A sense of nation-wide emergency, across all aspects of life, now pervades governance. Coordination is maximum, and conflict minimum, across Centre and states—indeed, across the political sphere. Everyone realises how crucial this period is. The expression ‘Lakshman rekha’, a recent appearance in the lexicon of words associated with the fight against COVID-19, reflects that. A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown on March 24, Doordarshan began a rerun of Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayan, and soon someone realised this metaphor from the epic resonated particularly well in these unusual circumstances. What was this new proscription—stay at home, going out would invite danger—if not a modern form of Lakshman rekha?
Reality, of course, soon defied the epical metaphor. Thousands upon thousands of Indians had no option but to observe it in the breach. Having left their villages for a hardscrabble life in the glittering cities—where they worked on highways, built condominiums for others, served tea, cleaned, and did hundreds of other jobs—they never had the safety net implied by a Lakshman rekha. The national lockdown left them without work, money and food, or even buses or trains to go home. So they packed their meagre belongings and started on a determined long walk, on highways they had themselves built. If anything, it resembled another image from the epic—that of a collective vanwas.