As the nation struggles to manage COVID-19, the imagery and language has allowed for the return of caste-apologists who are equating social distancing with untouchability.

Coronavirus social distancing and the return of caste-apologistsImage for representation | PTI
Coronavirus Caste Monday, March 30, 2020 - 19:01

Over the last month, COVID-19 dominated news in all parts of the world. After 519 confirmed cases and 10 reported deaths, Prime Minister Modi announced that India would go into a 21-day lockdown from March 24.

Despite governments pledging large sums of money as assistance, experts unequivocally assert that the spread can only be contained if people practise “social distancing” and sanitisation. In his speech, the Prime Minister stressed on the importance of social distancing, stating that there “is no other way to escape” the virus or to contain its spread.

Social media platforms over the last week have been adrift with discussions on the importance of precaution and amidst this some muffled yet worrying tendency has emerged to equate social distancing with caste practices that plagued social relations for centuries.

Kerala specifically has had a history where the laws of purity and pollution were much more stringent than in other parts, resulting in not just untouchability but also laws of unapproachability and unseeability. These practices were discarded by a political culture, shaped by the social reform movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries, and continued thereafter by the Communist movement. However, as multiple incidents from the last year or two alone show, caste has once again reared its ugly head in popular discourse. It is in this context that the discussions on “social distancing” and caste need to be read.

Last week, a social media influencer with a considerably large social media following put out a post on her Facebook page equating social distancing with untouchability (ayitham), sanitisation with unapproachability (theendal), and quarantine with pula, a ritual of pollution practised for a certain period after events like death. She argued that unapproachability, untouchability and [laws of] pollution were all “scientific” in the context of hygiene; that they had some social functions connected with purity for the benefit of society as a whole. Social distancing, she concluded, was this “time taking its revenge” against the Communists who in their desperate attempt to modernise had turned their backs on their Hindu heritage. Within three days, this post had been shared over 2,500 times and “liked” by over 3,000 users.

In a veiled response, a sitting MLA asked that people who shared such a view should take their “feudal romanticism” elsewhere, noting that even in pre-modern times epidemics have led to thousands of lives being lost in Kerala, mostly of people belonging to the lowered caste communities. Over the week, a similar tone of invoking “similarities” between the caste system and social distancing cropped up in conversations, WhatsApp groups and other Facebook profiles, even if in less pronounced forms. These discussions take our societal progress back a hundred years, when such attempts at justifying the caste system by equating it with hygiene emerged.

In search of scientific explanations to caste

In the 19th century, a section of progressive thinkers emerged in Kerala who led the efforts to question the archaic laws of social relations that had continued unabated for centuries. These people came either from the small section of populations that had accessed modern education—and with it, philosophical endeavours of European modernity—or from those from the lower tiers of society who had started to assert themselves in spaces earlier closed to them—such as public markets, roads, and eventually temples. Many of these groups were influenced by the social reform movements that had emerged under leaders like Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, Poykayil Appachan, Velayudha Panicker, Sahodaran Ayyappan, and others.

Meanwhile, attempts from a conservative section of population, especially from within the caste Hindus, quickly attempted to seek “scientific explanations” to justify caste—and the most common excuses made were those of cleanliness and hygiene. The impression that the lowered castes deserved lower social status was linked to an arbitrary question of hygiene, as some instances from the period show us.

The Cochin Tribes and Castes Report from 1909 compiled by a Tamil Brahmin characterised a Pulayan as someone whose “hair is allowed to grow wild and forms an immense matted filthy mass”. The same report also comments that their habitations are “deficient in ventilation and the air is always more or less foul”.1

In 1910, a local newspaper in Travancore reported a controversy regarding separate seating arrangements for Dalit Christians and upper caste Christians. When restaurants and coffee clubs started to appear in Kerala during this period, Kanippayur writes how there were separate ones for Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and a general feeling that the Brahmin hotels run by Namboothiris, Tamil Brahmins or Saraswat Brahmins were considered more clean and hygienic:

“…there was no need for a sign-board to help differentiate a Brahmin Coffee Club from a non-Brahmin one. However, most Brahmin places would still have a board outside stating it. A container and a davara made of brass, clay or steel was used until recently in Brahmins hotels, and not glass tumblers”.2

Although he does not specify what the distinctions were based on, the implicit assumption is that some coffee shops were more hygienic by virtue of their nobility. The introduction of a steel davara was an attempt to maintain the laws of pollution, as historian AR Venkatachalapthy notes in his essay, In Those Days There Was No Coffee. The attempts at citing cleanliness as a marker of caste difference received some impetus in the late 1920s, when Congress-led initiatives to reach out to Dalits also stressed that their reason for low status was lack of cleanliness. Clearly, there was the attempt to argue that the rules of purity and pollution based on the senses of touching and seeing had more than merely a religious element; to find “scientific” explanations for exclusion to suit their purposes.

By the 1930s, these attempts failed due to two reasons. Economically, the modern spaces that emerged—such as restaurants, public transport, libraries, etc. became difficult to maintain as exclusionary ones. They had to open up to become profitable, and became unviable to operate without employing lowered caste members. Kanippayur writes that Brahmin restaurants needed people to do the work that orthodox Brahmins refused to, and this created practical difficulties.

Meanwhile, social reform movements took on board the importance of cleanliness and soon, the early Communists saw it as important that they engage closely with people from across castes to win their trust. Visiting the homes of people from lowered castes or gestures like insisting on sharing gruel with them were important in deconstructing centuries long norms of purity and pollution for early Communist leaders. Once class—and gender—replaced caste as the “natural” alternative for social divisions, the unresolved contradictions were put aside under the assumption that they would automatically be resolved along with the “class” question.

COVID-19, caste and social distancing

The return of caste sensitivities within the public sphere has been a matter of much concern in the recent past in Kerala. It is in this context that the present attempts involving “social distancing” as a justification of the caste system need to be addressed. At least a part of this narrative seems to emerge from the visual imagery and language that has come to be associated with battling the pandemic.

In a society like ours, the word “social distancing” is easily misconstrued to mean distancing based on (any) social differences. It runs the risk of allowing people with narrow interests to equate a practical strategy to fight the spread of a virus by staying apart to stay together, with the regressive and exclusionary practices enforced by one section of society to dominate another. In fact, having seen the limitations of using the term “social distancing”, WHO has suggested that it be replaced instead by “physical distancing”, which suggests a physical distance that doesn’t mean a social disconnect.

The management of coronavirus is of utmost priority, and the Kerala government has received much attention for taking the challenges in stride. While it is still early to predict the economic costs of coronavirus on the world, its social costs have already been laid bare. Daily wage earners, unskilled migrant labourers, waste-pickers and safai karmis have borne a disproportionately high brunt of the pandemic. The steps taken by the Kerala government to ensure that the livelihoods of people from disadvantaged sections will be protected is a welcome move to reduce these costs. Meanwhile, narrowminded attempts by social media influencers seeking attention need to be nipped in the bud before they add fuel to the already lurking threat from caste apologists.

1. Iyer, AK, 1981 [1909]. The Cochin Tribes and Castes. New Delhi: Cosmo, p.126, 98

2. Namboothirippad, (2005), pp.312-315; a davara is a little container that came with the tumbler which was used to cool the coffee or drink from.

S Harikrishnan is a doctoral research student at Dublin City University, and co-editor of Ala.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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