Untouchability has a new definition. What Covid-19 has proved is that there are things that you would seriously avoid being in close contact with. You wouldn’t share drinking glasses with a Covid patient and nor would you consider coming to grips with one if you knew the person was positive. Of course, George Floyd had Covid when the cop kneeled on him neck down but that fact was not known --- presumably if it had been, he would still have been alive. Covid is a scarlet letter, the thing that results in those affected being shunned.
Recently, a friend of mine tested positive and was running a fever. Since he lived alone, his daughter and her partner were all for taking him into their apartment. However, they correctly shared the information with their cooperative and set off a storm of protests. No one with Covid was allowed in the building so my friend frittered out his fever and still staggering around making his own tea and calling in his meals. Kindness in this case doesn’t even make for visitors unless the visitor possesses a PPE or deposits things at the door restricting contact to five minutes at the most. Ten minutes, the survey goes does it – without adequate protection of course. If that is the case, how is it that an eternity of contact for a girl did not turn her predators into Dalits? Presumably if a priest sat and issued a fatwa declaring that those who laid hands on Dalits also lost their caste, we would possibly see less rapes and lynchings. Who knows? Unfortunately no one thinks of it in that way. When it comes to Covid however, the community rules change. To have someone in the same building even two floors up is a contamination.
Friends apart my cousins in Mumbai were contained on the floor of their apartment with a narrow sticker announcing the fact put up by the BMC. A building full of well disposed friends and neighbours turned their coats overnight and had to be won back a fortnight later. Possibly the so-called minority communities would envy that kind of status, no one would dare touch them because they would be tainted to the point of death.
Untouchability in the past has been rewarded by exile, an island for lepers who in the absence of a cure were untouchable – but then according to one legend, Lord Jagannath’s image with the shortened arms is supposed to have been inspired by a leper. Plague was less explored since its outbreaks were generally ignored and people were less scientifically aware, going on with their lives and putting it down as an act of god which had to be accepted with fatalism.
Covid, however, is a true act of god – barring those who insist on putting it down as an act from across the border --- as opposed to Gandhi’s hopeful “harijan” status the wrath of heaven flaming down in co-morbidity with a here and there kind of strike until no one knows what is what. Caste however is not contagious and, at the back of their minds, people know that. Rage, alcohol and izzat can drown it in a convenient kind of obliteration.
Dealing roughly with Dalits and others is an accepted tradition, “if a shudra mentions the name and class of a twice-born contumely, an iron nail, ten figures long, shall be thrust into his mouth,” is one of the dictates of the revered Manu. For confirmed Covid we all know the rituals, the washing of hands, the fogging and sanitising, the isolation. What are the rituals of purification after raping or killing a Dalit? Wrapped in silence if there are any.
They are forbidden from sitting at our tables and using our drinking glasses and utensils. Even the untouchable doms will not touch their bodies and death becomes a furtive forbidden thing. Sound familiar? Of course, where Covid is concerned there is good reason for this but when it comes to drivers, maids and Scheduled Castes and Tribes? And when the fear grips us, we can be unscientific about banishing the Covid-stricken too because we have not learnt the art of self-protection. Covid is a war with rules and strategies, caste is not.
Regardless, we wear similar masks for both the new untouchables and the old.
*Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based author and columnist. Views expressed are personal*
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