Ever since life around the globe came to a complete halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the surreal effects of the pandemic on non-health issues are a site of immense importance to unravel the growing regression of public sphere. The propagandist politics and transposition of sovereigns into absolute regimes have revealed a new face of the dying fate of free speech, sharpening of inter-community poles, increasing racial discrimination and livelihood crises around the world. An uncritical adherence to a COVID-19 ‘health-emergency’ protocols must be cautious of the subterranean re-constitution of the social, cultural, political and economic values regressively in favour of the national-states. The reconstitution has vilified political intentionalities of inducing a new normal that undermines the ethos of publicness with an overgrown intolerance to acknowledge really existing questions of livelihood, hunger, social security, regionalities, diversities, etc. The pandemic has opened up a new contour of interaction between human society and institutional power. Prof. Ranciman in one of his latest write ups has pointed out similar concern. He argues that the ‘coronovirus has not suspended politics – it has revealed the nature of power’. Ranciman hints to serious possibilities of State apparatuses occasioning the pandemic as a moment of curtailing liberties in the name of securitising the ‘nations’ where the oppositional critical identity in a Parliamentary democracy gets further eroded. The pandemic has increasingly ghetoised any attempt to reconstitute a new world view beyond the Statist and Liberal capital as being too politically antithetical to official norms and the liberal ‘Last Man’. Thus, the pandemic has made the world walk on a double-edged sword; one, of safeguarding itself from a ‘biological condition’ and; second, to hold on basic democratic foundations like free speech and right to differ.
Histories of pandemics normally produce extra-ordinary spectacle of politics. What is more significant is that it can also unleash several pre-meditated vilifications of established political morality. Regimes can begin to acquire a gigantic proportion of strength compatible to that of a Hobbesian Leviathan which probably is not possible in any history of ‘normal’ peace time.
The vilified intentionalities get shapened in an abnormal time like the present pandemic where historically unresolved socio-economic and cultural poles re-appear in the public sphere. The pandemic has, thus, exposed the inherent weaknesses of the tall claims of democratic constitutionalism and national-States. The juridical and argumentative spaces around the world is tremendously made to be complacent. The complicity becoming an ordinary state of being under the veil of a pandemic has worsened the situation by sweepingly deadening the ordinariness of the public sphere both internally and externally. An emergent collusion between media and State has apparently produced machines of propaganda, animosity and communal binaries. Free press has seemingly hit its lowest resembling as if one has begun to live in moment of an undeclared political emergency. There is a continuing slapping of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, sedition laws and mounting number of defamation suits against those who do not fall in line with the logic of states. In some cases, like “The Wire” web media portal case, the defamation suits and punitive compensations sought by litigants total billions of rupees.
The pandemic has seen a reassertion of discrimination to racial minorities with a highly prejudiced allegation of being the coronavirus carriers. The increasing incidents of racial atrocities on the mongoloid looking people from the Northeast India reposes a deep-seething exclusivity and an impaired idea of India. The troubled racial experience is to continue to haunt as there are no legal provisions in India so far to deal with the issue of racism. More significantly, the mainstream liberal and juridical fraternity as a civil society constituent has hardly taken up the matter of abject racism as a mainstream question. The murder of Nido Tania, an Arunachali student, in 2014 sparked off a strong demand for an anti-racism law in India. Subsequently, the suggestion to reform Indian Penal Codes to address the issue of racial discrimination as suggested by the Bezbaruah Committe, 2014, did not get the expected weightage from the inflated liberal Indian ‘argumentative’ public sphere.
On a similar plank of concern, the propagandic utterances on Tablighi Jamaat gathering as intentional spreading of the virus has only strengthened the machines of communal polarisation. It has overweighed the fragments of mass philanthropy that the world has generated in the wake of the pandemic in the form of everyday co-operation. The help extended to the stranded immigrants or the standing ovation given to a Max Hospital, Delhi, nurse from the Northeast India, who was initially subjected to racial humiliation, on her recovery from the COVID-19 get diminished due to the deeply entrenched madness and polarisation, or when a hospital refuses to admit members from a particular community for any sort of treatment.
The madness requires a structural pathology. For instance, the active racial prejudice and anti-minority psyche reflects an overlaid xenophobic politico-cultural power arrangement of society and politics. The obnoxious psyche of the politically and culturally dominant is historically and structurally abhorrent to just social norms and free-thinking. Perhaps for a reason that free-thinking directly challenges the status-quo of the obnoxious that often act as a dominant mob ideology. Even a satirical and sarcastic tweet in social media can put one in a trouble of being arrested and robbed of one’s being as a character integral to vibrant democratic public sphere. The national-state systems around the world has become a co-partner to such an emergent norm of obnoxious political abhorrence. The danger of the abhorrence is so entrenched that it can subsume everything into nothingness by inducing extra-ordinarinesses of a given situation like the present pandemic. So, the nothingness of being secular, socialistic, non-racial and free-thinking become commonplace. The pandemic has exactly brought in such a critical stage of life and politics which Georgio Agamben calls the ‘state of exception’.
The COVID-19 pandemic veil needs to be unfurled to open societies to a better reading of the pandemic. It is necessary to understand how a pandemic can have serious implications on the autonomy and authenticity the public sphere. The aggravated public sphere needs a deeper examination from within and without. An evident shortfall to mainstream a free-public sphere is also reminiscent of an undercurrent banality of the civil society from within which incapacitates it to evolve into a mass space. The banality of the public sphere could be perhaps for two main reasons; one, due to a higher circulation of a survival threat looming large over everyone which may have de-politicised the significance of societal values; and secondly, the prevalence of a need to essentialise a securitising nationalistic territorial desire amongst the mainstream civil societies has often prioritised an idea of a ‘national government’.
The above two causal conditionalities constitute a darker logic of democracy and principle of exception as Agamben aptly argues it not external even to civil society spaces. As it gets complex, there is a colossal decline of community freedom, constitutional rights and justice delivery. Such a drop-off of the civil society discursively relegates the exceptionalities into irrelevance with a proportion that one has hardly seen anytime before the pandemic. As the official circulations and ‘advisories’ become unilaterally admissible, the pandemic begins to re-define the contours of normative churnings of a historically constituted vibrant public spheres.
The pandemic related official advisories induces a ‘fear’ that in turn makes several issues of basic rights and survival insignificant and normal which resembles a condition that Georgio Agamben calls like a living ‘bare life’. For the ‘bare life’ has a consequential dimension of reducing social values, collective existence, human rights and the discursive public sphere to a mere state of seeking survival. Aptly in the words of Prof. David Ranciman, the voice of political oppositions which were significant in the conventional normal political times become trivialised. Therefore, the growing suspension of the idea public induced by a biological condition should also be understood beyond a mere sense of aberration. It must be read as a growing sign of a really dying democratic public sphere around the world. The presumption of a quarantined state of public sphere as inconsequential for a post-pandemic world could be very critical in the long-run as the institutional monopoly over life and death of citizens reaches a historical point. One has to answer whether apparatuses be given such blanket immunities; even if it is to be in the name of survival and securitisation. Otherwise, the bareness of a sleight of hand causing enormous harm to the public sphere may prove difficult to reclaim even after the pandemic quarantine is over.
The author is an Assistant Prof. at the Department of Political Science, D.M. University, Imphal. He is also the author of two books; Colonialism and Resistance (Routledge, 2016) & 1949: The Story of India’s Takeover of Manipur, (CADM, 2018). He is an Executive Editor, Alternative Perspectives, a quarterly journal.