The curse of caste and contagion

As the novel coronavirus spread around the world in the early months of 2020, news outlets and social media warned the public about its effects and advised safety measures such as regular hand washing and physical distancing. On March 23rd, India imposed a harsh nation-wide lockdown, suspending all kinds of activities and services, except those deemed “essential.” But the notion of “social distancing” has a pernicious meaning in India, as opposed to what was intended by the World Health Organization.

In many parts of South Asia, social distancing has been an established practice for centuries, practised by higher castes who distance themselves from lower castes, and not to mitigate the effects of infectious disease. Public health measures during this pandemic have inadvertently reaffirmed this cruel and antiquated system. According to India’s 2011 Census, 65 million people lived in informal housing, most of them are of lower castes. These housing areas often lack clean drinking water, bathing areas and sewage systems, and have little space and ventilation. 

Stranded migrant workers during the COVID-19 lockdown near the New Delhi railway station rest before beginning the journey on foot to their villages. Photograph by Sumita Roy Dutta, used under a Creative Commons license.

How do Indians have a conversation about safety measures let alone implement them in such a social context? In addition to this, these outdated practices of social distancing imply that, during this pandemic, the needs of the poorest in India can be largely ignored by wealthier and higher caste people, especially when they need it the most due to these dire situations.

Caste system

India’s caste system divides Hindus into hierarchies based on karma (work) and dharma (duty) based on four categories – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (peasants). Outside of the caste system were people who were considered untouchables, and are today referred to as Dalits. Under British rule, the caste system was reinforced in an attempt to further divide the population so as to maintain colonial control. As a result, the caste system became even more rigid and pervasive. While the system was banned under constitutional law in 1950, it still permeates everyday life. 

It is worth doing an overview in broad strokes of how this system worked. Brahmins were considered the custodians of Hinduism and held the highest strata, resulting from their role as priests who linked the Gods and ordinary mortals. Religious rituals required the giving of gifts to the priest as a pious act. The Kshatriyas were responsible for the protection of the people, which included fighting wars and maintaining peace, as well as maintaining the caste system. Kings usually came from this caste. The Brahmins tended to curry favour with kings and so, as a result, were granted tax-free land cultivated by peasants. The Vaishyas engaged in agriculture, cattle-rearing or commerce; they were merchants who formed the business community. The Shudras were farmers and the lowest of castes. They were not allowed to acquire power, since it was said evil dominated their nature. 

Below the Shudras were the Dalits, who were allocated the most menial and degrading tasks. Contact with them was considered to pollute other castes, so they were forced to live on the fringes of villages. Dalits are still largely confined to their own communities and perform jobs like waste and sewage disposal. Although the Indian government introduced employment and education quotas in 1955, today the Dalit population is still marginalized, though they compose upwards of 25 percent of the Indian population 

Caste and coronavirus

Dalits have been accused of spreading the coronavirus, which has led to a rise in retaliatory crimes against them. The NGO Evidence, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, reported a fivefold increase in violent attacks against Dalits during the state imposed lockdown, as compared to the first three months of 2020. During lockdown, a communal cleaner in Dharavi, Asia’s largest informal housing settlement, was beaten up by the police, despite carrying his identification card, and wearing the uniform of the local government. His leg was fractured and he was subjected to slurs of his caste by the police.

In another horrifying incident of violence, twenty-year-old Rishikesh Wawalker from the coastal state of Maharashtra was confronted by a mob of over a hundred people armed with sticks. His only crime was that he is a Dalit. He reported this incident to the police. Only three men were arrested, and later released without charge. 

The National Dalit Movement for Justice reported a 72 percent increase in attacks on Dalit peoples in April and May 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019. One of the main reasons for Dalits being susceptible to coronavirus and attacks is structural racism and poverty. 

A large proportion of Dalits are poor, forming a huge part of the casual and migrant labour force with limited access to health care and social security. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nationwide coronavirus lockdown in March, the public was given only four hours notice. Many migrant workers found themselves stranded away from their families. They had sent a large portion of their earnings back home for their families’ sustenance and so, with no savings, they faced a complete economic shutdown. 

India’s Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that sanitation workers would be entitled to special insurance coverage. The almost $6 million-dollar measure was a small part of the government’s $22.5 billion stimulus package, but in order to claim even that pittance, workers need a National Employment ID Card (AADHAR) validating their status as sanitation workers, which many do not have. According to the Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre, 22 percent of sanitation workers, manual scavengers and waste pickers did not have an ID card, while 33 percent did not possess ration cards to get subsidized food through the public distribution system, a result of limited government outreach and corruption.

Sanitation work employs five million people in India, of which an estimated 90 percent belong to Dalit communities. Though these marginalized workers are considered ‘essential’ during the pandemic, the government refuses to guarantee their health, safety or sustenance. India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated that sanitation workers should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE), including N-95 masks and gloves, but this has not happened. 

In the central state of Madhya Pradesh, a local activist asked the District Magistrate for protective gear for sanitation workers at the beginning of March 2020, as the pandemic lockdown began. The activist was informed that because Madhya Pradesh did not have an Urban Development & Housing Minister, the state would not provide money for this purpose.

It has been this kind of apathy across the country and among political leaders that has left the marginalized population especially vulnerable during this pandemic, which is a complete paradox to the act of pot-banging ‘respect’ Prime Minister Modi requested in March 2020 for ‘essential’ workers. Fear of COVID-19 brought back some of the worst aspects of untouchability that Dalits and progressive sections of India have been fighting for decades.

In India, the fear of being infected has translated into increased prejudice against those living in poverty with little access to services. The coronavirus may indiscriminately infect people, but Indian society’s traditional prejudices actively spread hate and make certain groups more vulnerable to illness and disease.

This article is the ninth and last produced in collaboration between Toward Freedom and the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, Maharashtra, India. For more information, contact Barry Rodrigue <> at Symbiosis International University.  

Author Bio:

Divyali Mehrotra is a recent graduate from the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, with a major in International Relations. She wants to pursue her Masters in International Relations and dreams of working for peace and global policies at the United Nations someday. Her research and academic interests lie in understanding how cultural and historical aspects affects domestic and international affairs. She enjoys writing, public speaking and photography.