The Fickle Collective Conscience of the Indian Middle Class

The insurmountable privileged-underprivileged rift became deeper with the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, which was imposed with a myopic understanding of ground realities.

Initially, it was celebrated by people from across the political spectrum – especially the metropolitan anglophone elite – who saw it as a ‘bold’ and ‘necessary’ move to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the coming days were about to shake our collective conscience.

Privileged Indians could not even fathom the events that started playing out on the highways, railway tracks, lorries and bicycles. The entire discourse up until then had left out a considerable proportion of the urban population. This overlooked a population that is responsible, amongst other services, for constructing our high-rise buildings, our malls, our five-star hotels and beloved cafes where we love to discuss “power to the people” over a cup of espresso and a plate of fries.

Once the lockdown was announced, millions lost their livelihood overnight and savings evaporated within a few days over basic necessities. The wrath of the police was also unleashed on the poor, who ventured out on hungry stomachs in search for food.

While the government initially attempted to half-heartedly quell the apprehensions of the people, it was largely addressing only middle-class concerns. The marginalised were left in the lurch. Amidst the mass media masquerades of dealing with the situation efficiently, the ugly underbelly was starting to show.

Mixed responses

The reckoning of middle-class sensibilities came only when pictures of the ordeal of many migrant workers started working the rounds of the internet. The reactions were mixed. While on one side, sympathy was invoked (empathy is an attribute that escapes most Indians), on the other hand came lamentations: “They should have just waited it out till the pandemic had passed instead of putting the lives of all Indians at peril by transporting the virus to every nook and corner of the country!”

This was the same middle class had applauded the prompt “rescue” operations of Indian students stranded abroad.

Also read: Stop Patronising the Poor, Let Them Go Home

From the other lot came criticism directed towards the government which had by then initiated collection of money in the ambiguous PM-CARES fund. Critics pointed out how India’s granaries were fuller than they have ever been and how it was imperative that the surplus food be used to feed those who had been affected by the economic ramifications of the pandemic. Stories of starvation, exhaustion and accidental deaths doubled with each passing day.

Ahmedabad residents clap and bang utensils to cheer for emergency personnel and sanitation workers who are on the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

With how events panned down in the days that followed, one thing became clear: our present government is definitely by the people, but it not of the people or even for the people.

This essay aims to bring to the notice of those occupying privileged socio-political spaces about the transient nature of our conscience. There’s even a pattern to it – a collective burst of sympathy followed by a wall of apathy.

These fluctuations make us champions of the marginalised overnight – and, with the same swiftness, they make us oblivious of their long-term plight.

While there were debates about labour laws and inter-state migration, such discussion petered out as time marched on. Things turned to business as usual, articles on the issue were written in different portals, discussions were carried out in webinars, academic articles were rolled out, students wrote essays, sarcastic clashes and outright mud-slinging matches took place on social media.

Amidst all this, the issue of the migrant workers slowly receded into oblivion. People eventually moved from this issue to other “contemporary issues”.

‘Seasonal activism’

But this impulsive outrage and passive apathetic cycle should make us introspect the nature of our conscience. Is one event, with the passage of time, justly relegated to a lesser tier of importance after inconclusive deliberations on it?

Mentions of migrant workers are now only found in news clippings of how they are being lured back in by their employers. Once the bait is taken, the “economics of viable wages” will come back to haunt them. The status quo would thus be restored.

Also read: One Percent’s 21-day Lockdown: Whine And Dine

I want to leave with a few questions. Did our collective responsibility of occupying privileged positions vis-à-vis the migrant workers end with the erosion of those images and stories from social media? Was our conscience only a manifestation of our failure to come to terms with the existence of such realities? Or was it inherent human sympathy? Or, for the more initiated, empathy?

In a society like ours with problems galore, is it the inability to comprehend the enormous consumption of “negative news”? Or is it our shallow appetite for seasonal activism or slacktivism?

But one thing is certain – the collective conscience of the Indian middle class is as fickle as the promises made by the current regime.

Kallol Deka is a post graduate student in Labour Studies and Social Protection from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Featured image credit: Reuters