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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman is more relevant than ever today

Opinion | Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman is more relevant than ever today

Excesses against the poor during India’s lockdown reveal an amnesia that also needs to be fought

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesPremium
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of all the images we have seen in recent weeks from around the world of the havoc that covid-19 is causing, few are as heart-breaking as the sight of thousands of Indians carrying their meagre possessions, walking on highways, after India went into a full lockdown on 24 March. The scenes were reminiscent of 1947, when many had to leave for safety to protect themselves from their own kind, some of whom had been their neighbours. The exodus now seems to reveal a lack of concern for India’s most vulnerable.

Those motorways along which they walk are supposed to transport India from the third world to the first; the roads are meant for gleaming cars. They represent the new India, a shining India. It is supposed to leave the India of bullock carts behind, and become a $5-trillion economy by 2024-25.

That other, bigger India had never disappeared. It is catching up, even if slowly, reminding us of what can’t be shaken off so easily. Many of the “people like us" (PLUs) have tried. Why can’t these people—they are typically referred to as “these,’ “those" or the others—observe social distancing? So runs one question—of people who live cheek-by-jowl in urban slums. Why can’t they stay at home? So goes another—of people who have no home in urban India. Some have lived in the restaurants, hotels and workshops where they work, but those establishments have shuttered. They were on daily wages and their bosses have asked them to leave, and so they walk to the only homes they know, the ones they have left behind. If they go for weeks without work or food, they may starve; being home, with their families, they might share some food and survive. They will probably return to the same city and build its shopping centres, clean tables at restaurants, change tyres at petrol pumps, or clean the streets.

These are the people who, as the late Behram Contractor once put it so accurately, ask for little and get less.

They would like to wash their hands often, if they had running water. They did not travel abroad and bring the virus. They may not even be carrying it, yet they are hosed down with chemicals meant to be applied on metallic surfaces. They squat on the roads when commanded to do so. Passengers who arrived from Milan, London, Madrid, Hong Kong or New York were not treated that way—and why would they be? Some of them may possibly have been related to politicians, senior bureaucrats and others of the elite.

There are other images equally enraging—of policemen forcing people off their bicycles or two-wheelers, coerced into doing sit-ups (kept six feet apart), or, in another video, ordered to roll on the floor, holding their ears, abjectly apologizing for having stepping out. Often, they were out to buy daily essentials. But the police appear to have a potency pill in Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which gives them the right to break up any “unlawful assembly" as they swing their wooden staffs and whack people. As for the large masses on the move, there are stadiums that will be used to “quarantine" them.

Even the dead are not allowed to die in peace, it seems. In the state of Maharashtra, bureaucrats ruled that bodies of those who have succumbed to covid-19 would need to be cremated, and burials would not be permitted (whether the rule was withdrawn remains unclear), even though the World Health Organization has spoken of an infinitesimally small probability of the virus surviving in a cadaver. So what motivated the order? Was it just an expression of authority? Whatever the answer, it reflects poorly on the state’s bureaucracy.

To be sure, the virus is dangerous. Indeed, social distancing is important. Of course, we should all take every step to prevent it from spreading. But surely, expecting the state to respect people’s dignity is not too much to ask. The novel coronavirus has been known since mid-January; there was ample time to prepare—order test kits, begin testing and isolate those who are infected. There was enough time for the government to learn how others are implementing stay-at-home rules. In the part of New York where I live, no police officer would stop anyone or assault someone who is out to buy groceries, medicines, jogging or walking. Some laundromats, clinics, liquor stores and restaurants (only for takeout) are open.

But people seem to be treated as objects in India, particularly if they are poor; herded, sprayed with chemicals and beaten up if they dare venture onto a street under a lockdown. This suggests that authorities in many places are keener on asserting control over people than containing the virus.

That is far removed from Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman. Days before his death, he wrote: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much for you, try the following expedient: Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [or her]. Will he [or she] be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him [or her] to a control over his [or her] own life and destiny? …. Then you will find your doubts... melting away."

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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Published: 02 Apr 2020, 01:50 AM IST
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