Parts of Delhi have been sealed. Others will open up slowly, as the lockdown continues in its second phase. But it will move into a lower gear soon with some services resumed and some mobility restored. How will the citizens of Delhi respond as this unfolds? Will there be a replay of some of the misanthropic acts that marred Delhi's image in the days before the lockdown or will it be a more encouraging story?
A quick recap of the lockdown media reports preceding and just following the first lockdown and into the second one reveals distressing stories of doctors, nurses, lab technicians and airline crew being turned away from their rented accommodations, heart-rending visuals of migrant workers and their families trudging many long miles on foot because their employers and landlords turned them out and appallingly xenophobic assaults on people from the Northeast.
Those were the shameful pictures of a warped urban conscience that emerged in those days. While sporadic incidents also occurred in other cities, Delhi reported each of these types of inhumane behaviour in shocking synchrony of misanthropic misconduct.
Health care providers being denied entry into their residential accommodation is mindless stupidity apart from the meanness of the act. Don't the landlords or neighbours who deny entry into the colonies or homes realise that these are the persons they have to turn to for care when someone in their family has to deliver a baby, get a child vaccinated, seek lifesaving treatment for a heart attack, get serious trauma repaired after a road accident or get any other kind of medical attention and care?
Ironically, returning family members from Covid-19-affected countries were warmly welcomed but those who strive selflessly to save lives were treated as a threat to health when they returned from a neighbourhood hospital.
The airline crew members who ran relief missions to bring back Indians stranded in Covid-19-affected countries were denied entry into their homes by the self-appointed guardians of their colony's health. What if one of their loved ones was trapped in a foreign country? It should not even require an element of self-interest to appreciate the dedication of those who undertook humanitarian missions. Common decency will do.
The plight of the migrants was far worse. Their eviction from their homes and shelters was an inhuman act of heartless cruelty, at a time when they had lost work and wages. Their trek on foot, seeking safety and social support in a faraway home, was a sight that tore into the conscience of any sensitive viewer who saw the pictures. The stoicism of these poor people was saintly in comparison to the churlish conduct of those who tossed them out when solidarity was most needed.
The cruelty of some police personnel berating and beating them, as they wended their weary way to a distant destination, was shocking. It was a malevolent abuse of police power directed at the homeless and helpless who were also guiltless. When they return, they should not be treated as virus carriers as they are coming back from a low-exposure zone to a high-exposure zone.
The xenophobia against anyone who looked Chinese was not only a display of ignorance about India's geography and diverse population profile but also a criminal act of discrimination. Physical assaults against such persons amplify the criminality but even racist verbal abuse is culpable.
I was dismayed by the fact that bystanders did not intervene, though some of them recorded and posted the shameful episodes on social media, for the rest of us to watch with mounting revulsion. Discrimination and recrimination against fellow Indians, based on ethnicity, social class or religion must be cast away when the need of the hour is unity.
What had happened to the capital of India? Dilli, tumhara dil kahan gaya tha? (Delhi, where has your heart gone?) This is a city where many families which relocated from Pakistan after Partition found new homes and opportunities to rebuild their lives. They were then received with care and compassion. Has there been a generational change since then? Or is it that this city bade goodbye to humane conduct in 1984 when rioting mobs savagely set upon innocent Sikhs?
Why is it that those who live in houses built by the poor offered no shelter to them when they were trapped by a lockdown? Have the middle and upper classes of Delhi socially distanced themselves from the poor to such an extent that empathy has been extinguished?
No. I would like to believe that these acts were aberrations. Many who live in Delhi were distraught at these incidents which brought shame to the city. The Sikh community repeatedly came forward with laudable acts of social solidarity and provided admirably egalitarian support to the poor and vulnerable. Other citizens spoke up in public to decry the abhorrent acts. The media reported the incidents prominently and conveyed the collective outrage of decent citizens.
The central and state government authorities set about the task of protecting health care providers, relocating migrants to shelters and warning louts against xenophobic acts. They also initiated disciplinary action against errant police personnel. Can we hope that by the end of the lockdown, Delhi will have rediscovered its soul? Even if it has a limited statehood status, it must become the capital of social solidarity.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustantimes.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.