Like most origin stories, this one begins with the underestimation of its subjects. Days after the Shaheen Bagh protests had begun, a video journalist wandering through hundreds of protesting women, interviewed a few octogenarians. People mocked: who’d see it? But the clarity with which these dadis spoke about NRC, CAA and NPR, made the videos go viral and turned them into celebrities.
I was told different versions of this story when I visited Shaheen Bagh in mid-Feb. Today, the same shero (she-heroes/tiger) dadis might be in danger, seemingly from the COVID-19 virus, but more so from a government unwilling to look ‘weak’ by coming to a compromise with anti-CAA/NRC/NPR protestors when the need of the hour is just that.
Let’s first get some known facts about COVID-19 right. By different estimates, unless stopped with drastic measures, the novel coronavirus could infect 50 to 70% of the population of the countries it has reached (Angela Merkel said it could infect 70% Germans). This is the case because the virus has not yet learned ideas of ‘superiority’ amidst human, like how one religion is superior to another, how one race is better than then the next or a nation than all others, how one caste smarter etc. to leave some and catch others. COVID-19 infects those it can without prejudice and with delightful glee.
This means if anyone of us desires not to be infected by it, all those who have been, need to be treated without discrimination. Because the ones left untreated, will – even if they don’t want to – infect many others, which someday will reach the uninfected. Hence it is in our interest to do everything to prevent the spread and to treat everyone who has it.
The best way to prevent its spread is social distancing i.e. at no place in the country should crowds be allowed to gather for any purpose.
But that is hard for millions like those shero dadis of Shaheen Bagh, who are scared the government is bent on taking away their citizenship, leave them defenseless. For such people, the prospect of death from a COVID-19 is better than a life of endless hardships and humiliations.
There will be those xenophobes who’d be happy if something bad were to happen to these protestors, like getting the novel coronavirus. The problem is they forget that nature is not without a sense of cruel irony. Because if COVID-19 spreads through social clusters of these thousands upon thousands of protestors across the country, we’ll reach such a critical level of the spread of the virus, that in the final analysis literally lakhs of lives could be lost (if 50% of people get the virus and mortality rate is say even 1% - this data puts it much higher - do the math of the possible deaths in India with a population of 125 crores).
Hence the first order of business for the government should be to ensure that all its citizens, without discrimination, are away from any clusters or gatherings. When it comes to the CAA/NRC/NPR protestors, all that the government needs to do, even if they don’t want to be seen weak by giving ground, is agree on a stalemate like the Maharashtra government did to prevent a massive protest rally planned in Mumbai today. Here’s how.
The NPR enumerators (the first step in the NRC process) that are supposed to begin gathering data door to door from April 1 across the country should at least be deferred to a later date because they’ll inadvertently become receivers and carriers of COVID-19.
I would go on to suggest that the 3,941 crores set aside for NPR process, should be diverted to fighting COVID-19. Globally, nations have been forced to promise billions to the fight. If the Modi government does that pre-emptively, it would only increase their popularity, even amidst critics.
Take the other alternative. We do little. The virus spreads. Our already not up to the mark public healthcare crumbles with the overload and doctors (like in Italy today) being forced to choose who to save i.e. even people who could have be saved cannot be saved because there aren’t enough ICU, critical care facility or even oxygen to give patients.
If that happens, no matter how much the government uses its spectacular PR machinery, they won’t be able to turn the narrative around. You cannot spin your way out of a pandemic. You can however, science your way out of it with enough money, brains, and resources put in.
All that the government has to do is to say that in the light of the grave threat of COVID-19 before the nation and the world, it is putting all plans for NPR and NRC on hold and will make a decision on it once this calamity is taken care of.
And what if the government does not take this needed step back? I think even then, the protestors – no matter how hard it feels, need to realize the gravity of the situation and take a step back on their own. It’s not easy, I know. The fear of persecution and terrors being unleashed upon them - as we have already seen - is high. And the bigger fear is that the movement inspired by Shaheen Bagh will flitter away.
But there could be an alternative to this: a new movement called ‘Har Ghar Shaheen Bagh’ – every house is Shaheen Bagh. The idea is not to end the sit-ins, but to extend it – considering the national crisis at hand – to millions of houses across the nation, to take the idea of a collective space into a private space.
What would be needed is a plan for what people can do from home. They can create daily selfie videos, share some great thoughts from a leader they admire: Ambedkar, Phule, Gandhi, Periyar etc. They can build a network of WhatsApp groups where these videos can be shared. Internet and social media could be flooded with these messages. Protest videographers could do Skype interviews with protest leaders, the dadis and post them on their channels.
What can be done to ensure that the protest momentum is not lost, is endless.
What is important for the protestors to remember is that whether they like it or not, considering the tepid response so far from the central and state governments to quarantine measures, we will in all likelihood be forced to get into quarantine where all public gathering would be banned. Planning about that right now will help protestors press on with their demands even through the quarantine.
For those who still do not get the gravity of the situation, let me draw a parallel. COVID-19 is like a game of Russian roulette you are forced to play without your consent. You can’t choose to stand back and watch the fun because you are next, if not today, tomorrow. The only way to stop it, to save us, is to stop the game altogether, by uniting against it.
What the Modi government needs to do is remember that they have to make the right decisions, not popular ones. They have to get all state governments, the whole of society, to work together. Because fighting COVID-19 is similar to the idea of justice – injustice or infection to even one, is a threat to everyone else.
Queen Elizabeth I had said, “The past cannot be cured.” Thankfully when it comes to the fight against COVID-19 in India, we are still in the present. There is enough time still to save thousands, perhaps lakhs of lives in this country, help save billions of rupees worth of precious resources. But that can happen only when all of us come together – despite our differences - today, not tomorrow.
When I was there, I talked to a few of the dadis of Shaheen bagh, just to get a sense of who they are. I found them as fiery as the videos made them out to be. Today I can guess what they’d say if I told them of my fears for them and coronavirus. They’d laugh it off and say they had lived their lives for them to fear a virus. The point is, can we, their children, afford not to fear for them?
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)