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Of COVID-19, Magical Realism, Vultures and Prophets of Doom: Die, The Argumentative Indian? II
By Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha

Die, the Argumentative Indian?

Examining and exploring the multiple meanings of the social, political and economic   impacts of the COVID-19 crisis is one of the most obvious aftermaths for people all over the world. Amidst an information explosion, there could also be a dearth of information and will,   towards managing the pandemic efficiently.

India, despite its many shortcomings, has been known to rely on a culture of intense debating, discussing and arguing for building critical dialogues since ancient times. In his well- known collection of essays titled, ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Amartya Sen focuses on these very traditions of public debate and intellectual pluralism.

Recent developments in India have been inspiring the citizens to speak up and press for their right to know and be heard. Credible media sources have played a pro-active role in asking the right questions, writing and speaking responsibly about the pandemic.  Unfortunately, a democratic attempt at debating and piercing the maze of silences on human rights and well- being of the labour, migrants, workers and other less privileged groups is now bringing a heavy price for the argumentative Indian.

Anyone who questions the Government of India on its (lack of) pandemic policy, is openly being referred as a vulture or a prophet of doom!

COVID-19 and Magic Realism

The COVID-19 Chronicles:  Of Traitors and Prophets of Doom

One wonders what is it that is so wrong with expressing oneself and trying to build imperatives of community protection and solidarity.  Why should transparency be a debated virtue in 2020’s India, especially when it is in the throes of a colossal health-care crisis?

In 2016, ‘Post-truth’, became the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year.

Used in that year to cover the politics of both Brexit and US elections, post-truth is defined as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. However, the definition of post-truth has a catch in contemporary, ‘knowledge is power’ debates that take the stand that facts and opinions cannot be completely separate from one another.

A reasonable blurring and mitigation of boundaries between fact and opinion can be a norm in many contexts. Nonetheless, an exaggerated blurring of these boundaries is a different ball game altogether.  In the Indian context, we see how state conceptions on COVID-19 are guided more and more by what top leaders and bureaucrats seem to debating, revising and insinuating between and against one another.

COVID-19 and Magic Realism

Medical data is being hidden from the public and civil society or shared in suspicious ways. The point or post-truth which is being advocated tends to be repeated again and again in spite of factual rebuttals. Expert and informed opinions now have a secondary place.

In sharp contrast, across the world, experts from the medical field issue official updates of their country’s situation during the pandemic. For example, Lothar Weiler, head of the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, or, Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the USA provide daily briefings of the situations.

Instead of engaging critically with specialists of classic epidemiology science at such a crucial moment, influential political and administrative voices at the helm of affairs are busy persuading their followers that their view of reality is unquestionably right. During the past couple of months, India has seen more than 4,000 (four thousand) orders being issued by national and state governments followed by several addenda and clarifications.

The fact that many, whether in positions of authority or otherwise, responsible for citizen welfare in India are resorting to name-calling and pulling dissenting voices down seems like surreal and dark. In juxtaposition to this, let us bring to the forefront the fact that the Constitution of India guarantees an array of fundamental rights to all citizens, one out of which is the Right to life.

What does the right to life imply during a pandemic? Can the state impinge upon this fundamental right to life guaranteed to all citizens by Article 21 of the Constitution?  As a basic fundamental right, it most certainly means being able to live in due safety covers that demonstrate that the state is doing its job by ensuring medical well- being.  Quite evidently India needs to urgently amend the unnecessary fault-lines in its health care system.

In a democracy much is rectified by openness and transparency, debate and dialogue. During the ongoing pandemic-times, can India, therefore be rancorous of its citizens creating information networks or grudge their demands of due medical rights? Widespread hue and cry in the country points to the urgency of developing a proper public health messaging and awareness system alongside efficient State medical care as a fundamental right.

COVID -19 and Magical Realism

According to Justice Bhagwati, Article 21 “embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society.”  Justice Iyer has characterized Article 21 as “the procedural magna carta protective of life and liberty.

This right has been held to be the heart of the Constitution, the most organic and progressive provision in our living constitution and the foundation of our laws.

Defactualisation and Post-Truth: On resistance to Kafkaesque forces

In her essay lying in Politics (1972), Hannah Arendt referring to political deception describes the dangers of what she terms as ‘defactualisation’.  For Arendt, defactualisation is the inability to discern fact from fiction, a concept very close to what is now understand by ‘post-truth’.  In the post-COVID 19 times, post-truth signifies a moment in India full of grand rhetoric where authorities may want to keep the gap between fact and fiction high: How else do we understand the Statist discomfort in unveiling information that in any case already pertains to the public domain?

Indeed misinformation and chaos can become doubly potent and damaging if no one dares to hold the mirror on them in difficult times. So why must the  state question  the freedom  of expression of  responsible and accountable voices in the media or suspect  experts, social activists and scholars who attempt to present information through analytical texts and  reports?

Employing an emotional conviction and personal beliefs, leaders pushing a sectarian appeal still imagine that their world of political make-believe is intact and that citizens will get taken in by their strategic silences and jarring lapses on policy.   Is the world’s largest democracy becoming a ‘Kafkaesque’ retreat for its people and expecting them to be content with a surreal, nightmarish milieu replete with feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness?

Are we now going to be cajoled to let Kafkaesque bureaucracies and state control to overpower us by giving up on vital information and rights?  Can any democracy worth its name be non-transparent?

The Orwellian flux:  An attempt to deny citizens from owning their narratives and speaking up

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  George Orwell, in, Animal Farm

Is it possible that we give up on information that pertains to us? How can we?   Knowledge and information that is vital to us, constitutes our life and defines our experiences by making us who we are and how we live.

Covid-19 times are not a national emergency (at least not declared so). Rather we experience this pandemic as part of a global calamity.  In such times, can the sanctity of the Constitutional rights, such as the Right to Information (RTI) and related guarantees for ordinary citizens in India be suspended? The RTI is a fundamental right for every citizen of India just as the right to life.

COVID -19 and Magical Realism

The RTI act of 2005 was enacted in order to consolidate the fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech’ in the Indian constitution. Since RTI is implicit in the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19 of Indian Constitution, it is an implied fundamental right.

Article 19 of the Constitution of India contains the fundamental right to Freedom of Speech. This freedom not only extends to the right of expression of views freely but as an obvious and vital corollary, also entails the right to know and the duty to share information.

The RTI, just like all other rights, has reasonable restrictions/ limitations placed upon it. For instance, information on national security or any other matter which would affect the nation’s integrity cannot be shared under this right. But if information is sought, for example, on sanitation and hygiene, medical practices which concern one and all, then it is not a matter of national security. The public has the right to know if and why such information is not being shared.

Citizens may feel the need to know more than what the Government is willing to share in certain cases. At such junctures they can exercise their RTI under Article 19 (1) to know how the government works, what roles it plays, what are its functions, and so on:  If information in our democracy can be sought legally, when the citizens so require during normal times, then why cannot people as masters of their expressions, experiences and narratives seek and share stories, texts and real life facts on COVID- 19? Common information is not a ‘secretive’ domain of democratic States and societies. Citizens have a right to both seek as well as share it.

That said, the fact is that when information is hidden, the path of evoking the RTI in India is a cumbersome journey laden with multiple legal stages and hurdles.

Survival and death stories, struggles and tales of chaotic escapes cum suffering from an open experiential terrain of certain sections of society since March 2020 in India. Why cannot these be written and spoken about openly, without fear? Why cannot factual and anecdotal realities be documented and represented with due sensitivities so that nation is kept informed and collective problem solving is not hampered?

Poverty stricken migrant-returnees, – desperately hungry and exhausted, walking endlessly on long journeys back home. While some reach their destination, others collapse and die mid-way and still others, just get lost en route owing to state failures. Public trains in India carrying the stranded migrant labour home have started for destination a but owing to administrative blunders reached destination B.

Builder lobbies are pressurising governments to adopt exploitative labour policies reflecting a gross mismanagement of the pandemic. Popular leaders and administrative heads commit blunders and are applauded by the rhetoric of their blind followers in a true, post-truth role reversal: India is becoming a country where leaders applaud blind followers and then, vice-versa. Instead of taking the leadership to task, followers are busy hushing matters up and eulogising popular Netas (leaders). Incredible, surreal India!

An Orwellian destruction of well-being walking hand in hand with an assault on free society is what the Indians now have to learn to counter and most definitely,- NOT live with. Alongside precise (to the extent possible) figures and percentages of testing, positive cases, deaths and spread of disease, the Indian public needs to know what has been happening to the migrants walking on foot from one destination to the other?  Why trains starting for one destination reach the other? How are stranded migrants and others looking after themselves? Will these displaced people have a concrete system of social security working for them as citizens?

COVID-19 and Magic Realism

What are the adminitrative loopholes we confront while catering to the most oppressed and poor sections of society? Why are reports and opinions that bring us a realistic version of the concerned events and perceptions, denounced as being judgmental and negative?

Those who exercise their right to share information and speak up are being condemned as   ‘arm-chair intellectual’ and ‘prophets of doom’. Worse, those who do not lose touch with and worry about ‘given realities’ by making information accessible to a wider public, are unceremoniously being called ‘instigators’ and defamed for their ‘inflammatory’ projections’: A child trying to wake up its dead mother who collapsed out of starvation at a railway station is a real news and forms just one heart- breaking image in the mirror of India’s contemporary reality. We do not know how many such images and anecdotes may have been missed upon. Responsible media is hence filling up a vital gap.

Are real life texts and narratives that intellectuals, writers and media professionals bring forward not as relevant a document as the data-sets released by our democratically elected government? Why must there be a discrimination on the free flow of information?

Who is entitled to ‘speak’ and ‘speak- up’ in our society? Is it now an exclusive right of a certain majority or section of society?

Speaking Truth to Power: From Citizenship to Citizenhood

“Nothing”, said Leonardo da Vinci, “strengthens authority as much as silence”. Speaking truth to power is never easy, more so in troubled times.

The migrant workers, the daily wagers, the farmers and a plethora of have-nots whose susceptible position during the pandemic makes them utterly vulnerable still retain their power of articulation. They continue to ‘own’ their oral narratives and corporeal experiences.

No one has the power to take these memories and experiences away from their personhood. In a democracy, no one can threaten or prevent informed citizens from reading into as well as writing and speaking about national issues.  The rigour of an honourable debate and discourse make many a nation progressive and successful.

We, the people have all the rights to continue to make efforts to reach out to the alternate and ongoing truths unfolding on the streets, in slums, in trains, cities and the villages of our country. Courageous citizens continue to negotiate the miseries of forced evictions, reverse migrations, lack of medical attention and a collapsing health care system.  Meanwhile, the media must continue to share information, write and speak about realities that are unfolding in the public domain and to which they have become witnesses to.

We will never know the absolute and exact reasons why and how COVID -19 hit the world and the precise actual destruction, damage or difference that it will make upon our lives or leave behind. However, we can certainly learn how to make a difference. We can pledge to continue speaking truth to power, by evolving and reconciling passive ideas of  citizenship to a pro-active state of citizenhood where our rights and roles are not quashed, gagged  or othered with indifference or spite.

Adopting a political ethics of vigilance which encourages informative networking, reaching out to those in need, sharing knowledge from and within the public domain become our prime responsibility.  Nothing,- be it a social reform, a transformative event like a  revolution, civil war or  natural disaster can be foreseen concretely till it actually arrives and manifests itself. A pandemic, such as the COVID-19 with all its suddenness, threats of exponential growth and chaos is no different in its surprises, obscurities and shadows.

In contrast, the clarity and confidence of an active citizenhood can motivate our governments towards acquiring a sense of direction through these difficult times: Indeed, protective and collective efficacy in pandemic  management will be a far-fetched dream for India if information is not shared and newer knowledge domains not created or allowed to flourish.

Author Bio: Dr. Bobby Luthra Sinha works as Senior Vice President -Research at Osianama Learning Experience (OLE), Delhi.  As an independent  Political Scientist and Social Anthropologist, she engages in research, writing  and project-work on issues pertaining to environment, migration, development, social and protest movements. She is affiliated to national and international organisations on Migration and Social Science research in the capacity of a Deputy Director and core Executive Committee member.

(The views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, beliefs and view point of the owners of asiannewsmakers.com)

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