The national outrage in the US over police brutality against 46-year-old African-American George Floyd, who died while being pinned down to the ground by white officer Derek Chauvin, led to a chorus of questions about Indians remaining silent spectators to similar instances of cop cruelty. The naiveté inherent in the question has its origins, probably, in the class status of the questioners because only the upper class is exempt from the viciousness of venal men in uniform. The recent mega-hit web series Paatal Lok starts off with the classification of Delhi by a cop — heaven for the Lutyens’ elite; earth is South Delhi; and hell or Paatal are East Delhi’s slums.
The cops, obviously, can only guard the doors of heaven and have no entry inside. So, they have to make do mostly with the miserable creatures of Paatal Lok, who can be tortured, fleeced and murdered in encounters. Yet there will be no nationwide protests, as happened in the US, because nobody protests life’s stark realities; they are to be simply accepted and assimilated, particularly by a society with such long-suffering ethos as ours.
While every act of police atrocity against a black person raises questions of racism and makes victims and perpetrators revisit painful old memories of slavery, and more recent ones of segregation and lynching, the Indian experience is different. Here, police cruelty does not trigger a communal or casteist response because it dates back to the colonial era when the police never distinguished between communities or castes. When Dyer opened fire at Jallianwala Bagh, he did not separate the upper castes from the lower castes or Hindus and Sikhs from the Muslims. There was only one difference: those who were with the British and those against. This distinction to a great extent, obviously with exceptions, reflected the class divide of the colonial society as well. And the immunity for those who are with the people in power and the vulnerability of those against continue, like many other colonial legacies.
But by and large, money is an effective deterrent against police brutality and being poor is an inexorable crime. This is the universal Indian experience, which has not elicited a societal response so far. Sure, there are specific instances of custodial murders that have become iconic cases haunting officers even in their retirement, but these are too few and far between; also, these cases became famous primarily because they were taken up by some political outfit or the other. For instance, certain cases of Emergency excesses did become cause célèbre, but that did not bring in a systemic change in the way society ought to react to custodial murders.
When the poor get to suffer the worst ignominies in such a brutal system, statistically the poorest groups among them — the tribals, Dalits and Muslims — would have to suffer the worst treatment. Then, they too win immunity when they cross over the class threshold. In fact, caste or communal identities never offer succour to victims of isolated incidents of atrocities because they are considered par for the course. In India, a George Floyd will only be considered an unfortunate con who tried to cheat a shopkeeper with counterfeit currency. Only when a group is targeted by another group or by the State would there be an outcry, that too only because of the potential political mileage such an incident offers. Individual liberties often sink below the dividing class line.
For a society that celebrates identities and tries to rule itself using strong identity markers, India seems to be more of a class-ridden society than a casteist one. The heartbreaking trek of the migrant labour from their places of work to their homes in the poorer states of the country is the best case in point to prove that class dissolves caste barriers. Soon after the lockdown was imposed, there emerged a new identity, that of the migrant workers. It was as if all the usual identity markers — caste, religion, language, food habits and facial features — melted to form one unique mass of people, distinguished only by their penury, helplessness, anxiety and desperation. No community or caste organisation came to the rescue of those trudging thousands of kilometres in the biggest post-Partition exodus.
This exodus proved that there is no gravitational pull of kinship ties of caste or community at the bottom of the class heap. Of course, there were individuals who were trying their best to run langars and to offer help to those in distress, but such noble gestures were driven by humanitarian concerns and not by those of identity. The GB Pant Social Science Institute recently spoke to 215 migrant labourers (upper castes, OBCs and Dalits) who were quarantined after their journey back home, and according to an interview given by the Institute director Prof Badri Narayan to a newspaper, these workers had almost forgotten their caste during their days of distress, becoming one caste — that of the miserable.
Many more studies will soon emerge on the lockdown experience and its impact on society, social relations, kinship ties and identity. But the one unimpeachable fact the Covid crisis threw up is that our caste-ridden society behaved like a class-afflicted one, refusing to acknowledge any marker other than prosperity during distress. Even the label ‘migrant’ was stamped only on the poor and not the rich, who waited for the airlines to start functioning. The proof that the reverse migration of the workers offers is strong enough to have a relook at the impact of the colonial census process on the creation of identities and the destruction of caste mobility. Class, indeed, mitigates caste.
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