is the knowledge of millions of insecure workers unable to get “home”. While privileged India is preoccupied with dealing with using time, born out of isolation or idleness.
For most of my life I have worked with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and with the School for Democracy (SFD), in two remote hamlets in Central Rajasthan. 45 years ago, when I opted to live in a rural area, I redefined my wants, and the conflict between my principles and my lifestyle narrowed, bringing some cessation of guilt. The strength of living with a community, rather than being confined to a “family” was empowering. I empathise with migrants denied this comfort.
When the lockdown lifts, will we be able to congregate to democratically and peacefully protest, a process kindled by the national movement and which gave us the RTI and other rights? Can we now move our governments through public protest? Has this pandemic promoted anti-democratic trends to stifle protest by simply disallowing public congregation? Will individualism destroy the spontaneous expression of dissent and disagreement? Migrants in huge numbers have forced acknowledgement of their condition from simply walking on the roads. Will the vulnerable claim the right to congregate to demand, or will we remain in isolated misery, despite being the biggest aggregate in this democracy? What will happen to the concept of community as we become victims of a peculiar comfort with ‘virtual’ participation in conversation and consultation?
Despite the fact that I haven’t travelled out of my confined spaces, engaging with government policy for the migrant workers, whether it be transportation to homes, providing food and health security, or looking at the communalization of the issue, have been dominant concerns. Advocacy with both State and Central government for employment in MGNREGA, for implementing the PDS, and providing other social security measures, have filled my days. This is not to mention petitions signed and drafted, articles written, critiquing orders issued by government, and entering into a dialogue with them, ensuring justice was done.
The capacity of our “class” to concentrate on ourselves, despite enormous suffering, has hit me in my gut even more than ever before. What has also frightened me is how easy it is to be submissive and surrender. It seems absurd that intelligent people and whole nations should walk into self-isolation, sometimes be policed into it, without any obvious manifestation of resistance. It proves that most people are not only law abiding, but unrealistically suspend their better judgement to accept and watch their governments use this quiet, extraordinarily acquiescent self captivity to indulge in arbitrary governance. This fear driven withdrawal into our shells has been puzzling; not many have chaffed at being denied the freedom to be.
Personally, cessation of incessant travel has provided the luxury of simple but timely food, of a physical regimen, and time to address essential aspects of professional and domestic housekeeping. Though the lull from frenetic activity has shown the immense amount of time we do have to do the things which are postponed for, ‘when there is time’. There has been time to, ‘stand and stare’; dormant interests have claimed space. Birds and flowering trees have made their own statements claiming beauty and longevity despite the human races self-destructive march for progress. Books and art long shelved for lack of time have claimed space. Yes, my limbs got a bit of rest, but my mind is seized with the worries of a country and a world, which will have to contend with individualism, fear psychosis, lack of mobility, and an insecure economic future. I stand on the edge of a precipice or of freedom. Time and the determination of a people to exercise their right to decide will etch the future of post COVID India.
Aruna Roy is a political and social activist. She cofounded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and is the author of The RTI Story; Power to the People