- Shaileja Verma*
George Orwell’s Animal Farm begins with a realisation – that the lives of the animals are “miserable, laborious and short” under human oppression. This realisation eventually results in the animals freeing themselves from the metaphorical shackles of slavery and embracing seven commandments to abide by. Out of these seven commandments, the seventh is what is of interest to us – “All animals are equal.” Animal Farm was published a few years before we gave ourselves the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 of which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…” A common thread runs through the lives of the animals toiling at the farm and the lives of human beings trudging along – the ‘Right to Equality’. In their world, the right to equality became an ‘animal right’, and in ours, it became a ‘human right’, a right which is inherent in all of us.
The Constitution of India, enacted soon after, entwines itself around this common thread by dealing with the concept of ‘equality’ and its various forms. Part III of the Constitution, inter alia, imposes duties on the State to protect and preserve the right to equality, primarily running through Articles 14 to 18, of which Article 14’s ‘equality before law’ is the cornerstone. The Preamble, on the other hand, contains the aspirations and ideals of a democratic India where the concepts of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity act as preambular promises. A discussion in the seminal Kesavananda Bharti case emphasises that justice and its three forms – social, economic and political, play an important role in ensuring that its sister concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity are maintained. For example, social and economic justice takes care of equality of status and opportunity, while social and political justice takes care of liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.
Indian society has always been fragmented, grappling with issues of class, caste, community and religion. Though there have undoubtedly been times when each of the three organs of the State have ensured that shards of our constitutional aspirations and ideals lodge themselves into our pluralistic foundations, the question we, as democratic septuagenarians, must ask ourselves is – are we any closer to achieving our preambular promises? This question is posed in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
We, the people, have woken up to the fact that it is the year 2020, and India becoming a superpower is still a distant dream. The bubbles of inequality, unemployment and poverty loom perilously over our heads, nearing their bursting points. A tell-tale sign of this was flagged in 2019, when joblessness was stationed to touch a forty-five year high as data revealed that in 2017-18, the unemployment rate was 6.1%. The arrival of COVID-19 has brought with it the promise of making things worse. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) highlighted that as of the second week of May 2020, the unemployment rate was 24% – a nightmarish jump from the earlier projection. The severity of this gets compounded by the corollary of poverty. A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work has projected that in India, around four hundred million workers in the informal sector face the risk of falling into deeper poverty. These four hundred million at-risk workers comprise over 30% of our 1.3 billion (and counting) population.
One of the Centre’s responses to COVID-19 was the initiation of a lengthy lockdown through the Disaster Management Act, 2005. States followed suit by invoking their powers under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Though all the benefits of this lockdown may take longer to crystallize, its by-products have materialized in various forms. One such by-product has been the ‘exodus’ of migrant workers (and their families) from various cities. The irony behind this exodus is not lost, for the biblical Exodus was the liberation of enslaved Israelites in Egypt led by Moses; while our 2020 exodus, which being a stark contrast to liberation, was one arising out of compulsion as well as a lack of clarity and preparedness.
In a bid to mitigate this crisis, welfare measures such as the 1.7 trillion rupee package of the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana, now encompassed by the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, were initially announced. Through this, food security and cash transfer schemes have been put into place. While questions have been raised about the adequacy of the same and the red-tapism involved, these questions become more crucial when one looks at the composition of migrant workers. A large percent of them are either Dalits or Adivasis – two historically marginalized groups. They also form the majority of sanitation workers, garbage pickers, manual scavengers, etc., many of whom do not have ration cards, government IDs, or even bank accounts required for the disbursal of welfare benefits. While the Centre is now providing free food grains to migrant workers without ration cards, unless implemented soundly, this may only compound other ground realities of the lockdown – non-payment of wages and notional monetary support.
The poor and marginalised have known inequality of ‘status’, with the inequality of ‘opportunity’ following as a consequence. Being at the periphery of mainstream social and political dialogue has formalized this. That said, this discussion on the issue of marginalization remains incomplete without addressing the aspect of religion.
As recently as February 2020, the country witnessed communal tension, violence and riots surrounding protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), a law which has been flagged as running afoul of the right to equality. Soon after, COVID-19 took over our lives and all focus shifted to tackling its arrival. India, in her naivety, might have hoped that the rising islamophobia would be temporarily forgotten, especially given the collective need of the hour – to survive the pandemic.
A month later, this proved to be untrue with the detection of a coronavirus hotspot, courtesy a congregation held by the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi. It was a negligent act which endangered lives and could have been avoided through government prudence, if not by the Jamaat itself, regardless of whether or not other gatherings were still being organized in the country. Its widespread condemnation, however, eventually snowballed into one common and absurd conclusion – Muslims were to be collectively blamed for the spread of the coronavirus. Palpable consequences have followed, the usual suspects being social media jibes, denial of healthcare, social and economic boycott, physical violence, and until recently, the extended quarantine of Tablighi Jamaat members beyond what the protocol prescribes. This trend is symptomatic of the new ‘normal’ that pockmarks India – increasing polarization on the lines of religion and the need to scapegoat ‘the other’.
India, that is Bharat, has struggled with increasing social and income inequality and recurring religious conflicts. COVID-19 only heightened this. With each day bringing in distressing news on the struggles of the marginalized, it has become very clear that while the disease does not discriminate, we do. The pandemic began by taking a class tone in India as the lesser privileged of us bore the brunt. This tone turned dual when the shade of communalism crept in.
Part IV of the Constitution which contains the non-justiciable but fundamental Directive Principles of State Policy, delineates the principles essential for the governance of the country. Article 38 expressly places importance on the role of justice (social, economic and political) in securing and protecting the welfare of the people. As a ‘welfare state’ whose duty has been to flatten out existing social and economic disparities, the assumption would be that equality and liberty have prevailed and progressed. Yet, we have reached a point where these disparities have widened exponentially, with our communal troubles now threatening to increase this void, which was once filled with the assurances of secularism and socialism.
Going back to the earlier question – are we any closer to achieving our preambular promises? The context we have simplifies the search for an answer. It is starkly clear that the concepts of liberty, equality and even fraternity become difficult to achieve in a society which tends to be unjust in its treatment of the marginalized, thus revealing the fallacy in our promises. The Constitution envisaged a society based on these promises, although, in the present-day context, they remain broken.
Finally, we return to Animal Farm. The story resumes from where we left off, “All animals are equal.” Post their revolutionary coup, the animals, representative of the working class, resume harvesting the fields to provide for themselves under the leadership of the more intelligent of them, i.e., the pigs. However, in due course, the farm begins to witness clashes in leadership and human intrusion, and the animals begin to face a steady increase in the tyrannical exploits of the pigs. As time passes, the seven commandments are gradually manipulated to suit the agenda of the pigs, and eventually, all the commandments collapse into one – “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” This shift in narrative is portrayed by a personification of the pigs who begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes and carry whips, to finally morph into human beings – their original oppressors. With this, the lives of the animals revert to being miserable, laborious and short, allegorical of the Hobbesian description of life outside society being nasty, brutish and short.
Like Animal Farm, we live in a society where everyone is not equal in all respects. Our current socio-political atmosphere cherishes equality and yet, in the same breath, disregards it as it enables obvious as well as oblivious discrimination against the marginalized. This blurs the distinction between life outside and life inside society, because, given the religious divide, social stratification and power structures that exist, even life inside society can be nasty, brutish and short for the many who are marginalized.
*Shaileja Verma is an alumna of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
Author’s note: COVID-19 has caused disruptions all around. The circumstances surrounding these disruptions are in a state of constant flux. On a Monday, we might worry over the dilution of numerous labour laws, while on a Tuesday, we might be pleased with the announcement of an economic stimulus package. The rest of the days are just as volatile. I have only used the coronavirus to contextualise the hardships faced by the marginalized. So, irrespective of how frequently our circumstances change, the fact of the matter is that their hardships have been of the past, are of the present and are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
 Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, art 1 – ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’  ‘What are Human Rights?’ <https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/pages/whatarehumanrights.aspx> accessed 30 April 2020.  Constitution of India 1950, art 14 – ‘Equality before law – The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.’  Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerala (1973) 4 SCC 225 .  Shoaib Daniyal, ‘India Superpower 2020: Tracing the brief history of a spectacularly incorrect prediction’ (Scroll.in, 2 January 2020) <https://scroll.in/article/948319/india-superpower-2020-tracing-the-brief-history-of-a-spectacularly-incorrect-prediction> accessed 30 April 2020.  ‘Unemployment rate at 45-year high, confirms Labour Ministry data’ The Hindu (31 May 2019) <https://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/unemployment-rate-at-45-year-high-confirms-labour-ministry-data/article27379174.ece> accessed 30 April 2020.  Yogima Seth Sharma, ‘27 million youth in age group 20-30 years lost jobs in April: CMIE’ The Economic Times (13 May 2020) <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/unemployment-rate-dips-to-23-97-data-from-cmie-shows/articleshow/75689370.cms> accessed 13 May 2020.  International Labour Organisation, ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work (2nd edn, 7 April 2020) <https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf> accessed 30 April 2020.  Hannah Ellis Petersen and Manoj Chaurasia, ‘India racked by greatest exodus since partition due to coronavirus’ The Guardian (30 March 2020) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/india-wracked-by-greatest-exodus-since-partition-due-to-coronavirus> accessed 30 April 2020.  ‘Covid-19 relief: FM announces Rs 1.7 trn plan for poor, migrant workers’ Business Standard (26 March 2020) <https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/covid-19-relief-package-fm-announces-rs-1-7-trn-plan-for-poor-and-migrants-120032600617_1.html> accessed 30 April 2020. See also, P. Vaidyanathan Iyer, ‘Economic package math: It’s 10% of GDP but about half is already factored in’ The Indian Express (13 May 2020) <https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/the-math-its-10-of-gdp-but-less-than-5-cash-outgo-pm-modi-relief-packages-6407302/> accessed 13 May 2020.  Yamini Aiyar, ‘The State needs to step up, urgently’ Hindustan Times (16 April 2020) <https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/the-state-needs-to-step-up-urgently-opinion/story-UQhi5oyhA61C52vU7fDxJO.html> accessed 30 April 2020. See also, Sai Manish, ‘Coronavirus impact: Over 100 million Indians could fall below poverty line’ Business Standard (17 April 2020) <https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/coronavirus-impact-over-100-million-indians-could-fall-below-poverty-line-120041700906_1.html> accessed 30 April 2020  Priyali Sur, ‘Under India’s caste system, Dalits are considered untouchable. The caste system is intensifying that slur’ (CNN, 16 April 2020) <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/15/asia/india-coronavirus-lower-castes-hnk-intl/index.html> accessed 30 April 2020. See also, Suraj Yengde, ‘What makes injustice to migrant workers more acute is the fact that many of them are Dalits’ The Indian Express (5 April 2020) <https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/dalitality-the-caste-factor-in-social-distancing-coronavirus-6347623/> accessed 30 April 2020.  ‘Coronavirus package | Migrant workers to get free foodgrains’ The Hindu (14 May 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/second-tranche-of-economic-package-to-benefit-migrant-workers-small-farmers-nirmala-sitharaman/article31583468.ece> accessed 15 May 2020. See also, Aanchal Magazine and Anil Sasi, ‘Covid economic package: Govt safety net for migrant workers and poor has little for now, more for later’ The Indian Express (15 May 2020) <https://indianexpress.com/article/india/covid-economic-package-govt-safety-net-for-migrant-workers-and-poor-has-little-for-now-more-for-later-6410487/> accessed 15 May 2020.  Stranded Workers Action Network, 32 Days and Counting: COVID-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India (1 May 2020) <https://covid19socialsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/32-days-and-counting_swan.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0-kuFz9pV9drrshn7NLnOUOuVbkv7NbrGzcqMLBMwyel0isEsaoLO-dw0> accessed 15 May 2020.  Jeevan Prakash Sharma, ‘Delhi Riots 2020: Who Fanned The Flames of Hatred? Is Kapil Mishra Only To Blame’ (Outlook, 9 March 2020) <https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/india-news-delhi-riots-2020-who-fanned-the-flames-of-hatred-is-kapil-mishra-only-to-blame/302875> accessed 30 April 2020; ‘New citizenship law in India ‘fundamentally discriminatory’: UN Human Rights Office’ (UN News, 13 December 2019) <https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/12/1053511> accessed 30 April 2020.  Saurabh Trivedi, Sidharth Ravi and Nikhil M. Babu, ‘Who is to blame for the virus going viral from Nizamuddin?’ The Hindu (5 April 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/who-is-to-blame-for-virus-going-viral-from-nizamuddin/article31264902.ece> accessed 30 April 2020. See also, Sruthisagar Yamunan, ‘Tablighi Jamaat: How did the government fail to detect a coronavirus infection hotspot’ (Scroll.in, 1 April 2020) <https://scroll.in/article/957891/tablighi-jamaat-how-did-the-government-fail-to-detect-a-coronavirus-infection-hotspot> accessed 30 April 2020.  ‘Coronavirus: Islamophobia concerns after India mosque outbreak’ (BBC News, 3 April 2020) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52147260> accessed 30 April 2020. See also, Deepa Venkatachalam and Sarojini Nadimpally, ‘COVID-19: Responses to a Public Health Crisis Must Not Have Communal Overtones’ (The Wire, 13 April 2020) <https://thewire.in/communalism/covid-19-health-crisis-communal-overtones> accessed 30 April 2020; Abhinav Rajput, ‘Quarantined Tablighi Jamaat members start heading home’ The Indian Express (11 May 2020) <https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/quarantined-tablighi-jamaat-members-start-heading-home-6403765/> accessed 13 May 2020.