Lockdown has exposed rifts in Indian society between the urban middle classes and those excluded from ‘civil’ society
One of India’s leading social scientists, Partha Chatterjee, made a distinction between civil society and what he called political society. Civil society is the sphere in which individuals carry out their day-to-day transactions, which are backed by institutions such as the rule of law and political rights; it is marked by public discussion through universities, newspapers and so on. In Western societies, the majority of the population inhabit the space called civil society.
Political society, meanwhile, is a phenomenon that exists in post-colonial democracies such as India. Political society is constituted by innumerable people—the majority of the population—who enjoy and exercise democratic rights but are not by any reckoning members of civil society. Most of them do not even have proper access to the institutions of civil society.
How did this split come about? Chatterjee explains this through the insights provided in the work of an Indian economist, Kalyan Sanyal. In India (and in other post-colonial economies), the emergence of capitalism did not follow the same trajectory as it did in England and in the rest of Western Europe. In the latter, the historical experience showed that peasants were dispossessed of their land through enclosures but they were absorbed into the capitalist system as wage labourers. In India, on the other hand, the arrival of capitalism created (and continues to create) a huge number of dispossessed peasants who are displaced from the agrarian economy, without being absorbed into the circuits of capitalist production. They form a floating and migrant population in the informal sector or eke out an income on the margins of the capitalist economy. This is political society.
In a vibrant democracy like India, the state, whatever its ideological orientation, cannot afford to ignore this population which forms the bulk of the electorate. The state enables this population to survive and work through various schemes offering subsidies or cash transfers, and by overlooking, even condoning, transgressions of laws, regulations and the various protocols of civil society.
This split between civil society and political society is a reality in India though not always recognised. And at no time in the recent past has this rupture been more pronounced than during this pandemic. When, in March, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown, he gave the Indian people exactly four hours’ notice. The impact of the lockdown was experienced differently by members of civil society and political society. The urban middle and upper middle classes resorted to working from home after stocking up on essential supplies of food and medicines. This required a major change in lifestyle, with men and women who had previously done very few—in the case of most males, none at all—household chores having to undertake tasks that had previously been carried out by domestic and menial staff, many of whom came from this floating population. It must be said that this section of society pretty much hunkered down without too much complaining.
The scenario for the migrant labourer, the daily wage earner, the petty trader, et al, was tragically different. In the space of just four hours, they found themselves jobless, homeless and without income. No effort was made by the Modi government to ensure any kind of safety or guarantees for this population, most of whom were many hundreds—in some cases thousands—of miles from their villages. These people, often defying the lockdown, began a trek back home with their wives and little children without food and water and some died as they attempted it. It was a heartbreaking episode in the history of independent India. The Modi government appeared not only myopic but heartless. The lockdown—no doubt necessary given the circumstances—could easily have been better planned: more notice should have been given, and transport provided, to those who perforce had to go back to their villages. The rush to impose a lockdown was especially ironic because through the whole of February the Modi government had dragged its feet and refused to take the spread of the virus seriously. Even today the government has refused to take serious cognisance of the hardships that the poor and labouringpopulation is enduring. How this population votes in the next hustings will be something to watch.
There are some other features of the lockdown and steps to combat the virus that need to be noted. First, the advice to stay at home and to wash one’s hands regularly has a hollow ring in a country where millions do not have proper homes and access to running water. Second, social distancing has always been a phenomenon in Hindu society where, because of the taboos of the caste system, members of the upper castes have kept their physical and social distance from the lower castes, the dalits as they are called. In an odd way, the norms of social distancing have reinforced these prejudices. Third, encouraged by Hindu fundamentalist forces, another potent prejudice has gained in salience: stigmatising Muslims as polluting agents. There have been alarming reports of vigilante groups attacking Muslims, of hospitals turning them away.
All this is in sharp contrast to groups that have come together to provide food for the poor and the suffering, reminiscent of the soup kitchens in the West during the Depression. It is also noteworthy that the area in India that has been most successful in combating the virus is Kerala, a state with a robust public food distribution system and an extraordinary record in maintaining standards of public health and literacy. Many of these institutions and practices were built up and maintained by successive Left governments that ruled Kerala since the late 1950s.
When the lockdown is eventually lifted—and it has to be lifted sooner rather than later—what is the guarantee that this population, migrant and for the period of the lockdown probably hungry and undernourished, will have their jobs and their livelihoods back? No one quite knows what the world after Covid-19 is going to be like. Just before the end of the Second World War, when Europe lay devastated, John Maynard Keynes had prophesied that there would be a “craving for social and personal security”. In response to this craving the welfare state was born—a state that undertook a better redistribution of resources to look after the underprivileged, the old and the sick. The impact of the welfare policies in most of the countries of Western Europe was wide enough to bring benefits also to the professional and middle classes. There can be no valid grounds to argue that, at the very least, in a post-Covid-19 India there will not be the sort of craving of which Keynes wrote. Will there be a greater push towards public expenditure in the spheres of public health, sanitation, primary education, and social security—all the various amenities that are denied to those who constitute political society? This seems doubtful as the Modi government, at a time when funds are required for more social spending irrespective of what adverse impact it has on the fiscal deficit, is planning to splurge Rs 20,000 crores (£2.1 billion) on a huge new Central Vista project in New Delhi, after demolishing what Lutyens had built.
There is a very strong possibility that the government in its indifference towards poverty and public health—in its attitude towards political society, in treating its constituents as vote banks—will go back to its old ways, relying on populist rhetoric in which promises made during election campaigns are never kept. Narendra Modi, like many other politicians, is a master of that art.
Yet in India and across the world there have been thousands of doctors, nurses, other health workers and social activists who have put their lives at risk to reach out to the poor and the suffering. Their sacrifices could produce among other people what Antonio Gramsci called the “optimism of the will”. Out of that spirit could perhaps emerge a new and altered world. The great Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore, at the height of the Second World War in April 1941, saw death and violence all around him. With his own life ebbing, he wrote, in what is now referred to as his last testament, of “the opening of a new chapter in his [Man’s] history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphere rendered clean with the spirit of service and sacrifice . . . A day will come when unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage”. The words resonate today and for our sanity and survival we have to cling to that vision of unvanquished man reclaiming his lost heritage, however utopian it sounds.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.