Prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. Source: Wikipedia Prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. Source: Wikipedia

In Modi’s India, coronavirus crisis is just another reason to ramp up Islamophobia, using it to cover his inept handling of the pandemic, says Kalpana Wilson

At a time when right-wing governments across the world are facing the wrath of their people for failing to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic while using it as a pretext for intensified repression and suspension of civil liberties, Narendra Modi’s government in India has the dubious honour of being responsible for arguably one of the most authoritarian and simultaneously most underprepared lockdowns in the world. This has led to millions of working people facing the spectre of acute hunger, even as Modi and his stormtroopers waste no time in using the virus to further promote the Islamophobic hate and state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence which has been the hallmark of the BJP’s last six years in government.

The experience of the pandemic so far in India has held few surprises for the many on the left who characterise the regime as representing a brand of fascism in which Hindu supremacism and neoliberalism are inextricably intertwined. While land-grab and plunder of resources by both Indian and foreign transnational corporations has been ruthlessly facilitated, healthcare systems and other forms of basic social provision, already weakened by two decades of liberalization, have been completely eviscerated in recent years, leaving the country woefully unprepared to deal with a health crisis on this scale. Modi’s postcolonial fascism contains no trace of economic nationalism or even a façade of anti-imperialist rhetoric – as illustrated most recently in Modi’s indecent haste in capitulating to his ‘dear friend’ Trump’s bullying when the latter threatened retaliation if India refused to export hydroxychloroquine to the US. Meanwhile, as the COVID-19 crisis in India escalated, the government signed a $116m contract with its other closest ally, Israel, to procure 16,000-odd light machine guns.

India’s lockdown began at midnight on 24 March and was declared with a mere four hours notice, inevitably sparking panic buying and large crowds gathering outside shops. More fundamentally, strategies of social distancing and lockdown are incompatible with the conditions in which a large majority of people are compelled to live: inadequate and overcrowded housing and homelessness are endemic in urban areas, while more than 90% are employed in the informal sector, including the urban workers who sustain the cities but depend on their daily wage to survive from one day to the next, and an agrarian population who depend on seasonal work and have no savings to see them through unexpected periods without income. Only a massive state intervention to distribute rations and provide shelter could have made the lockdown socially sustainable: instead, there was no planning beforehand and a complete failure to acknowledge and act upon the crisis once it occurred.

As a result, the first few days of lockdown saw scenes which many compared to the huge forced movement of people of Partition: with buses and trains halted, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and their children took to the roads out of Delhi, Mumbai and other cities and began grueling days-long walks without sustenance to their home villages in far-off states. From factory and construction workers to delivery workers, auto drivers, rickshaw pullers and domestic workers, men and women who became destitute overnight with the announcement of lockdown sought to return to their homes where at least they had family and friends to share food and shelter. Many others have remained behind in cities facing starvation. It is now clear that the government’s approach to the pandemic will itself take a very heavy toll of lives.

The enforcement of the lockdown has been marked by tremendous police and state brutality against migrant workers and other working people, who have been repeatedly beaten up and arrested on the roads. The violence and humiliation they are facing is epitomized by the forcible mass spraying of returning workers with bleach and chemicals in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh. Left activists and other concerned citizens trying to distribute food supplies and otherwise provide assistance to the families made destitute by the lockdown have also been assaulted and arrested by the police (particularly in BJP-ruled states) and by Hindu supremacist thugs. Whilst a belated and starkly inadequate relief package has been announced, these households are still mainly dependent on these popular solidarity initiatives in order to survive. Some of the survivors of the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi barely a month ago are among those now donating whatever little they can.

Legally, Modi’s lockdown is based on the draconian British colonial Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, which was notoriously used to imprison anti-colonial activists critical of the British response to the bubonic plague so it is not surprising that it is now being used to gag media coverage of COVID-19 (link). Ironically, this has been in the name of stopping the spread of fake news – but a series of mass actions announced by the government have contributed hugely to dangerous superstitious rumours about how to combat the disease. Modi’s call for banging of pots and pans during a day-long ‘people’s curfew’ on 22 March ostensibly in support of health workers – led to packed processions, some led by BJP politicians and local officials, making a mockery of social distancing while claiming to ‘drive out’ the virus. Last Sunday people were told to switch off lights and light candles and lamps, leading to a ‘mini-Diwali’ of fireworks and bonfires in which one BJP leader claimed she could not resist firing her shotgun!

At a local level, the lockdown has emboldened powerful, upper-caste Hindutva supporters as the police use it to selectively harass the poor and immobilize left activists. For example, in Bhojpur in Bihar, a centre of struggles between the landless Dalit and Muslim poor, who are with the CPI(ML) and the right-wing upper-caste landowners, Sunday’s lamp-lighting exercise was marked by landlords sexually assaulting Musahar Dalit women and beating up youth who resisted. In Champaran, also in Bihar, bonfires were used as a pretext for burning the huts of poor villagers who were engaged in a struggle over land with powerful landowners.

The Modi government’s main preoccupation from the start of the crisis has been weaponising the virus as part of its core agenda of mobilizing religious and caste-based hate and violence which is so central to the fascist project. Initially, the focus was on China as the ‘source’ of the virus, which along with its other neighbour Pakistan is cast as India’s chief enemy in Hindu supremacist discourse. This led to a series of racist attacks against Indian citizens from the Northeastern states. More recently, the emphasis has reverted with a vengeance to the core agenda of demonizing and persecuting India’s Muslim minority. An international religious gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat on 14-16 March, following which several participants were found to have symptoms, has become the pretext for a virulently Islamophobic campaign branding Muslims ‘spreaders’ of the virus, no matter that in the same period (which was before social distancing was enforced) several large-scale Hindu religious gatherings, as well as official events, were held. This has already resulted in atrocities including a Muslim woman being denied medical care in childbirth leading to her baby’s death, Muslims being socially boycotted and driven from their homes, and a BJP MP calling for attendees of the event not seeking treatment to be shot. Many fear it may be creating the conditions for genocidal violence of the kind seen in Gujarat in 2002.

The political juncture at which India faces the COVID-19 pandemic is defined by the previous seven months. This period began with the revoking of Article 370, an intensification of India’s decades-long occupation of Kashmir which enables a shift to Israeli-style settler colonialism, and an internet shutdown which still partially continues, denying the people of Kashmir access to life-saving information and communications during the pandemic. It continued with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act which, in combination with the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, effectively excludes Muslims from citizenship, undermining the basic principle of equality in India’s Constitution. But the CAA- NRC-NPR, which is seen as a massive step towards ethnic cleansing, generated an unprecedented movement of resistance, at the heart of which was the iconic sit-in protest by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, which was replicated at hundreds of ‘Shaheen Baghs’ nationwide. Even the orchestrated attacks on Muslims in Delhi in late February which left 54 people dead and over 10,000 homeless were unable to extinguish these protests, which drew support and solidarity from a very broad range of progressive movements across the country. In this context, the pandemic has been an opportunity for a beleaguered Modi government to both shift the focus and intensify repression. One of the first actions of the police on the day lockdown was imposed was to physically obliterate the Shaheen Bagh protest site, destroying the many vibrant artworks which had adorned it, and arresting the handful of activists who remained at the site (the protestors having already decided to maintain only a symbolic presence in line with social distancing). Yet in India as elsewhere, it has also made what is at stake globally clearer than ever: as a recent editorial in the Indian left monthly Liberation describes it, ‘the choice between the well-being of the people and the profit-hungry ways of global capital, between humanity and racism, between life and death’.

South Asia Solidarity Group is organising an online concert to fundraise for migrant workers in India later this month. For details follow South Asia Solidarity Group on Facebook, southasiasolidaritygroup on Instagram, and @SAsiaSolidarity on Twitter

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