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GN Devy on the evils of ‘social distancing’

The scholar, linguist and social activist speaks about his discontent with the key term in the battle against covid-19

Ganesh Devy, chief editor of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ganesh Devy, chief editor of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

On 19 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a video on social media urging the nation to stay safe and united during the coronavirus pandemic. “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking," he said. “Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together."

With the growing outrage against the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi last month, which is said to have resulted in 30% of the infections in the country, it was necessary to reinforce this point about non-discrimination—especially since a section of people had begun to communalize the issue of public health and safety. Already, businesses owned by the minority community were under attack. The concept of social distancing, necessary to prevent contagion, was invoked in pernicious contexts, with calls to boycott businesses run by Muslims. None of these reactions was surprising though.

In a nation that has for centuries embraced, even internalized, the concept of “social distancing" through the caste system, seemingly harmless terms can dovetail into emotional cruelty. “Does social distancing come naturally to someone raised within a broadly Brahminical society?" columnist Mukul Kesavan asked earlier this week. “Do routines of purity and pollution—unlearnt by desis as they learn modernity—lurk below surface decorum like apps waiting to be launched?" In a society where service staff, such as drivers and maids, are denied basic dignity and respect by some of the so-called elite, such a theory seems valid.

Social scientists have already objected to the phrase “social distancing" and suggested alternatives that are more sensitive: “physical distancing" being one. This week, scholar G.N. Devy, known for his pioneering archival work on the diversity of Indian languages, wrote to Modi asking him to ban the term from official usage.

“The concept of untouchability that operated under the caste system exercised social distance from particular communities," Devy’s letter said. “The practice is a disgrace not just for our country but a blot for the entire humanity." He cited examples from history, of M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar fighting against the “pandemic of untouchability", to make a compelling case for the removal of the term.

In an interview with Lounge, Devy explained how language can shift social behaviour and attitudes, and why we must be more mindful of the power of words. Edited excerpts:

Could you tell us more about your discomfort with the phrase ‘social distancing’? Did it strike you from the start as the term began to be invoked in everyday parlance and officialese across the country?

The distance required for minimizing the spread of the virus is “physical distance" or “safe distance". On the other hand, “social distance" is a term that was used during the colonial times when we had regulations prohibiting the English administrators from “mixing with the natives". It was also used in South Africa during the apartheid era. The railway official who asked Gandhi to get out of the first-class compartment of a train in South Africa was observing the “social distance" regulation.

There is a vast difference between the meaning of “physical distance" and “social distance". I was, am and will be uncomfortable with the expression “social distance" in any society and in any era.

Can you outline the historical provenance of this phrase and how it became loaded with negative connotations in the Indian context?

In India, since the times of Manusmriti, contact between the self-proclaimed “higher caste" and the unfairly branded “lower caste" was prevented by turning it into a taboo, a “sin". The principal instrument employed for the inhuman and discriminatory practice was “social distancing". It involved not sharing food, goods, space, rituals, gods, icons, habitats and blood between the so-called “higher caste" and the socially distanced “other castes".

In our history, a number of thinkers and saints had to spend their lives to fight this evil practice. They include Basaveshwar, Kabir, Mira, Tukaram, Narayan Guru, Mahatma Gandhi, Periyar, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Do we want to reverse that history by introducing “social distancing" as a legitimate social practice now?

Do you think the way people use language can influence social attitudes, and vice versa?

Yes. For instance, when we use the term “love marriage", it makes people think of a desirable social event. But when we describe the same event by using the term “love jihad", it is invitation for hatred. When we say “forced divorce", it evokes sadness and compassion for the victim. But when we use the term “ghar wapasi" for the same event, it encourages people to celebrate the event as a social triumph. Language is the foundation of perception and cognition. Therefore, the terms we use in our social discourse keep impacting how we relate to facts and events in life.

What do you propose as alternatives to the term? Do you think this notion can be adequately conveyed in (non-English) Indian languages without reinforcing the prejudices of purity and pollution?

I propose “safe distance", “hygienic distance", “physical distance", “desirable distance", “required distance", “necessary distance", “correct distance", “virus preventive distance"—many alternative expressions can be coined. In Indian languages (like Hindi), “surakshit antar", “zaruri duri" can suffice.

Do you think the “social distancing" people are meant to follow in order to avoid contagion can have a real impact on the relationship between classes and castes in contemporary India?

The (covid-19 pandemic) has created a huge economic crisis. Ultimately, the burden of the crisis will be carried by the persons who are at the (bottom) of the economic ladder. An unprecedented level of unemployment is a foregone conclusion. The ones who will be on the front line of job loss will be the “easily removable", the most vulnerable, the least protected by law and security provisions. The general atmosphere of “fear of touch"—asparshyata—will gain very soon an additional semantic layer of “fear of economic competition" and will turn into asprushyata.

Our Constitution is against the idea of untouchability and caste discrimination. But if you notice, the “online" new world is already leaving out the digitally deprived classes from transactions related to knowledge, information and economic activity. The judiciary, even at the best of times, would not have been able to defend the constitutional rights of the “left out" (the asparshit). All of us know that the judiciary is not in the best of its times today. If the government promotes “social distancing", if the economy drives the “distanced classes" out, if the judiciary fails to protect their constitutional rights, where will Indian society be?

These are my worries today. We need to fight the coronavirus. We must all do it together, without dividing our society in terms of class, caste and creed. Therefore, we must also fight any and every divisive tendency.

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