LET SOCIAL DISTANCING NOT BE A NEW NAME FOR UNTOUCHABILITY AND SOCIAL DISCRIMINATION

Recently, there have been news about discriminatory practices against suspected and cured COVID-19 Patients. A 35 yeas old in Una, Himanchal Pradesh committed suicide over being taunted by villagers even though he had tested negative for COVID-19.[1] Air India has officially stated: “It is alarming to note that in many localities, vigilante Resident Welfare Associations and neighbours have started ostracizing the crew, obstructing them from performing their duty or even calling in the police, simply because the crew traveled abroad in the course of their duty.”[2] Gita Sen of Public Health Foundation of India was quoted by the Hindu, stating that COVID-19 discrimination is similar to HIV related discrimination witnessed in India earlier.[3] Actor-Singer Meiyang Chang has gone public with his experience of being yelled at as “Corona” because he had oriental features, although he belongs to the North-East India and has quite famously stated: “My name is Chang, and I am not Corona Virus” .[4] Incidents are only multiplying by the day. This is a global phenomenon, as noticed in my earlier blogs. While learning from Global experiences might be good, but the response to this problem in India has to be Indian and nuanced as per out own social conditions.

Some historians have theorized that untouchability practices originated from a solidifying, over a period of time, of the perception about certain groups being “impure” owing to their personal hygiene not being the best due to professional compulsions.  Others, like Ambedkar believed that untouchability was a born out of politics of religion. Social distancing evokes memories of untouchability practices. Distancing rules and the rationale behind the rules can very quickly morph into irrational practices. Giving colour to events in course of spread of the disease is also very easy. The public narrative of the history of origin and spread of the disease in India has made certain communities very vulnerable to discrimination and even assault. Some professions are also being targeted as “unhygienic” as a result of their being a part of a professional or other community that is in close contact with COVID-19 virus carriers.

India has promised itself a non-discriminatory society and abolished untouchability.[5] Article 17 of the Constitutions of India reads:

17. Abolition of Untouchability: Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”

Though Article 17 was enacted in a particular context, and Untouchability with a capital “U”, arguably, ought to refer to a particular conception of untouchability, yet, the constitutional promise to abolish untouchability need not be a prisoner of time and context. Constitution is a living document and the text of the constitution ought to derive its flesh and bold from the experience of shared existence of the people of India. Unplugged from its specific pre-independence context, while maintaining the sanctity of the abolition of untouchability for the then “Untouchables”, the promise of Article 17 of the constitution must extend to all modern forms of “Untouchability” and a resolve to weed out all exclusionary practices from the society. Any attempt to marginalize newer groups, based on any identity, to be excluded from the mainstream, to be excluded from common messing, shared community living and respect as equal individuals in the polity must be warded off.

Fighting discrimination is not new to humanity, nor to India. The standard tool-kits to fight such discrimination are already available.[6] There has to be a general recognition that, like in the case of HIV/ AIDS, discrimination against the COVID patients or persons involved in their care is going to be counterproductive and fan the spread of the epidemic to the general population.[7] A government response by recognizing the problem is necessary. Though the PM made a statement warning people assaulting CORONA Warriors of punitive actions, and the Chief Minister of NCT, Delhi, exhorting landlords to refrain from discriminatory attitudes toward doctors, a formal recognition of all the forms of discrimination against CORONA patients, Health Workers, Carers and Family of Patients is yet to come. Information allaying the fears of the general populations and the ill-effects of the discrimination on the general public health and perhaps on the very persons indulging in discrimination have to be well articulated and etched in public memory. Explicit statements of non-discrimination from industry bodies and other collectives need to come through quickly. The Indian industry has come out with and Indian Employers’ Statement of Commitment on HIV/ AIDS.[8] Similar community measures need to be put in place quickly. Key influencers may also need to be roped in to deliver the social message. Key policy measures suggested and implemented for HIV/ AIDS could be evaluated for implementation.[9]

Legislative measures also may need to be adopted. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 could be enlarged to cover COVID-19. The Protection Of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and The Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, 1989 could also be looked into for models of legislative responses. The National and the State legal services authorities could also brainstorm of the possible legislative solutions. Legal services authorities will need to build in support programmes against discrimination arising out of COVID-19 discrimination. Compiling the various forms of discrimination reported and disseminating information down to the Talluka level about such conduct not being acceptable is going to the first milestone. Legal services authorities will need to build in support programmes against discrimination arising out of COVID-19 discrimination. Compiling the various forms of discrimination reported and disseminating information down to the Talluka level about such conduct not being acceptable is going to the first milestone.

Effective first point redress seems to have been available to a few Naga migrants facing discrimination in Mysuru.[10] More such responses will need to be seen. Once the nation moves to addressing the economic impact of the crisis and other issues, the discrimination issues will simmer in the background, away from the media and political attention that it is enjoying today, and victims will need support in a big way. Having the institutional mandate in place is important. It is important to lay down the path for the future as a consistent and clearly thought through roadmap to deal with COVID-19 and legal response to such crises. Action is required now lest COVID-19 becomes a new name for untouchability and social discrimination.


[1] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/facing-social-boycott-covid-19-negative-man-commits-suicide-in-himachal-s-una-11586090515081.html

[2] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/air-india-staff-says-facing-discrimination-flying-during-covid19-outbreak-1658518-2020-03-22

[3] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/preventing-stigma-related-to-covid-19-requires-full-throated-campaign-says-expert-gita-sen/article31215075.ece

[4] https://news.abplive.com/entertainment/television/coronavirus-indian-idol-fame-meiyang-chang-faces-racism-gets-called-corona-by-two-guys-amid-covid-19-outbreak-1181232; https://www.news18.com/news/movies/my-name-is-chang-and-im-not-coronavirus-meiyang-chang-says-in-video-on-racism-post-coronavirus-oubreak-2566565.html

[5] Article 17, Constitution of India, 1950

[6] Similar discrimination has been experienced in the country in connection to other diseases, most notably HIV. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5433268/?report=printable; http://data.unaids.org/publications/irc-pub02/jc587-india_en.pdf

[7] ibid

[8] http://naco.gov.in/sites/default/files/ILO%20Indian%20Employers%20Statement%20of%20Commitment%20on%20HIV-AIDS.pdf

[9] http://www.undp.org/content/dam/india/docs/socio_eco_impact_hiv_aids_%20india.pdf

[10] https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid-19-people-from-northeast-face-discrimination-in-karnataka-11585479540806.html