National Lockdown: A State of Exception

Arup Kumar Sen

In his seminal book, State of Exception (The University of Chicago Press, 2005), Giorgio Agamben observed that “the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics”. The immediate biopolitical significance of the state of exception lies in the fact that “law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension”.

In an unprecedented move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a national lockdown on March 24, 2020, for the next 21 days all across the country, to address the threat of spread of the novel coronavirus. This has had a disastrous effect on migrant workers and those who derive their livelihoods from informal sectors in the economy.

Very recently, Alakh Alok Srivastava and Rashmi Bansal filed separate petitions in the Supreme Court seeking directions to the government to immediately address the “heart-wrenching and inhuman plight of thousands of migrant workers” walking back to their native villages from the cities without basic essentials in the wake of the lockdown.

In the hearing of the petitions on March 30, 2020, the Supreme Court Bench of Chief Justice S. A Bobde and L. Nageswara Rao sought a report from the government on steps taken about the large scale inter-state movement of migrant workers. Reportedly, “CJI Bobde makes it clear that the court does not want to create a state of confusion by passing any direction at this point of time while the government is on the job”. (The Hindu, March 30, 2020)

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, representing the government, justified the 21-day lockdown and said: “We are facing an unprecedented situation. There is a need for unprecedented orders”. Reportedly, on the second day of hearing, the Supreme Court “expressed its satisfaction with the government measures”. (The Hindu, March 31, 2020)

Meanwhile, questions have been asked about the constitutional validity of the national lockdown. To put it in the words of Sanjoy Ghose:

While four days’ lead time was given for the Janata Curfew, barely four hours’ time was given to the crores of Indians to arrange their lives and livelihoods in an orderly manner. The chaotic aftermath of the national lockdown has been evidenced by heartwrenching scenes at railway stations, inter-state bus terminals, state borders, labour markets etc. where scores of people have been subjected to a period of enforced unemployment while being marooned far away from the sanctuary of their homes…Again, returning to the fundamental issue – without a declaration of emergency and, therefore, with the right to movement and the right to livelihood still in operation, is a “lock-down” constitutionally valid? (See The Wire, March 28, 2020)

There is no doubt in our mind that the paradigm of “State of Exception” is very much evident in post-lockdown India.

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Apr 11, 2020

Arup Sen

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