‘Aatmanirbhar’ Enough? The Problem With Our Reactions to Jyoti Kumari

The nation and the world seem impressed by the fearless feat of 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari – who pedalled her way home from Gurgaon to Bihar with her injured father sitting behind her on the cycle – covering 1,200 km.

This act of bravery captured the attention of Ivanka Trump, who thought of it as a “beautiful feat of endurance”.

However, the glorification of such an act conceals the terrible predicament of migrant workers and lower-income sections of India as a pandemic grips the world. It hides the failures on the part of the government and its policies that are evidently ineffective in providing relief to migrant workers. This incident should remind us that we have failed as a system as many of us seem to be insensitive enough to overlook the conditions that forced Jyoti to travel 1,200 km.

This event has brought up a lot of structural problems within our society. It brings out the inefficiency in the policies of our government. A report from The Wire, by Umesh Kumar Ray, captures the story of Jyoti’s journey and what made her take the decision to cover the vast distance on a cycle.

Jyoti narrated how her family’s problems had increased post-lockdown as there was no food or money. She spoke of how her family had been on the verge of becoming homeless as her landlord had kept pestering Jyoti and her father to pay rent.

The journey, however brave, was kickstarted by a lack of choice – and one should question why they had to go through this pain in the first place.

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The appraisal of such an act, and Ivanka Trump’s appreciation of it, reminds us how the West has long looked at poverty and India’s poor. It reflects how the West has sensualised poverty in India and the sufferings of the poor. The anguish and pain of the poor have seldom been decorated and manufactured with romantic ideals of stoicism and perseverance. This practice has disregarded the struggles of the poor and the circumstances that lead them to take such unendurable decisions.

The Wire report speaks of the challenges that Jyoti faced during her journey, and the aches and fatigue that came after. Sadly, humanity is at the edge of failure if we continue to overlook her pain and only label her journey as ‘a beautiful feat of endurance’.

This event also makes one question on how one conceives of ‘aatmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) today. How can we be self-reliant citizens of a country? Is this the kind of self-sufficiency we talk about where a 15-year-old is forced to travel 1,200 km with no food and money in the time of a pandemic? Does self-reliance mean a withdrawal of support from the government to its citizens?

The Cycling Federation of India has offered cycling trials to Jyoti to possibly recruit her as a trainee at the National Cycling Academy in New Delhi. Jyoti herself has said that though she will try out, her main focus is on getting an education.

Jyoti’s powerful act undoubtedly deserves a lot of appreciation on an individual level. But it also brings up the loopholes in our system and tells us how we fail as humans if we moralise this narrative in light of how ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’.

Gurpreet Kaur is a postgraduate student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar.

Featured image credit: Special arrangement