“It has been an astonishing decade. Everything and nothing has changed” (Alexander 2020). Michelle Alexander’s assertion on the racial caste system and criminal justice system in America in the preface of the 10th anniversary edition of her 2010 seminal work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness reveals how true her statement is for the pandemic year 2020 too. Alexander’s critique on the racial and social control in the United States (US) mirrors a similar control in the Indian society, in the aftermath of the innumerable lockdowns.
The pandemic has unravelled how drastically humans have advanced in the virtual and digital world, how desperately they have changed the global ecosystems and yet how nothing seems to have changed, when it comes to the great divide between the haves and have-nots, between the rural and urban milieus, between genders. In a country like India, the gravity of the pandemic has revealed how deep the chasms run among the privileged and the marginalised.
On the one hand, feminist and queer group movements have succeeded in making their voices heard, yet on the other, gender biases continue to prevail for most women and trans groups, especially in India. A legacy to these movements sees a change in the political systems of New Zealand with its diverse cabinet (Taylor 2020) or when a woman of colour becomes the first woman Vice President of the US (PTI 2020). However, nothing changes, when the society is time and again privy to the worst crimes committed on women (for example, the Nirbhaya case in 2012, Kathua in 2018 and Hathras in 2020, to name a few). Not only in the rural milieu, but also amongst the educated urban, the women and the trans community have been meted out unequal treatment as never before. The culture of violence—be it rape, domestic violence, physical and mental abuse—very little seems to have changed for some of these women. The lockdowns in the pandemic have even exacerbated this violence.
Faced with the unprecedented situation of a challenging 2020, our generation realises how little things have changed. As each one gets affected, we understand that the pandemic has neither been gender neutral, nor are we all sailing in the same boat. As economic disparities increase, caste and class distinctions become more pronounced. Through this process, the marginalised, who include women, children, transgenders, sex workers, disabled, migrant labour, Dalits, tribals, those from other lower castes, get doubly disadvantaged.The pandemic proves that even today the disadvantaged are as voiceless as ever. The loss of voice is felt as the media has rarely turned its lens on the disadvantaged, barring a few occasions when the migrant workers thronged at the Bandra Terminus to return to their native places (Mahale 2020).
If the lockdown has led to silencing the marginalised on the one hand, it has produced an entire new vocabulary or rather an “anti-vocabulary” on the other. A glance at the pandemic vocabulary throws light on the subconscious discrimination deeply rooted in the society. The callous and sometimes ignorant use of the parlance makes one reflect, how deeply ingrained the patriarchal and hierarchical ideas are and how hurtful these words become for certain sections in the society. Since humans are also linguistic beings, language can further push individuals into disadvantaged positions. As Judith Butler puts it: “We ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory” (Butler 1997: 1). This power of language injures one so deeply, that “no act of censorship can undo” it (Butler 1997: 1). Some of the phrases which have evolved around the pandemic, have disconnected the already divided Indian society. In a bid to flatten the curve, the socio-economic forces hurriedly brought in terminologies like “social distancing,” without comprehending the implications the notion of “social distancing” bears. In order to replace it with a more caste sensitive vocabulary, experts in social sciences suggested the use of “physical distancing” or “corporeal distancing.” In a society fraught with caste, class and religious differences the term “social distancing” reiterates the age-old Indian customs which have barred members of one religion from partaking of meals with the other, or the lower castes being abolished on grounds of untouchability, or menstruating women being kept at a distance. The inhuman treatment towards the marginalised continues even today. In the pandemic times, the shunning of humans physically or the term “avoiding one like a plague” have ironically become the “new normal.” As the new normal itself becomes the catch phrase and brings with it divisive vocabulary, such as “stay safe, stay home,” “work from home,” “home schooling,” “online classes,” “Zoom calls,” “Google meets” and so forth, does it mean that the marginalised will continue to suffer in silence and get further isolated? The semantics of the new vocabulary has indeed questioned the identity of the marginalised and displaced them once again. Butler claims: “To be injured by speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, not to know where you are. … To be addressed injuriously is not only to be open for an unknown future, but not to know the time and place of injury, and to suffer the disorientation of one’s situation …” (Butler 1997: 4). This disorientation and displacement have added to their woes as they are now subject to digital injustice (Irshad 2020) and injured by the digital vocabulary, which excludes those without an access to the internet.
For women who are victims of domestic violence the pandemic catchwords “stay safe, stay home” have been as traumatic as the act of violence itself. When an insensitive government mandates “stay safe, stay home” without batting an eyelid, two paramount issues get highlighted. The first one questions the idea of a safe home. The early days of the lockdown were witness to an increase in cases of domestic violence. The official data of the National Commission for Women (NCW) records around 13,000 complaints till date in cases of domestic violence during the lockdown (Jadhav 2020). How safe can the home then be for some women, children, the transgender, sex workers, for those living in hutments, tenements, in joint families with abusive parents and/or abusive male members? With the spurt in domestic violence one also needs to rethink the concept of home. As one grapples with the notion of safe home, one needs to question the very concept of home. Which home is a pavement dweller or a street urchin supposed to stay in? India is home to over 20 million pavement dwellers (Gupta 2019). For that matter, what space, privacy or comfort can a home in a tenement or for those staying in joint families also offer? How is one supposed to turn a one BHK apartment in Mumbai into a workstation or home school for its three to four or more members of the family? As V Geetha (2020) puts it, the government’s mandates to adhere to stereotypes is nothing short of “the active disavowal of democracy on the part of the political class.” For these “homeless” beings, the divisive vocabulary of the pandemic will seclude them furthermore.
As work from home becomes the new normal, the social divide gets aggravated by the digital divide. Once more, the question arises: How can an individual or a community without access to network and connectivity survive the onslaught of the Zoom meetings and Google meets? How does a voice subdued by technology become a participant and partner to the new vocabulary of “Am I audible?” “Can you hear me?” “Can you see me?” If digital education is to be a game changer, how do the marginalised become players in this discourse? As academicians tussle with the new work from home culture and methods of teaching shift to the online mode, the reality dawns that education will once again become a privilege for the upper crust. The digital divide will mean that the stakeholders from the marginalised groups, the victims of domestic abuse will be the losers.
Thus, if language is an important tool which brings about a change, it then becomes an obligation of the academia and the pedagogies to inculcate that change. The pandemic has proven how art and literature have helped people around the world to sustain through the unprecedented times. Academicians, too, need to bear the onus to develop and nurture more sensitive cultures, to think beyond the binaries and to create more spaces for inclusion and intersection. Educational institutions need to take a leap to influence not only its stakeholders, but to bring a change in the society at large. The academia needs to indulge itself in “communicative action” in order to create a lifeworld (Habermas 1984), and design curricula, which is not only gender sensitive, but includes disability studies, environment studies. The academia and activism need to preserve and emphasise the right to differences and be a voice for the marginalised. They need to reaffirm to the millennials that “we are not born equal, but become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights” (Arendt 1951: 297). It would indeed be a pity if the academics overlook this need, let “nothing has changed” prevail and walk away into a new normal.