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Defending democracy in a lockdown – Cover Story News



The global consensus on social distancing makes it clear that this is not just the best practice but our only answer to the Covid-19 pandemic. Shutting down, regardless of the very real economic consequences for the poor, and in lieu of adequate testing capability, has been the Indian government’s response too. While the argument that these measures are necessary for our safety is compelling, we must also be wary that current social controls, including extraordinary powers of surveillance and the policing of free movement, don’t extend into a future in which we passively permit our civil liberties to be encroached upon.


This hashtag is a manifestation of social media call-out culture, its frequent bullying, shaming and groupthink. It’s not enough simply to do right, but one must also be seen to be doing right and harangue those deemed to be doing wrong. Of course, online vigilantes are taking their cues from governments that threaten to jail people and, in the case of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, to call in the army to shoot lockdown violators on sight.

Police vigilantism

Police in various states have been recorded forcing so-called violators to hold their ears and do squats, or to hold signs declaring themselves to be friends of coronavirus’ and enemies of the people. Some policemen have even been filmed beating offenders with sticks. There have been reports of workers performing essential jobs such as clearing garbage or delivering food being detained and even beaten. Trucks delivering essential supplies have been halted at borders and broken supply chains have meant that overwhelmed online retailers are unable to deliver orders. The police will certainly be overburdened by the lockdown, but public scrutiny of their conduct is crucial given the enhanced danger of abuses of authority.


An inevitable byproduct of social media, given the paucity of clear information from the authorities. Most sinister are those discriminating against neighbours and colony residents who do jobs that expose them to the virus. Air India has accused vigilante Resident Welfare Associations of ostracising its staff. And though people came out on their balconies at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s behest to applaud front-line caregivers, the AIIMS doctors’ union has complained to the home ministry in writing that doctors and nurses, among other healthcare professionals, are being evicted from their homes.


As in other parts of the world, Indians are expressing their fear of the coronavirus through racist and xenophobic attacks. Northeasterners, in particular, are subject to insults and physical violence. So much so that the home ministry has had to remind state authorities of their responsibility to protect people. Foreign tourists too have reported being insulted, refused accommodation and other services. Because apparently healthy, asymptomatic people can still be carriers of coronavirus, the disease is uniquely equipped to sow paranoia, making clarity, transparency and effective communication from the government essential.


Since the crisis began, our politicians have led from the front, when it comes to giving themselves a free pass. On March 15, Karnataka CM B.S. Yediyurappa set the ball rolling by placing restrictions on large gatherings, and then attending a wedding graced by 2,000 guests. And in Madhya Pradesh, new CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan took oath in a ceremony packed with over 100 supporters, and then announced that fighting Covid-19 would be his top priority.

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