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Term "social distancing" should not be used due to tradition of untouchability in India: Lawyer writes letter to Supreme Court judges

Shruti Mahajan

A letter petition has been sent to judges of the Supreme Court pointing out that use of the term "social distancing" during the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate the deep-rooted practice of untouchability in India.

As an alternative, the plea has prayed that "social distancing" be replaced by other terms such as "physical distancing" or "safe distancing".

The letter has been penned by a Hyderabad-based lawyer, Dr B Karthik Navayan. He claims that the expression "social distancing" has a stigma attached to it, and should not be used while advising people to observe safe distance from each other for prevention of the spread of COVID-19.

The stigma, he says, emanates from the prejudice propelled by the old tradition of untouchability practised in India. India is a "caste based society with graded inequalities", the letter says, pointing out that for years together, members of the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Schedules Tribe (ST) communities were considered "untouchables".

With "social distancing" being promoted by the Centre for containing the spread of Coronavirus, some people have begun advocating caste-based untouchability under the guise of of social distancing, the letter states.

"They are advocating caste discriminatory untouchability and taking pride in their non-scheduled caste status that they are not untouchables. Scheduled castes were considered as untouchables that's why the constitution of India with article 17 has prohibited the practice of untouchability."
Letter petition sent to Supreme Court judges

The letter cites a written by a Telugu lyricist, in which the author urges his fellow "non-scheduled" people to take pride in their caste status "and asked the non-scheduled castes to live proudly as the entire world is accepting their practices to save people from Coronavirus." The same is discriminatory against the members of the SCs and STs, the letter states.

Navayan's letter also cites an example of a Non-Resident Indian woman taking to Twitter to say that the practice of untouchability is being used the world over to prevent contraction of a deadly contagion.

It is Narayan's case that the government's advisory using the term "social distancing" may have given scope to people like these to promote untouchability.

"This kind of advocating of practice of caste based untouchability will lead to the caste prejudices against the Scheduled castes and scheduled tribes... the attempts of some of the non- scheduled castes and non-scheduled tribes are justifying the untouchability practises on the name of “Social Distancing”. They are linking “Social Distancing” with the untouchability..."
Letter petition sent to Supreme Court judges

It is pointed out in the letter that the World Health Organization (WHO) had begun using the term "physical distancing" instead of "social distancing", and was lauded for the same. Maintenance of certain physical distance is proven scientifically to prevent spread of the contagion whereas practices like untouchability have no scientific basis or reasoning, the letter states.

Therefore, it is prayed that a direction be issued to the government and media in India to refrain from using the term "social distancing".

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