(This opinion piece was published on 16 September, 2020 and is being reposted on the occastion of Constitution Day.)
After the WHO stopped using the term ‘social distancing’ in favour of ‘physical distancing’, the Government of India followed suit. However, the former expression is yet to be junked out of mass and popular currency, and the same is highly dangerous for a pluralistic and vulnerable society like India.
Traditionally, India has always been a hierarchal society. The caste system, the communal, feudal and fissiparous attitudes still plague the populace even after more than 70 years of Independence.
The targeted discrimination of people from the Northeast in the ‘mainland’, the regular and recurrent atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis, other disadvantaged castes, economically and socially weaker sections and religious minorities (such as Muslims) are cases in point.
Before Independence, however, the situation was much worse, with deeply-entrenched caste discrimination and communal bigotry being the norm. Keeping the same in view, the founding fathers of the Constitution sought to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic, and undertook a great ‘social-experiment’ in the form of the Constitution of India, 1950, to shape a largely regressive, communal, feudal and casteist society – ravaged by regionalism, linguism and ethnocentrism – into a modern and scientific-tempered juggernaut and global leader (Vishwa-Guru). But there’s a long way to go, still.
Our Constitution Was Created As A Harbinger Of Social Change & Harmony
The Constitution-framers moulded the document in a way that even the darkest forces and fissures in Indian Society would be purged. Part III of the Constitution, which envisages the Fundamental Rights accorded to each and every citizen of India under Article 14, incorporates the ‘Equality Principle’ – which posits ‘Equality before Law’ – and states that “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”
Further, Article 15 supplements the Equality Principle, and in a way, forms the edifice of the Secular and Humanistic ethos of the Indian Constitution, inter alia, lays down ‘prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’, and provides that “the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”.
Furthermore, Article 17 outlaws ‘untouchability’, the age-old evil of treating persons of disadvantaged castes as ‘untouchables’, and states that “Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”
Thus, it is important to note that the Constitution was a harbinger of social change in our society, but the battle is only half-won.
We, as a society, are yet to fully emerge out of our biases-ridden selves.
Increase In ‘Social Distancing’ Can Lead To Chaos & Disharmony
With the COVID-19 outbreak, an expression / term which has gained universal recognition is ‘social distancing’. It is a term mainly used by epidemiologists, to describe safe and physical distance from one another to stifle the spread of contagious ailments. After WHO shed the usage of the expression ‘social distancing’ in favour of ‘physical distancing’, the Government of India followed suit. However, the former expression is yet to be junked out of mass and popular currency, and the term is dangerous to a diverse and vulnerable society like India.
Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), said that people ascribe value to the well-being of others. However, this value declines substantially when ‘the other’ belongs to a different socio-cultural group.
Generally, people are also predisposed to perceiving their own socio-cultural group as being ‘superior’.
American sociologist Robert E Park, in his lecture The Concept of Social Distance As Applied to the Study of Racial Attitudes and Racial Relations (1924), postulated that prejudice is an instinctual and spontaneous disposition to maintain social distances and a conservative force, which tends to preserve the social order as well as the social distances upon which that order rests.
But, if the social distances keep on widening, adverse socio-political events can create situations where the resultant prejudices can lead to large-scale social disharmony and chaos.
Social Distancing, Bigotry & Vilifying A Community
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our inherent and traditional prejudices have resurfaced and again came to the fore. In March, the Tablighi Jamaatis, visiting the Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque for their yearly congregation, were spitefully berated and slandered all over the country by mainstream media and people alike, touting them as ‘coronavirus super-spreaders’, going so far as to claim that they were spreading the illness ‘on purpose’. Hate-speech did the rounds, and expressions like ‘corona-jihad’, ‘corona-bombs’, etc were used to further taint the Jamaatis in particular and Muslims in general.
The relentless assault on the Tablighi Jamaat resulted in nationwide stigma and backlash against the Muslim community – and the worst hit were the faultless poor – small shopkeepers, vegetable vendors, fruit sellers, etc.
The Bombay High Court recently held that all the Tablighi-bashing was ‘propaganda’ and that they had been made ‘scapegoats’. This only goes on to reinforce how social distance is antithetical and corrosive to the ethos of brotherhood and the unity of the nation.
The coronavirus pandemic will be over some day, and it will bring the precautionary practice of ‘physical distancing’ to a halt. But ‘social distancing’, unfortunately, may continue its rampage.
(Shashwat Anand is a practicing Advocate of the Supreme Court of India. He is also the Founder and Chairman of the People’s Charioteer Organization (PCO), an NGO primarily focused on socio-political & civil rights and environmental causes. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)