Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago. The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.
On 20 December 2019 – ten days into protests across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – Chandrashekhar Azad tweeted that he would be at a rally at the Jama Masjid (the biggest mosque in Delhi). Azad is the leader of the Bhim Army, a Dalit resistance movement. The police arrested him ahead of the demonstration but he escaped, slipping away into the winding lanes of the old city. The police withdrew permission for the gathering and invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibits the ‘unlawful assembly’ of four or more people. But thousands were already on their way to the mosque, many travelling from the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The evening prayers began, as people gathered at the mosque steps. Police and media surrounded them. After prayer, the crowd turned to face the cameras, slowly unfurling their signs and flags. From somewhere in their midst, Azad emerged, holding up a copy of the Indian constitution.