Social connect in times of Social Distancing

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COVID-19 and Rural India

At a time when social media and some of the mainstream ones are spreading messages of communal hatred, stories of humanity are emerging from various parts of the country. Here is one such story from a small town in Satara in Maharashtra. Its roots go back to centuries.

Rajendra Shende

Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, former Director UNEP, IIT Alumnus

The annual travel scamper in China, known as chunyun, is the largest annual human migration in the world. It all began on a huge scale in the late 1970s when China’s economy had opened to the outside world. The special economic zones and cities in China needed the human capital to run its machines in manufacturing hubs. That capital was provided in plenty by China’s rural villages. The laborers came from villages leaving behind their families.

Coinciding with the Chinese Lunar New Year, called nongli nian, the Chunyun sees a massive rush of hundreds of millions of people working in the major cities in China towards their villages in the countryside to enjoy the new year’s festivity with their families. It has now estimated to be nearly 30 billion trips per Chun Yun. Images of train stations during the new year holidays in China are as terrifying as the banks of the Ganges river during ‘Kumbha Mela’ -a holy Hindu festival that comes once in 12 years.

The world was equally stunned recently to view the images from India of thousands of workers from cities traveling to their village-homes after a nationwide lockdown imposed by the government of India. While Chinese migration during holidays is always well planned, the Indian migration due to lockdown was sudden and unexpected. The workers migrating to their homes in villages was due to the closed factories and stoppage of service industries. The workers did not have the means to survive because they were daily wage earners.

This time Chunyun came earlier than the lockdown announced by the Chinese government. But Chinese migrants carrying the virus with them on their annual break this year was unexpected. News about the fast migrating new Coronavirus hit the migrating population of Chinese on holiday as a bolt from the blue. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says chunyun is one of the reasons for the fast spread of the virus outside Wuhan where it was first detected.

The migrant workers in India rushing to their villages after the lockdown was also feared to have affected the spread of the virus. Measures to deal with COVID19, like a lockdown and social distancing, have been extreme pain points for India as well as China. Daily wage earners from India who have little or no savings at all began their travel mainly on foot as buses, trains, and air were all halted. The hundreds and thousands of workers migrating from metros to villages on empty highways became the scenes of misery never seen before.

Paradoxically, there have been hidden and massive benefits from the lockdown like improvement in the air quality due to near-zero transport, reduction in carbon emissions like never before, mainly due to the significant slowing down of the industrial activity and fossil fuel use.

‘India’s future lies in the villages’ is what Mahatma Gandhi famously said. COVID19 proved to be a small pilot activity towards this belief. Though it sounds a bit strange and feels like a derivative of vicarious pleasure but Mahatma would have been pleased to see that in wake of the global crisis the masses are heading for villages. Late Dr. Abdul Kalam, India’s former President was keen that rural India become the center of India’s development. He believed that the foundation of sustainable development exists in villages but there was a need to bring in rural areas the infrastructure that is available to urbanites.

The Chinese People’s Party also recently unveiled massive plans to make Chinese youth remain in the villages through a number of incentives. Many Chinese going back to their villages during chunyun have known to make plans to migrate permanently to villages. Chairman Mao the initiator of a cultural revolution in the 1970s that forcefully brought elite and privileged youth from cities to the farmers and workers in the villages as part of the Cultural revolution would have been pleased!

Villages, neither China nor India, have shown any strong spread of COVID19. The virus has remained mainly constrained to urban clusters, cities, and big towns. Cities have shown their divisive tendencies, careless attitudes, and dogmatic behavior. Elite media whose reporters are mainly in megacities, amplified these urban stories, often along the religious and political fault lines.

Villages, on contrary, have remained true to their root-culture, cautiously welcoming their migrant-brothers and carefully assimilating them in the daily life. The religious conflicts, economic inequality and power struggles-typical of urban shades-were kept aside and even buried. Opportunity to witness social harmony and traditional culture in the villages is yet another benefit from COVID19.

A short story of the small town of Rahimatpur in Satara district is worth telling in this context of COVID19. It stands out as compared to urban stories that are tainted and literally made ‘viral’ to gain TRP.

Rahimatpur is a town of nearly 20,000 people not far from River Krishna that originates from Mahabaleshwar in Western Ghats of India. Till early 17th century it was called village Kumathe, known for Kumbheshwar temple. Vijapur’s King Adil Shah deputed his one of the army commandants, Ranadulla Khan, to establish the well-developed and structured town there. Village Kumathe then became Rahimatpur. The name change was to please King Adil Shah.

Having established the town, Ranadulla Khan, curiously, became a staunch devotee of a sage residing in nearby Hindu temple at Brahmapuri, the banks of Krishna. He then decided to spend rest of his life in and around Rahimatpur. Broad minded, matured and spiritual disciple of a sage, Ranadulla Khan allowed scores of Hindu temples as well as a mosque to flourish around Rahimatpur where Hindus and Muslims have stayed together in peace since then. Randullla Khan, later, requested King Adil Shah to relieve him from his duty and allow him to settle in Rahimatpur and spend time in spiritual activity and to promote harmony with people as preached by his guru.

Except for the short period during which the army of Afzal Khan, who later was ambushed and killed during the hug by Shivaji, in later part of the 17th century, went on rampage to damage temples, the Hindus and Muslims lived in the harmony in and around Rahimatpur till this date without any untoward instance and in total oblivious of the religious drift in the country.

In late 19th century a bigger temple of Shri Ram was built by Pandit Ganagadhar Shende on the banks of a rivulet and tributary of Krishna called Kamadalu that wades through Rahimatpur. It was just the opposite to the

mosque on the other bank of Kamandalu. The bridge between the temple and the mosque built by the British is the example of the ‘Ram-Rahim’ link.

In early 20th century, when India was struggling for independence, Jainism arrived in Rahimatpur and a well-constructed Jain temple with 24 paintings of Shwetambar Jainism disciples became a distinct identification, not far from the mosque and a Ram temple.

Many key personalities born in the small town of Rahimatpur later added to the legacy of harmony. V.G Paranjapye, a scholar of the French and Sanskrit, who had obtained Doctorate in Literature from University of Sorbonne in Paris, established an education society in Rahimatpur and dedicated his work for the cultural development of the village. His son V.V. Paranjape went to Beijing to study Chinese and later became India’s Ambassador to China in 1955. A well-known Marathi author V. S. Kanitkar, who scripted a drama on Shivaji who fought against Moguls became famous all over Maharashtra. It was popular among the Muslims in Rahimatpur who thronged to see the drama.

The bond between the two communities has continued even in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Following the closure of the mosque for all the activities including prayers, the Jain ( another religion in India) community launched a daily food-aid for the poor and marginalised persons of all communities in Rahimatpur. The town council identified the poor and needy families and requested them to take the benefit for their daily need of food. The doctors in the town went from house to house in the lanes and muhalla to check for possible infections and give advice and free medicine to all.

On April 2, in middle of the lockdown, on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, that marked the birth of Lord Ram volunteers from Jain Service Centre joined hands with the Shende family that runs the Ram temple to distribute sugar packets and sweets for the poor and needy families. The social and religious gatherings were prohibited on that day and hence Ram temple remained closed except for the morning ritual that too by one priest. Maratha, Jain, Brahmin, Muslim and other volunteers from all strata of Rahimatpur joined the hands to distribute the sugar and sweets to all who were standing in the queue keeping social distancing in the mind. They went to Mohallas near masjid to distribute the ‘prasad’(sacred sweet) of Ram Navami.

The COVID19 brought back the spirit of Ranadulla Khan, preachings of the Hindu sage in the temple of Brahmapuri and teachings of the Jainism. That legacy of harmony reappeared on Ram Navami in Rahimatpur.

Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of modern India that lives in the villages and Chairman Mao’s movement of learning from the villagers were evident in this small story of mega message.

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