India’s (Hindutva’s) Responses: Exacerbate inequalities, punish minorities

Autor: Roger Jeffery

4. Mai 2020

Pandemics highlight existing patterns of social, political and economic divisions, and provide opportunities for some to exacerbate them, and for others to try to mitigate their consequences. For India, in February 2020 the national governing regime -- dominated by the right-wing nationalistic or even fascistic Hindus who operate under the title of Hindutva, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP -- was concerned to control protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), particularly in New Delhi, the national capital. The CAA distinguishes on the basis of religion: if migrants from neighbouring countries can demonstrate that they are Hindus, or at any rate, not Muslim, their claims to Indian citizenship can be allowed, but if they are Muslim they can be detained and deported. Although, in theory, the CAA does not permit the removal of citizenship from Indian Muslims, in practice this is entirely possible. The procedures for proving that one is an Indian citizen are opaque, and subject to the actions of officials in the local state (very rarely Muslim). In combination with the NRC, the floodgates are opened for administrative decisions that can rarely be appealed. The stage is set for large numbers of India’s Muslims to have their citizenship challenged or revoked (making them, of course, ineligible to vote).

The national government has used Covid-19 to close down sites of opposition to its policies, and to attack those most affected by them. Peaceful and democratic protests have already been criminalised, with immunity granted to perpetrators of anti-minority violence and purveyors of hate speech. Riots that raged through north-east Delhi in late February led to at least 52 deaths: three-quarters were Muslim. Thousands of Muslim families were left homeless and destitute. The protestors, along with Muslims more generally, are now also being accused of spreading the virus. Tablighi Jamaat, a global evangelical Muslim organisation, held a gathering in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, from 10-13 March, just before the social distancing and quarantine rules came into operation. Several of those attending developed Covid-19 symptoms: over 2,000 attenders were quarantined. Discussing this unfortunate and unforeseeable ‘hot-spot’ has been rampant within the Indian media. Drawing attention to similar acts by Hindus has been met by police action. An on-line newspaper, The Wire, pointed out that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state, took part in a Hindu religious gathering in Ayodhya on 25 March, after the lockdown was in force. Its editor was served with a police summons accusing him of ‘cheating by impersonation using computer source’, ‘the transmission of obscene material by electronic means’ (presumably a regulation to control pornography), ‘disobedience of an order of a public servant’, and ‘statements conducting public mischief’. None of these have any basis in fact.

The Dainik Jagran, a major north Indian Hindi newspaper, ran a series of stories in April under the by-line of ‘The Muslim Street Veto’, accusing Muslims of a mob mentality so that law and order cannot be maintained: ‘During the Wuhan Coronavirus Pandemic, such open defiance of Indian laws has emerged as a grave threat to the safety and security of the country’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has jumped on the bandwagon of asking people to clap their hands, beat plates and ring bells every Sunday: unconvinced health workers have asked instead for ‘genuine and wholehearted effort in ensuring my wellbeing. I want personal protective equipment. I want better government strategies. I want to have faith in your actions’. Attention has been drawn to the Government’s inability to test 1 million people for the virus, yet it is planning to register 1.3 billion people onto its NRC.

All national, and most of India’s state governments, whatever their political hue, have routinely used police and paramilitary violence to maintain social order. So while Muslims (and to a lesser extent, Christians, people from North-East India with ‘Mongoloid features’ and Dalits, those from ex-Untouchable castes) have been specific targets, the poor generally have also been attacked -- not for anything they are doing wrong, but just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People on the streets -- often legitimately, or because they have nowhere else to go -- are being beaten by policemen with staves, or doused in disinfectant sprays. Non-virus related cumulative deaths due to ‘suicide, due to lock-down, lathi-charge, hunger, during migration etc’ have risen sharply: cumulative deaths from such causes were higher than those due to Covid-19 for several weeks (http://projects.datameet.org/covid19/non-virus-deaths/).

Men caught violating rules about public gatherings in India are forced to crouch inside chalk circles drawn on the ground to show them what mandatory minimum distances looks like amid the country's lockdown.

India does, however, have vibrant civil society organisations. They moved into action as soon as the lockdown was announced (without advance notice) on 25 March. Millions of India’s population are internally migrant, often without ration books or other entitlements to official social support mechanisms. The fallout of the lockdown hit daily wage laborers particularly hard. Thousands of migrant workers tried to leave Delhi, for example, after inter-state borders were closed and public transport was shut. NGOs and social workers have responded to distress messages requesting food supplies from migrant workers and their families. The Delhi state government (re-elected last year, beating the BJP resoundingly) has also been active in supporting these workers, e.g. by providing temporary accommodation in their sports stadiums. Their officials have worked with individual volunteers and NGOs to mobilise networks that have been supplying food supplies to slums and other poor people in shutdown conditions.

What of the public health responses? In many parts of India, the public health system has been poorly funded and badly managed for many years. It is telling that the only Indian state to have made successful anti-Covid-19 programmes is Kerala, where a coalition government led by one of India’s communist parties mobilised public and private health facilities to provide basic medical care and involving the voluntary sector. It moved quickly, learning from a similar viral outbreak in 2018, to implement case isolation and contact-tracing. Schools were shut, gatherings were banned, a stricter and longer quarantine than the national norm was deployed, and a few pious people who still insisted on praying in groups were even arrested. But social support was also wheeled out: for example, those dependent on school midday meals were supplied even when they could not get to school. Tellingly, migrant labourers from other states were included.

Overall, what marks out the response in India has been not only the inadequacy of its public health actions but also how quickly that response has been hi-jacked for right-wing purposes. As The Wire commented on 1 April:

          Although everything in nature is telling us to sober up as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian
          right-wing warriors have chosen to communalise the human tragedy along Hindu-Muslim lines. … The communal
          campaign during an unprecedented lockdown is strictly intended to serve political ends.

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