As the Gregorian calendar changes, there are two distinct but connected thoughts: 2020 was a most memorable year, 2020 was an eminently forgettable year.
Whether the glass was half-full or half-empty depended, more acutely than earlier, on our station in life. The more fortunate among us counted a steady supply—minus frills, perhaps—of life’s basic necessities and were thankful. The less fortunate struggled, more than earlier, for even those basics; not just for food, shelter and education but even Covid-related precautions like physical distancing and Covid-care for the infected. The virus disrupted not just human physiology but also socio-economic structures. India counted more than 10.2 million cases and nearly 1,49,000 deaths, the ticker has slowed down but not stopped.
However, as shattering as it was for millions who battled Covid-19 upfront, it was not the only loss we lived through. India lost more—slender faith in the central government to do its best for all citizens, belief in the judiciary to bat for civil liberties and rights, trust that the dominant mainstream media will shed its myopia and Modi-bhakti, the idea that India cannot turn into an autocracy or oligarchy, and more.
Under the menacing shadow of Covid-19, the government turned more crony-friendly than ever, was emboldened to conduct bhoomi pujan of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, more emboldened to demolish independent India’s recognisable landmarks of democracy and public space in New Delhi with its ill-advised Central Vista redevelopment project, brazenly apply draconian laws to protesting students, academics and activists for expressing dissent, suspended Question Hour in the Parliament and an entire session while running election campaigns on schedule, and gave Indians barely four hours to wrap up multitude strands of their lives before imposing a stringent lockdown in the country. The judiciary largely showed touching faith in the executive, most sections of the media forgot what it meant to be a watchdog of the powerful, and India’s wealthiest became wealthier. And, yes, domestic violence spiked.
In between Zoom and Google Meet calls, disembodied voice meetings, and Instagram Lives, there was an acute sense of disruption and loss—loss of jobs and incomes, loss of small gains made in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests last December and the strong voice that came from Shaheen Bagh, loss of rationale as Sudha Bharadwaj and others continued to languish in jail even as Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were incarcerated during the pandemic, loss of humanity as essentials like spectacles and water sippers were denied or delayed to these prisoners by central agencies and this ratified by courts, loss of faith as the Prime Minister collected crores of rupees to show PM-CARES but it remained opaque and inaccessible to those who most needed care, in loss of balance between the good and not-so-good that’s supposed to prevail in human society or democracy. Hannah Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” became a thing, as this essay eloquently pointed out
Despite the loss, fear and evil, hope rises.
For, how could it not when hope is all we have to meet 2021? Hope is a strange thing. It doesn’t get snuffed out even at the worst of times, a few step up to protect the candle flame in gusty winds and inspire others. It becomes contagious even though some take to it grudgingly. Hope holds out a promise that tomorrow can be—no, will be—better than today and yesterday. Hope rises against hopelessness, perhaps from it, to stare back at it and reclaim the faith that the darkest night will turn too.
Vaccines developed and marketed in a short span of time offer hope against Covid-19 virus. America voting President Donald Trump out of office offers hope. Covid management in countries like Vietnam and New Zealand offer hope. The sheer dedication which healthcare professionals around the world demonstrated in the face of the pandemic shows hope. The commitment which essential workers showed to keep cities and countries functioning, many at the cost of their lives, carried hope. The compassion or kindness from strangers who pitched in with food aid or monetary help kept hope alive in those who received it.
Hope was tucked away in the crevices of despair writ large on the faces of millions of migrant workers and their families who left cities on foot to return to their villages. No, they did not leave; they were forced to leave their temporary homes and walk thousands of kilometres because cities had failed them; cities wanted their labour or skills but did not accommodate them. A staggering 10 million and more Indians. When contractors and employers left them high and dry, when the government brought all transport to a dead sudden halt, when they were forced to survive on rations or largesse, they still hoped to somehow reach home and be with loved ones. In the journey of hundreds and thousands of kilometres on foot, without an assured support infrastructure, lay their hope writ large.
The collective Stranded Workers Action Network found that, when lockdown was suddenly and ill-advisedly imposed, 50% had rations left for less than a day, 74% had less than half their daily wages left to survive the lockdown period, and later 89% of them had not been paid by employers during the lockdown. Though salaried class and white-collar workers constitute only 21% of India’s employment, nearly 20 million jobs were lost during the pandemic-induced lockdown pushing the country into its worst-ever unemployment crisis. As the year closed, there was more talk about green shoots in the economy than green shoots themselves. Yet, people did not give up hope—home businesses, food-based enterprises, teaching and counselling offered hope, among other entrepreneurial activities. Nearly 250 million workers joined a nation-wide strike.
Hope lies at the heart of the country’s largest-ever farmers’ protest that has all but shaken the government and India’s largest corporates. The hope that their collective strength and tenacity can force a repeal of the three damaging farm laws hastily and undemocratically imposed by the Modi government has underscored the fierce resistance that farmers—mainly from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh but also other states—have put up in the face of dug up highways, shipping containers as barricades, police and military batons.
Resistance draws from hope, hope fuels their continued resistance.
This is akin to the hope that some of the oldest women in Shaheen Bagh held out last year. Bilkis Dadi was amused to find herself a celebrity in the international media. Shaheen Bagh—and the other baghs that sprung up across India in solidarity—changed the self-congratulatory narrative of the Modi government last year. Farmers, including thousands of women, have done it this winter. This resistance has taken on not only the government but also powerful corporates of the country. When a few states made inter-religious marriage illegal and criminal, inter-faith couples narrated their heart-warming stories in the public domain, pushing back the malicious “love jihad” narrative.
If the fierce fights that India’s hounded minorities, her most marginalised, her farmers or farm labourers, her students and youth, her academics and satirists, her lovers across religions bravely continue to put up do not offer robust and rock-solid hope, what else will? Hope and resistance are doing their own diverse dance across India’s many regions and cultures.
The person on the street is now speaking derisively of “Godi Media”, the Prime Minister’s monthly “Mann ki Baat” is widely lampooned and has more “dislikes” than “likes” on social media, his peacocks-and-parrots leisure pursuits and attire-and-beard now inspire memes and cartoons by dozens even in the face of legal action at the highest level, independent media are relentlessly challenging the heavily-spun narrative of their corporatised counterparts, women’s support helplines offered hope to victims of domestic violence during lockdown.
The young are discovering the power of dissent and its many expressions, 21-year-olds have become mayors in Kerala bringing with them the idealism of youth, if India’s political opposition does not measure up to the task then Indians are opposing anyway. Actor Rhea Chakraborty showed that attitude can make all the difference when she met the national-level vilification with a T-shirt that said “…let’s smash the patriarchy”, the Hathras rape and all that followed rekindled Indian women’s battle against gender violence in all forms. Education and healthcare, the deficiencies of which showed up starkly during Covid—drew people’s attention and engagement. That’s the starting point of change, after all.
And migrant workers have begun trickling back into cities. What else but hope can drag them back to a place they could not call home earlier this year? They hope to find work, to earn, to remit money—and hope—back home, to belong to the city and hope that the city embraces them too. It may not, for that calls for fundamental changes in urban design and infrastructure, but they live on hope. As do millions of us.
Hope floats, resistance thrives. They are good armour to meet 2021 with.
Then, there is poetry. There is verse and songs from the protests. Or Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”, William Ernest Henley’s historic “Invictus” or then come home to Sahir Ludhianvi, whose birth centenary it is in 2021. An icon among Indian poet-lyricists, he wrote 50 years ago in the poem “Khoon Phir Khoon Hai”:
“Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki aukat hi kya,
Zulm bas zulm hai, aaghaaz se anjaam tak,
Khoon phir khoon hai, so shakl badal sakta hai,
Aisi shaklen ke mitaao to mitaaye na bane,
Aise shole ke bujhaao to bhujaaye na bane,
Aise naare ke dabaoo to dabaaye na bane”
(What is oppression, what is its standing,
Oppression is but oppression, from beginning to end,
Blood is still blood, it can take myriad forms,
Such forms that cannot be erased,
Such embers that cannot be extinguished,
Such slogans that cannot be repressed.)
The author is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist who writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.