Rasheeda Bhagat

A year of pandemic, protests and heroes

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on December 28, 2020

Migrants Enduring image   -  Ajit Solanki

It’s time to salute the health and municipal workers and sections of civil society for helping the afflicted and migrant workers

I don’t know a single person who would be sorry to see off 2020, the year which brought untold misery to our planet through the lethal coronavirus, sending the world’s best scientific brains scurrying to find a vaccine.

But the misery that 2020 brought for Indians went beyond Covid-19. We’ll remember this year as one of protests and a national abandonment of lakhs of migrant workers on whose toil our homes and offices, shining malls and hotels were built.

For India’s Muslims, 2020 dawned with petrifying news of possible persecution through the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), the defining image of that protest becoming the dogged and determined sit-in protests by Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh women. Braving Delhi’s harsh winter, these women’s dharna began on December 14, 2019, and ended only on March 24. And that, too, because the Delhi police cleared the site following the Covid-19 outbreak.

But not before these women had made a forceful statement that reverberated across the world, grabbing headlines. Significantly, pushing even the pandemic to the backpages, what is grabbing the headlines at the year-end is a much bigger, and forceful, agitation against the Centre by India’s farmers. The farmers are agitating against three farm laws rushed through Parliament in September, and after two months of scattered local protests, the ‘Dilli chalo’ movement shows no sign of dissipating, with massive groups of the agitating farmers laying a siege to the Capital.

While the Shaheen Bagh protest was small compared to the mammoth farmers’ agitation against the laws they consider “anti-farmer” and “pro-corporates”, a common thread is the larger support by civil society. The high point of solidarity of several sections of society at Shaheen Bagh was musicians and singers of repute performing the famous resistance nazm (poem) Hum Dekhengey by noted poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, which was composed to protest against Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.

A section of the farmers, so spiritedly defying the government on these anti-farmer laws, has adapted Bella Ciao, the 19th century Italian protest folk song against the harsh working conditions in the paddy fields of North Italy, to wapas jao (go back). Bella Ciao was later modified during World War II by the Italian Resistance against the Nazi regime, and became its anthem.

Shameful abandonment

But unlike Shaheen Bagh and the ongoing farmers’ protest, which got massive support, millions of migrant workers, who were abandoned by both our government and their employers as India locked down, could not come together to protest against the shabby treatment meted out to them. From each big city, tens of thousands of migrant workers were forcefully evicted from their living quarters, given no transport in the initial weeks, and forced to walk back home, literally carrying on their shoulders their meagre belongings as well as exhausted, hungry or sick children.

As they faced police lathis when they tried to cross State borders on their 500-, 1,000- or 1,500-km jouney back home on foot, a section of Good Samaritans from civil society came forward to give them cooked food and water. These people braved the initial paranoia of the unknown virus, to leave the safety of their homes and organise food for the migrants. They deserve our salute.

Ironically, some of the same migrants who were thrown out of our cities without any consideration, were later brought back by chartered/special flights because we, the privileged, needed their skills and hard work as India opened up.

But this darkest of years also threw up heroes from unlikely places… ordinary medical/paramedical, municipality and even police personnel, who did extraordinary work and went beyond the call of duty to help those devastated by the virus.

They turned up day after day to treat the afflicted, monitor the quarantined, assist the elderly get grocery supplies during the lockdown. The voluntary sector, too, raised funds to shore up our health-care system with equipment needed by hospitals. The infected who recovered and donated plasma, and those who stacked food packets in their cars and reached them to those stranded during the lockdown were heroes too.

Covid vaccination will soon begin and, hopefully, once the government completes an equitable job of vaccination, it will turn its attention to the economy, which lies battered, despite Mumbai’s Dalal Street telling us otherwise. Millions of jobs have been lost as businesses have been hit hard.

Also, the farmers need justice and their concerns addressed. More important than profitable corporates, is a caring and compassionate government.

Published on December 28, 2020

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