Vinod Mubayi

As the novel coronavirus started to ravage through India, specific acts of the Modi-Shah regime ruling the country unleashed and intensified other socio-political viruses that are decidedly not novel. In fact, one may claim with confidence that these old viruses have been omnipresent in the minds of the actors, agents, and facilitators of the BJP regime, lurking in the background waiting to be uncovered when opportunity presents itself.

Class and Caste Virus

The class virus permeates all of Indian society; in fact, it is closely allied to the virus of caste that has been present in the Indian social matrix for several thousand years. The senior BJP leaders, many of whom like Modi emerged from the RSS, glorify the supposed “golden age” of Hinduism when the caste nexus was entrenched. Even Modi who, on occasion, likes to boast of his lower class and caste “chaiwallah” status, had no hesitation in literally upending and dismantling the lives of millions upon millions of the lower class (and, very likely, low caste and Dalit) migrant workers in the major cities when he imposed the lockdown with a notice of just four hours on March 23. Whether he was conscious or not of what his orders would imply for the huge number who were left with nowhere to go is besides the point. In either case, his decision displayed a complete unconcern for those low on the socio-economic hierarchy.

The vast underside of Indian urban society that services the cities, such as construction laborers who are often migrants, hawkers and vendors on city streets, workers in small shops and establishments, dhobis, rag pickers, beggars, in fact, the millions who toil in what is known as the informal sector, many of them residents of teeming urban slums and some of them homeless living on the street were suddenly ordered to “social distance”. Apart from the unfortunate choice of words, given the ubiquity of the caste virus historically in Indian society that dictated that even the shadow of a Shudra or a Dalit could pollute a Brahmin, this class of unfortunates were left with no choice except to flee the cities on foot to their native villages, hundreds of miles away in some cases, since long-distance trains and buses were also locked down. Meanwhile, the government responded with alacrity to the “plight” of middle and upper class; special flights were arranged to bring back those stranded overseas and hundreds of luxury buses were made available to return affluent pilgrims in places like Rishikesh to their homes. When the spectacle of thousands of poor people walking on public highways without adequate food or shelter began to be aired in the foreign press, the government abruptly reversed course and began forcing people to stay in the cities, an order that was enforced with characteristic brutality by the police.

In an incisive article in the Economic and Political Weekly Vol 55, Issue 16 of April 18, 2020, Awanish Kumar emphasizes that “It is the lethal combination of the social isolation of oppressed castes and the social nausea of dominant Brahminical castes towards the former that allows public policy to be completely blind to the needs and aspirations of the masses. The lack of interest, communication and knowledge about the challenges of life and work experienced by the socially isolated groups along with active hostility and hatred towards them explains why a complete lockdown is announced without any consideration for the life and income of the poorer sections of the society.” Kumar points out that “In the caste-trained mind, a disease is not carried through germs but by “unclean” human beings. The cleanliness here does not refer to actual physical cleanliness but “ritual purity,” about which the casteists care more than anything else.” The upper caste attitude towards sanitation workers, all Dalits, exemplifies this notion of purity. These workers who perform the hazardous and sometimes life-threatening work of cleaning drains and sewers and polluted wells without protective equipment for minimal pay are the ones who suffer the worst social distancing due to the caste-enforced profession to which they have been socially condemned.

Communal Virus

The communal virus has been carefully nurtured in the laboratories of Hindutva for many decades waiting to be spread at a time and place that will cause greater polarization in society and provide a larger political benefit to the BJP by buttressing Hindu majoritarianism. In late February, BJP cadres, frequently aided by the Delhi police that is under the control of the Central Govt, had mounted a pogrom of Muslim residents of north-east Delhi to punish the community for its spirited opposition to the citizen amendment act and the national register of citizens that had threatened to shred the community’s very existence as Indian citizens. Covid-19 emerged in India while this pogrom was in its final stages. Modi at the time was busy embracing Trump in the “Namaste Trump” jamboree packing a reported million into Ahmedabad’s cricket stadium oblivious to the threat posed by the virus; no wonder Gujarat is now one of the worst virus-affected states.

In the first half of March, a Muslim missionary group, Tablighi Jamaat, held an international meeting with government permission at their center in the Nizamuddin locality of New Delhi.  Some of the participants, including several who had come from abroad, came down with the virus. The meeting ended around the time the lockdown was proclaimed and movement ceased making evacuation of the stricken from the Nizamuddin center difficult. This gave a perfect opportunity to the regime and its sympathizers to pile the communal virus on top of the coronavirus. The news portal Sabrangindia online reported on April 18 that the Muslim community was “singled out by the police and government as being solely responsible for the spread of the virus. Lots of communal news reportage followed with some political leaders and news channels accusing the community of ‘Talibani crime’ and calling them ‘human bombs’, ‘Corona bombs’ and accusing them of spreading ‘Corona Jihad’.”

The communal virus entered the medical establishments too. A news item in the Indian Express newspaper from Gujarat reported that a hospital in Ahmedabad had divided its wards for coronavirus patients on the basis of religion with a separate ward for Muslims and Hindus. When this was denied by the hospital authorities, the newspaper reporter Mitali Saran tweeted: “The doctors don’t know who segregated #covid19 wards by religion. The ministry doesn’t know who segregated the wards by religion. The bureaucracy doesn’t know who segregated the ward by religion. But somehow, the wards are segregated by religion.” As is his wont, Modi remained mostly silent about the communal virus racing through the body politic eventually emerging to utter a few meaningless platitudes about the corona virus not distinguishing its victims by race, religion, caste, or color.

Demonization of Dissent

While the lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic continues in most areas despite its devastating impact on the poor and deprived and the minorities and the failure of the government to implement its own promises of providing sufficient food, another feature of the lockdown has emerged – the intolerance of the government to brook any dissent to its plans or policies or its actions. The filing of an FIR against the news channel The Wire and its editor Siddharth Varadarajan by the UP state government over a factual news story and the fact that a special posse of police was dispatched 700 km to serve this notice on him to appear in court while the lockdown was in place exemplifies how the BJP regimes regard the constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and of the press. Moreover, in another recent instance of minority harassment, Delhi police have booked two students of Jamia Millia in Delhi under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and are looking to book Dr Umar Khalid, earlier of JNU, in the same case on the fanciful charges of promoting violence in the Delhi pogrom two months ago. Notwithstanding the mountains of evidence against BJP politicians of actively stirring hatred and violence against Muslims as well as graphic video evidence of Delhi cops themselves beating Muslims and forcing them to shout Hindutva slogans like Jai Shri Ram in cahoots with BJP goondas, no action whatsoever has been taken against them, instead legal proceedings are taking place against articulate Muslims in the academy who have provided assistance to the survivors of their community.

The month of April also witnessed the jailing of scholar Dr. Anand Teltumbde, ironically on April 14 the birthday of his grandfather-in-law Dr B.R. Ambedkar the father of the Indian Constitution, and writer Gautam Navlakha in the fraudulent Bhima-Koregaon case. The jailing of a 70-year old Teltumbde at a time when the coronavirus is rampant in the prison system displays the brutality of the regime in persecuting and silencing the voices of those activists who have taken up the cause of the Dalits and the oppressed in an eloquent fashion. What is equally deplorable is that the judicial system, notably the Supreme Court, has become a virtual doormat of the executive, meekly doing whatever the government wishes. None of the checks and balances that normally function in a parliamentary democracy seem to be present any more: the executive has a large majority in the parliament and the judiciary has abdicated its role of checking excessive acts of the regime. 

The lockdown exacerbates this situation considerably. The government arrogates to itself the right to issue whatever orders it likes to the nation, all justified by the supposed fight against covid-19, amid the cheers of the majoritarian middle class and the lapdog media. Whether these orders concern acts against minorities or neglect of the needs of the poor it amounts to what Prof. Suhas Palshikar in an important op-ed in the Indian Express newspaper of April 22, calls “a double social distancing – of the majority community from the minority and of the vocal and influential classes from the mass of the poor.” In his view, this distancing has a third dimension of making democracy “marginal, if not nominal.” He conclusion is that in the midst of the lockdown “we are on the verge of being haunted by the three narratives: Minimize democracy, maximize interfaith distance and maintain aloofness from the poor.”

Whether and to what extent this prediction will come to pass also depends on what happens to the economy, currently in dire shape, and if the influential middle class will continue to cheer the regime as its own circumstances deteriorate. This will play out over the next few months as the coronavirus continues to spread.  

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