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Community spaces in India: constructing solidarity in pandemic times?

Can the initiatives we see pave the way for the exercise of participatory democracy, of solidarity as a way of everyday living?

Supurna Bannerjee
7 April 2020
Sit-in protest at New Delhi's Shaheen Bagh since December, against the Citizenship Amendment Act, March 1, 2020.
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In 2019 a wave of protests broke out in various parts of the world against inequality, authoritarianism and violence. India also saw a spate of protests. The enactment of the undemocratic Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens which sought to fundamentally redefine the criterion of citizenship, making it contingent on religious identity and the possession of legacy documents saw an outbreak of protests in all parts of the country.

In a country like India with very limited digital reach, solidarity is based on physical human contact, walking together in rallies, creating barricades and being present in large numbers on the streets. The physicality of the site thus emerges as central to enacting or visibilizing solidarity. At a moment like this, the challenge that Covid-19 poses with the essential requirement of physical distancing between humans, not accessing public places etc. raises challenges to the solidarity so far seen across the country.

The need to recede from the streets, and from each other could therefore be a moment of critical disjuncture, when the pandemic and its preventive measures obstructs such solidarity building. But can it also force us to think of ways in which movements can persist without physical gatherings? Can it make us rethink traditional movements beyond the materiality of the site?

Solidarity

The reality of the pandemic has globally given rise to creative forms of showing solidarity through using balconies as a space of communion, and through digital means. But co-option by the state of such creative use of spaces to turn these into blind allegiance to a personality cult, plus the limited reach of digital activism in India poses unique challenges to its social movement actors. Digital activism in India has to a very large degree remained the preserve of the privileged. With a user percentage of 40% spread across urban and rural areas, this might be a moment to rethink how solidarities can be digitized democratically across the vast user base of the Internet.

This might be a moment to rethink how solidarities can be digitized democratically across the vast user base of the Internet.

The public health crisis that India faces at this moment, as in most other countries, is not indiscriminate. Without the luxuries of social distancing, high co-morbidity, less or no access to health care and testing centers, the poor are definitely going to be more affected if the outbreak cannot be contained. This is especially true in an economy where informal labour consists of 92.8% of the total workforce. Added to this is the loss of livelihood, which for the daily wage-earner means lack of access to food, shelter and basic necessities at the present moment and an uncertain future ahead. Nor can the crisis and response to it be evaluated outside the realities of migrant workers, locked out in different regions, jobless but unable to return home or returning home at great human cost.

Humanitarian crisis

The relief measures offered by the central government with insufficient budget allocation (less than 1% of its GDP), lack of clarity and reassurance have ignored such realities. As the pictures of migrant workers walking for hundreds of kilometers, children eating grass, road accidents and resultant deaths began to circulate, it became increasingly clear that a public health crisis had escalated into a humanitarian crisis. At odds with the central government, some of the state governments, notably Kerala, have shown efficiency, alacrity and most importantly, compassion in dealing with this crisis. The function of activism therefore is to resist such anti-people stance of ruling constellations and demand for policies, which place the most vulnerable at its core. Additionally, the task of creating social solidarity among communities and groups to function in this period of physical alienation must go on.

At odds with the central government, some of the state governments, notably Kerala, have shown efficiency, alacrity and most importantly, compassion in dealing with this crisis.

The pandemic, and consequent lockdown has also necessitated mass movements on the streets and squares to transform themselves into smaller acts of solidarity in the neighbourhoods. The community networks often facilitated through social media and at other times through a grassroots network of political parties and other organizations have sprung up all over the country to distribute food, medicine and essentials to the elderly and working class families living in the neighborhood. These acts of social solidarity also provide resistance to xenophobia and the antipathy evident in many such middle class neighborhoods. Surprisingly these are exceptional actions in a neoliberal world of constant motion. Such acts of organized or spontaneous solidarity become a means of community creation even if at a very basic level.

Community kitchens in different parts of the country in Lucknow, in various cities in Kerala, in Kolkata, Delhi, among others, are critical sites of organic solidarity. Food and cooking together has been rediscovered as one of the oldest forms of showing solidarity. Following all the requirements of hygiene and distancing, these kitchens have seen strangers banding together to prepare meals to be then distributed among those suffering from food shortage. In a caste society like India with its stigma around washing dishes, cooking together, community kitchens are of a special importance in combatting this grammar of difference.

In a caste society like India with its stigma around washing dishes, cooking together, community kitchens are of a special importance in combatting this grammar of difference.

Community kitchens, similar to those after the Delhi pogroms of last month, become sites of caring. Through different modalities cooking ‘protest food’ defies the anti-poor, anti-democratic hierarchical socio-political order. The community created around the act of preparing food also poses a challenge to the atomist neoliberal society and provides an alternative way of living and sharing, not just for times of crisis but as a way of reorganizing social life.

Similarly, students and faculties of many of the universities and colleges across the country have engaged in producing hand sanitizers and soaps which could be distributed at a low cost or free to those who cannot afford to buy these at regular prices. In their individualness they are small acts of kindness, but when taken together and especially in a context where the state has not shown any initiative towards supplying such essentials to the poor, these are acts of resistance, acts of building solidarities against the inherent inequality of the neoliberal order.

Of course these are nebulous moments, uncertain as yet and spontaneous, often dependent on the initiative of disparate groups and it remains to be seen whether such moments, such initiatives can actually pave the way for a more organic basis of not just community organization but in fact the exercise of participatory democracy, of solidarity as a way of everyday living.

Earlier plagues

The Covid-19, deadly as it is, is not the first pandemic to have affected this country. The plague outbreak in 1898 illustrated how disease and policies around it are never just medical but are embedded within the politics of the socio-economic fabric of the country. Sarkar shows how the entire governance of the disease based itself on zeroing in on working class areas as ‘plague suspect’ areas. This in turn built resistance and various subversive ways to contest the demonization that saw Hindus and Muslims making common cause against intrusive police searches, the abusive colonial state policies violating their religious customs, social norms, humiliating women and destroying property. There was a critical questioning of the state underlying the resistance which rather than building itself on the negation of scientific methods, pointed out the state’s inaction in this direction.

In 1918 the Spanish flu locally called the Bombay Fever broke out, claiming 4 per cent of the total population of the country and accounting for a fifth of the global death toll. Laura Spinney argues that the pandemic was instrumental in uniting India against the British as it became clear that the medical infrastructure in India was in a shambles through the systematic way in which it had been ignored by the British. At great human cost, the pandemic provided a momentum to rebuild solidarity, to re-evaluate alliances.

The pandemic was instrumental in uniting India against the British as it became clear that the medical infrastructure in India was in a shambles.

Of course these were different diseases and different eras from the present pandemic facing us, but the ways these periods of crisis facilitated creative solidarities contain lessons. Learning from the ways in which the state response during the pandemic crafted new dimensions into the critique of colonialism and imperialism, this moment of failure of a neo-liberal, unending-consumption-led world might lead us to question the tenets of economic organization of such capitalist growth with minimal attention to health and education.

With physical distancing as a need of the day, society can only function through a re-imagination of social solidarity. This is a moment in waiting but it cannot be allowed to become an empty moment. A crisis such as this with anxieties, lockdowns and global panic are perfect moments for authoritarian governments to increase their power, as is evident in Hungary. The outbreak of Covid-19 and mediatized frenzy around it has likewise allowed the Indian government to disband relief and rehabilitation efforts and might push them to gag and wipe away from public memory powerful protests against it.

Screenshot: At Shaheen Bagh, protesters symbolically left their slippers on wooden beds on Sunday, March 22, 2020.
Screenshot: At Shaheen Bagh, protesters symbolically left their slippers on wooden beds on Sunday, March 22, 2020. | Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times

The slippers left by the protesting women in Shaheen Bagh to remind the state of their presence in their absence become powerful expressions of resistance. In such times acts of remembering and remembering together, reevaluating and reimagining communitarian spaces become central to creating spaces of solidarity and of visualizing a future which is discontinuous with the present socio-economic order in which we live.

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