Palsy-Walsy and Extremely Surly Social Distancing
By Prem Poddar
As the uncertainty of the interregnum stretches and seems as pliable as a virus-stained concertina, I cannot go anytime soon to my cottage in the multikulti hills of the Himalayas on the Indian side. It is a fortune shared by a considerable number of folks stuck elsewhere and everywhere on this beleaguered planet.
In my case it is the two-week quarantine in Delhi plus the hostility of the gaun (neighbourhood in Nepali) where my domicile stands. Corona-phobia against an otherwise habitual outsider: go elsewhere, prods the mantra. Small towners and villagers still assume Covid-19 to be a moneyed man’s malady given that it emanated from overseas.
Reports appeared in the early stages of the pandemic that doctors and nurses and flight attendants were frequently barred from returning to their para (locality in Bengali) flats in Kolkata and migrant workers were summarily evicted from their kamras (rooms) in Delhi by landlords. Packed into a dank and fetid room with as many as five to six people, slum-dwellers (bastiwale)—factory workers, domestic servants, chauffeurs, plumbers, electricians and guards—continue to be bolted out of the gated communities they serve, underlining the imaginariness of a ‘social contract’ between the haves and have-nots.
India’s 100 million homes, it is estimated, consist of only one room. Hardly any room to swing a cat or cross your legs, social distancing is at best a shaggy-dog story. Social distancing in a sociable and teeming nation of 1.3 billion with 464 persons per kilometre (in comparison to China’s redoubtable 153), with as many as 50 to a toilet, leads to behaviour that can only be rendered as acquiescent and defiant at the same time.
An infinitesimal pathogen can only be humbled, not by the Leviathan, but by a sensible and energized populace. An India that has to throng to bus stations and railway terminals for days in order to reach native townships, or in desperation forced to walk hundreds of miles homewards, is not the mark of an empowered country. Division and discontent can be overcome if the social contract in actual fact provides people with cover, especially when risks arise.
From Epicurus to Hobbes to Kant to Rawls, the basic idea behind thinking the social contact is the ‘original’ agreement of all individuals subjecting themselves to collectively enforced social arrangements. For these arrangements to be legitimate, just, obligating, the device of socially distancing and disconnecting through class or caste or post-contract identities needs must to be placed under the muscular microscope of public justification, of what principles can be justified to all reasonable citizens or persons.
Notions of realizing justice are not unknown to ancient Indian rational thought either, in particular the ethical implications of Kautilya’s arguments about the welfare of the people: “in the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king [i.e. the state] and in what is beneficial to the subjects his own benefit.” With his concept of yogakshema (well-being of the people) some social welfarism is obtainable even though just institutions do not necessarily ensure social justice: niti, or political ethics conception of justice, in Amartya Sen’s words, denotes “organizational propriety and behavioural correctness”, while the nyāya conception “stands for a comprehensive concept of realizing justice”.
The citizen dregs of sub-continental India, the left-behinds are not figments of mere imagination. There is a heavy price to be paid for low wages and zero-hours contracts. India has re-calibrated its social contract in the past to meet changing needs, with every Indian government piously placing poverty alleviation and bettering livelihoods uppermost on its agenda.
But the journey from Nehru to Modi has been perfunctorily patchy. From socialism (even if imperfect) to hyper-nationalist crony capitalism, the public road now is progressively potholed. In comes the pandemic, which has altered the calculus even as the blemishes are magnified. It has pushed the reset button, allowing moral ground only to a polity and its leaders such as are prepared to offer the fairness of a new social contract.
Narratives and images from across the breadth of the country demonstrate how local markets adapted to rote governmental directives in the wake of the crisis. The picture shown here is one of many such scenes not uncommon throughout South Asia: the chalk circles of social distancing are ‘booked’ by footwear outside a shop while the weary barefoot queue hunkers down on the kerb in exhaustion.
Covid is pronounced as kōvida or कोवि द in devanāgarī, a Sanskrit word that means one who is skilled, enlightened, the possessor of wisdom. A WhatsApp mate playfully sends me this quip on the representation in the image: ‘यह ी बात ह ै, कोवि द सभ ी हो जाए, और जो रह जाए ँ वो ह ी ब ुद्धि ह ीन हो ंग े ं. यह ी मि थ्याभास चल ेगा’, or: Let all become covid, those that don’t shall themselves remain unenlightened. Let this myth prevail.
This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University, which can be found here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
Prem Poddar is Professor in Cultural Encounters at Roskilde University and Alexander von Humboldt Senior Fellow in Germany. He grew up in the eastern Himalayas and has taught in India, Britain, and Denmark where he was Associate Professor in Postcolonial Studies at Aarhus University. He is now focusing on the cultural politics of the Himalayas, currently working on a monograph relating to India-China interfaces in the eastern borderlands as well as another on Spectrality in Asian Cinema. His continuing interest in ‘state’ and ‘nation’ as conceptual contexts for analyzing cultural representation forms the centre of his forthcoming work on the politics of the passport. He is part of the India-China Conjunctures project.
Citation: Prem Poddar, Palsy-Walsy and Extremely Surly Social Distancing, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27148.