Joshua Muyiwa, Poet and Columnist
We need to get out of here. We can’t be here any longer.
By Joshua Muyiwa
The first image that comes to mind on writing this essay: a lone juvenile deer at a crossroads in the tunnels of the underground Nara Station in Japan. I’ve never really thought of myself as a nature person, or even an outdoorsy one, but there’s something sad about this image. It seems unsure, unsettled, uncertain. Well, if you don’t see sadness in the image, I hope you’ll see the distortion it manages to pin down.
A little more than eleven days ago (at the time of writing this essay), I’d brag to other people about the camaraderie and sense of community in my little neighbourhood of Cooke Town in Bangalore, South India. The way that we’d shout “Good Morning!” to one another on the street, the way the people living on your street weren’t necessarily friendly but familiar – meaning their way of being kind wasn’t motivated by information but intuition – and the ways that difference and diversity didn’t cause dilemmas in this hood. But during this lockdown, all this was undone: neighbours turned into vigilantes, keeping a hawk’s eye on each other, watching everyone’s movements, trying to spot violations. Neighbours began calling officials from the public health department to other neighbours’ apartments for the smallest of slip-ups. At any other time, they might not even have noticed any of it. And then it turned into calling people out for everyday acts that were simply amplified by the stillness of the lockdown: playing music, smoking weed on their balconies, having phone conversations and so on. A little more than eleven days ago, I’d thought of this neighbourhood as having an old-world charm: meaning transgressions were simply thought of as human. It was an escape from the new-money sparkle and values of the rest of bustling, booming Bangalore. The lockdown has revealed that the enemy for someone like me – femme, queer, Black – is much closer than I had previously thought.
This fear of the lyncher, the torcher, the killer next door doesn’t seem a far-fetched conceptualisation under the leadership of the present government in India. And if it was ephemeral, evanescent before, the most recent amendment to the citizenship bill – where for the first time religion will be used as a criterion for nationality in a constitutionally secular nation – has confirmed that diversity will not be counted in this country any longer. And if that legal manoeuvre wasn’t enough to send shudders down the spines and chill the hearts of the various minority communities in the country, leaving them with the question “Are we next on the chopping block?”, we were shown so with brute force. First: they attempted to silence the protest. Then: they killed and burned down houses in the worst communal violence the nation’s capital has seen in decades. And if we’d imagined that this virus – the cropping up of a common enemy – would put a stop to this pogrom against the Indian Muslim community, we were swiftly shown that there is always room for the unimaginable, that the impossible is nothing. (How twee that it echoes the capitalist sentiments of a corporation, too?)
This unplanned, unprepared, unexpected lockdown, announced at 8pm on the 24th of March by the Prime Minister, was used as yet another publicity move for himself and his political party – like everything else he has done so far. Though this time, instead of playing the brash economic visionary that he’s hoodwinked us with before, he essayed the role of the family patriarch. And has shown us that he doesn’t just lack a wide range, he doesn’t have any depth of character either. Instead of a socio-economic plan to placate the populace during the pandemic, plate-banging on balconies as a show of appreciation for the health workers was offered up as a solution. And while he’d distracted all of us with his performance and passing sense of solidarity, the police were busy clearing up and dismantling the site of the 100-day Shaheen Bagh protests Shaheen Bagh protest in New Delhi – the beating heart of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests – and other sit-in protests across the country. Yet another attempt at erasing the dissent of Indian Muslims and any memory, any whiff of it. One wishes the government undertook the same speedy efforts to sanitize and make hygienic the quarantine wards in hospitals and provide protective gear for health workers across the country.
If the Indian Muslim body was the site of dissent and deserved the state’s violence before, it has only turned worse now during this lockdown. Now, the body of the Indian Muslim has also turned into the site of the virus’ origin and seems doubly deserving of the state’s vitriol, too. All guns and gun-throated anchors of the 24/7 news channel variety have turned their barrels towards the Delhi headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat – an Islamic missionary movement – in the capital city’s Nizamuddin area for organising a meeting before the lockdown was even announced. And while the fact remains that this meeting has turned out to be a hotspot for the community transmission of the virus, it has given more reason to witch-hunt, scorn and vilify the Indian Muslim body, the Muslim citizen. If you followed the logic of the right-wing spin doctors, you’d be convinced that it was a bio-weapon that was created by the Indian Muslim subject to destroy the dream of India as a Hindu state.
Why am I writing about the protests against the present government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, increasing state-sanctioned police brutality and violence, the demonisation of Indian Muslim citizens, the failings of our Prime Minister, Home Minister and his government instead of focussing on the lockdown, the over twenty deaths (as of the eleven days of the 21-day lockdown) caused by this haphazard lockdown itself and not even the virus, the failures at the levels of testing, medical-grade protective gear and hospital infrastructure or even the lack of an economic relief plan at this time of standstill? It is because everything before the arrival of this pandemic seemed to be leading to the undoing of many falsely held beliefs. It felt like we had reached an impasse with the impunity with which the current right-wing government was acting and something was going to give. It felt like we were tired of their myopic decisions that hadn’t borne any fruit and the communal cracks they were exposing in our communities. It felt like enough was enough.
Looking at this present government handling the situation has given me some hope even in these dark times. We are witnessing the falling apart of this polite consensus we call the state. We are realising that we should be asking for more solid commitments to humanity from our government – not eyewash. Things are terrible now: with the government requesting a gag order from the Supreme Court, which was thankfully denied, on the media’s releasing of information about the virus with editorial oversight by government officials. But increasingly, we’re being tasked with having to sift fact from fiction, and with this looming stress, it might just be harder to do. But perhaps this enforced isolation has given us the time to look around us and see that things are falling apart. Maybe we will use the time to see the way that deep-seated prejudices against creed, caste, class and the caravan of genders and sexualities have found their way into even seemingly non-partisan domains of power and authority.
I’ve come to hear the beginnings of whispers of something new emerging – and as always, we’ll have to turn to the bodies that have been subject to the violence of this system. Because if we can take care of our most vulnerable, we’ll be doing good by the rest of us. I’ve come to see the ways in which these voices of difference, diversity and dissent are subverting pre-existing dynamics, and it feels like it will continue. In these times, we’ve come to see that our value systems must change, our ideas of a successful person and a first-world nation must change, our hopes for the future must change. Hopefully, the new world will be willed into existence.
After many, many hours of staring at this image, I’ve also come to see that the lone juvenile deer at the underground station has only one choice: it needs to get out of there. It feels like, within the Indian context, people who wanted more for this nation and its citizenry had already been pushed to do something, and hopefully this pandemic promises a path outside of these prisons we’ve built for ourselves, too. I hope we’ll learn from the wisdom and whimsy of art, from the ways that marginalised bodies move through spaces, and that the attitude of authority figures to the least of us speaks volumes. In each of these actions, gestures and moves, we are being given a blueprint to the other side. We need to get out of here. We can’t be here any longer.