Remembering Ambedkar amidst the Covid19 Pandemic and Lockdown

THIS year we are observing Ambedkar Jayanti in the shadow of a killer global epidemic and under the crushing weight of a countrywide lockdown. We cannot physically assemble to pay our tribute, but as is always the case, we must draw inspiration from his emancipatory struggles, ideas and legacy. His motto ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’ must energise us in facing this enormous crisis; his fight against untouchability and his clarion call for annihilation of caste must galvanise us in the fight against the social virus of oppression and injustice accompanying the coronavirus; and the goals of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity proclaimed in the preamble to the Constitution drafted under his chairmanship must continue to guide our strivings and struggles.

The racist rightwing forces in America and Europe are blaming China, and here in India the Sangh brigade and the Godi Media are additionally blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus. The untouchability historically practised by the Manuvadi social order against Dalits is now being extended against Muslims, against the people of the North East working or studying elsewhere, against those suspected of suffering from the virus, and against even doctors and care-givers treating Covid patients. The Covid-19 pandemic has thus become a vehicle for new manifestations of untouchability and all of us who have always fought against social oppression and injustice must resist this communal virus and vicious social exclusion with all our might.

The Constitution recognizes us as citizens with fundamental rights, as builders of sovereign secular democratic India. The Modi government however treats Indians as puppets to be string-pulled with gimmicks and superstition, and poor Indians as disposable numbers who can just be condemned to a state of lockdown without food or ration, without any allowance or means of subsistence. Millions of migrant workers have been forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to get back home while millions remain stranded without any food or money. Conditions are equally bad for the rural and urban poor who have no ration or relief reaching them despite government claims to the contrary. Ambedkar would exhort us to assert as citizens, insist on our rights and due share, and fight superstition and prejudice with scientific temper and human rationality.

All through his life Ambedkar fought for rights and liberties, rights of workers, equality of women, and liberties of citizens. Today the Modi government is riding roughshod over all our hard won rights. The very act invoked by the government to announce the lockdown is a 123-year-old colonial legislation, the draconian Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 which authorizes the state to announce any arbitrary measure while robbing citizens of all legal safeguards and protection. The eight hour working day is being sought to be stretched once again back to twelve-hour shifts. The law banning sex determination tests of embryos, which facilitate female foeticide, has been suspended on the pretext of the medical pressures of the pandemic. Employers are demanding wage cuts and massive retrenchments and the Chief Justice of India asks why workers need to be paid wages when they are being supplied food in lockdown.

Human rights, especially the rights of the oppressed sections and the freedom of expression of dissenting citizens and critical voices, have never really been secure in India. They have become especially insecure today as the Modi government seeks to silence every critical voice. In the middle of a pandemic when the government should be releasing all political prisoners and granting bail and parole to all undertrials and elderly and disabled prisoners, the state in India is seeking to arrest and persecute more activists. From academics and writers like Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha to journalist Siddharth Varadarajan and anti-CAA protesters, all are being persecuted even as teachers and human rights campaigners like GN Saibaba, Varvara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj and several leaders of agricultural labourers and defenders of dalits and adivasis across India continue to languish in jails. As we remember the emancipatory legacy of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar we must demand the fullest protection for human rights and constitutional liberties of all citizens.

Liberation Archive