As the COVID19 cases, lockdown and curfew extend, strains have started showing in the social domain of Punjab. This is visible in many forms which range from shunning the otherwise much sought after NRIs (non-resident Indians) to a hate campaign against Muslims in some parts, to routine social life in the villages. The phenomenon is visible at multiple levels.

It is a known fact that Punjabis have aspired to send their wards to the western countries for several years now, and a visit by an NRI to his native village is often flaunted as an event of pride. But ever since the Corona scare, things have changed quite dramatically.

It all began with the death of Baldev Singh, a preacher from Pathlawa village in Nawanshahr who returned from a trip to Germany and Italy and tested positive for COVID19. His death sparked off a perception that NRIs were responsible for bringing the disease into the state. This was further compounded when a song entitled ‘Gurbaksh’ sung by Sidhu Moosewala that holds NRIs responsible for the Corona spread was utilised by Punjab Police in its awareness drive on the pandemic. It was later removed from the force’s Twitter handle after people protested.

Although Baldev Singh died on March 18, the ostracisation of NRIs continues in the villages. “People are just keeping away from families where there are NRIs. Earlier they used to interact freely which has stopped for now,” disclosed Kiran, an activist based in Jhaner village of Mansa district. The government had stated some weeks back that more than 94,000 NRIs had come to the state in the last three months.

Professor Manjit Singh who is an expert in sociology has an interesting take on the issue, “This happens when you scare people instead of making them aware of things. The government instead of confronting the problem resorted to the escapist route of a sudden lockdown. This has led to people thinking that everyone is an enemy.”

He further said, “We have lakhs of families who have sent their children abroad after incurring heavy debts. Today all these families want their children to be near them. At the same time society at large has adopted a negative attitude towards the community.”

Then there are reports of unrest over the cremation of those dying from COVID19. The biggest example was that of locals not permitting the funeral of spiritual singer Raagi Nirmal Singh at the Verka cremation grounds in Amritsar. Reports say that the Shiromnai Ragi Sabha decided not to go to any of the houses in Verka village for having disrespected the Hazoori Raaji who was a Padma awardee and dedicated his life to the spiritual cause.

In some cases family members have reportedly refused to take custody of the deceased and cremate them. It is being left to the administration and social activists to do so.

Sources say that in certain cremation grounds separate areas are being marked for the pyres of those who die from COVID19. “Isn’t it apartheid of a separate kind when people are not allowed to be cremated on common pyres?” an observer asked.

Sources further pointed out that the nakas or pickets set up by villagers to ensure that no outsider enters the village limits are creating problems of a different kind. “In many such places it is the unemployed youth manning these nakas. Many of them are substance users. There have been instances of these youngsters entering into verbal as well as physical tiffs with the commoners. There have also been instances of hostilities following someone manning a naka making vulgar comments about women accompanying the villagers,” sources in the Malwa region of the state told this reporter.

“These nakas are proving to be counterproductive across the rural stretch. The Corona virus is not a physically visible animal that can be stopped by stick wielding vigilantes. This is again an outcome of the lack of awareness,” said Manjit Singh.

The worst outcome has been the efforts to communalise the COVID19 outbreak. As reported earlier, Muslim Gujjars being threatened, abused and assaulted in the Hindu dominated villages of Doaba region that border Himachal Pradesh. These people from a minority community are also being threatened with an economic boycott. “They are telling us to sell our milk produce for Rs 5 and Rs 10 per kilogram which they will obviously sell further for Rs 50 to Rs 60. If we sell it at such a low price what will we feed the buffaloes and how will we feed ourselves?” said a woman from the community.

The Punjab government has made it clear that this campaign will not be tolerated. Special chief secretary KBS Sidhu tweeted, “Punjab villagers reported to be refusing to buy milk from Muslim Gujjars. Punjab CM @capt_amarinderdirects the DCs to resolve the issue. “While we shall not interfere in the economic decisions of the people, social ostracizing shall not be permitted”.”

“The people getting swayed by this hate campaign do not understand that everyone’s survival depends on interdependence. These are the people who along with supplying milk and milk products also help in harvesting crops. We share so many things,” social activist Dharminder Kumar of Haji Mukerian village pointed out.

Another interesting phenomenon shared by a source pertains to unrest among the inmates of certain hospitals. Out of sheer frustration some patients, mainly those with psychological problems, resort to spitting on the walls. While attempts are being made to give this a communal colour, following fake news spread against Muslims on television and the social media, the state authorities have been successful in quelling the spread of such false narratives.

Kiran also disclosed that in rural areas there are squabbles over taking credit for the distribution of rations. “The initiatives taken by local clubs saw the involvement of panchayats and subsequently some small-time politicians. There are regular squabbles over taking credit for the initiatives.”

She further said that while strains have emerged at some levels, the people at large are trying to help each other out in these times of distress. The majority is trying its best in the villages to keep the social fabric intact.