Hannah Arendt, a persecuted Jew and a political theorist, while reporting for the New Yorker on Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann’s trial argued that Eichmann behaved the way the murderous system asked him to; as a loyal bureaucrat, Eichmann was merely following orders.

Also in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil published 1963, Arendt holds the system accountable, whereas her critics point out that the consciences of those who follow such orders should be held equally accountable.

Revisiting this philosophical debate is imperative to understanding why people behave the way they do—sometimes stupidly, without rational thinking, harming others, being ignorant, anti-science, and going to any extent to justify their behaviour.

The prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a measure to curtail the spread of COVID19 asked citizens to follow a one-day Janta Curfew on Sunday, 22 March 2020. Adopting and repurposing methods of protest from countries including Spain and Brazil, he also asked citizens to ‘stand in their respective balconies’ and clap or clang utensils to show symbolic appreciation for the health workers and staff that are courageously providing their services in these times of distress.

All this sounded wonderful until those WhatsApp forwards and tweets started flowing, to justify and unscientifically explain the PM’s call.

“Virus incubation period is only 14 hours; if we stay indoors the virus can be killed; by clanging the utensils and clapping we are generating the vibrations that will kill the virus; Moon is passing from one star to the other; blow conch shells and play temple bell sounds” and so on.

These messages also requested everyone to participate. They successfully sidelined the symbolic appreciation of essential service providers.

People from across classes, even the PM’s mother obeyed his call. And if the nonsensical messages weren’t enough, after 5 pm that day people were flocking outside their homes on to the streets in a celebratory mood, clanging utensils and gathering en masse. All our distancing efforts became vain.

Why did people behave the way they did? Should we blame them for their behaviour? Should we blame our PM, who knows the people well, for giving a call like this? Well, it wasn’t he who asked people to flock outside the homes—it was people who inferred that they had emerged victorious over the virus by successfully participating in the Janta Curfew.

Why do we lack thinking ability? Why did we fall for shallow words rather than concrete actions?

The argument is often made that a ‘cognitive revolution’ set humans apart from other animals; that the ability to think might be unique to humans. Be that as it may, one animal behaviour visibly lurks within humans: herd mentality and the ability to follow something without thinking. It almost makes our species’ self-assumed name sapiens (wise) an oxymoron.

There is a strong system in place to keep most humans from thinking, because the ‘thinking being’ is a threat to the survival of the establishment and power structure. On the other hand, people also refuse to think because thinking would mean acting in a manner that our conscience would agree is correct—this also means losing one’s privileged positions.

The PM’s call for symbolic appreciation was a well-thought-out establishment plan. It gave the masses the opportunity to involve themselves, making them feel they were also part of a nationwide effort to curtail the virus’ spread, helping them attain a sense of accomplishment. The PM proved yet again that he is the masculinist leader people needed in facing this chaos.

Critical introspection reveals, however, that these are nothing but shallow words and empty gestures for essential service providers. We need to ask what citizens of the Roman Republic knew to ask: Cui bono? Who benefits?

Imagine if our PM had come up with an order or law, that in the coming months all salaried employees, private and government alike, would involuntarily contribute a quarter of their salary to a fund for the care of the ‘informal sector’ employees who constitute 86% of India’s workforce. If he had made the political and business tycoons give a fifth of their estimated (hoarded) wealth to fight this pandemic and improve our systems of public health.

This would surely have meant involving these people in concrete action and giving them a sense of accomplishment. Nevertheless, it would also risk provoking people to ask the following questions:

* Why is our state not ready to face this type of crisis?

* What is the government’s budget allocation for the health sector?

* What is the role of insurance companies in handling this health crisis?

* What is happening to the taxes (direct and indirect) we are paying, and why should we give up part of our salary and hoarded wealth?

* How is the government planning to handle the current situation?

* What concrete plan does the government have to handle a similar situation in future?

* What is the role and contribution of the richest 1% of Indians who control 73% of its wealth?

* How is the state planning to aid fellow informal workers to survive these hard times?

Answering these questions surely means bringing about structural changes in the country, bringing down inequality, debunking the myth of better quality in the private sector, providing a universal basic income to all people, as well as a universal public health system, creating better infrastructure—in short, making all sections of the people part of the democratic process.

This would also mean the ruling class and the rich and powerful would lose their standing ground.

In this way the system creates, maintains, and perpetuates an ideology that will make the people mere followers and non-thinking entities. Ironically, the poor and underprivileged might also follow the trumpeteers’ bandwagon in appreciating themselves as they stand at the head of the line to sacrifice for the privileged.

That is why we witnessed a mass ‘historical movement’ of clapping and clanging utensils, which offers literally nothing.

Also read this history of janta curfews in Gujarat and Kashmir

‘I couldn’t believe how stupid Eichmann was’