For nine minutes beginning 9 p.m Sunday night, the wondrous people of India lit diyas and candles, their flames flickering with the glow of hope. In those nine minutes, reason and human will were singed, as moths are by light. In those nine minutes, the nation participated in the world’s biggest puppet show, at the end of which we celebrated by bursting crackers.
In those nine minutes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged as the world’s nonpareil puppeteer—and we his puppets, including even those who did not turn off the lights in their houses, but stepped out nevertheless, only to see how many were willing to do his bidding.
This is what is called fatal attraction, which is coded in the genetic makeup of moths. Fatal attraction works in human beings a little differently, requiring as it does a charismatic leader, who promises to free his or her followers from their fear of the future and make the present bearable.
Fatal attraction also defined the relationship between the Tablighi Jamaat followers, who were inside its headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin West Colony, and its leader, Maulana Saad Kandhalwi. He offered them the protection of 70,000 angels from the death-virus, or COVID-19, and they believed him.
Do not get it wrong: Modi never explicitly offered the nation deliverance from death, or even from the fear of it.
When he released his video on April 3, appealing to us to light a candle or diya on April 5, he said he wanted us to “experience the greatness, majesty and divinity” of the collective strength of India’s 130 crore people. He added, “We must end the darkness and uncertainty emanating from the [COVID-19] crisis, by progressing towards light and certainty.”
Modi explained to us the reason behind his strange request: “In that light, in that lustre, in that radiance, let us resolve in our minds that we are not alone, that no one is alone. 130 crore Indians are committed, through a common resolve!”
Modi’s is an endeavour to create the solidarity of people, and sublimating the individual’s experience of his or her suffering, brought upon by COVID-19, into that of the larger collectivity, the nation. His or her sorrow and umpteen inconveniences have been assigned the larger purpose of serving the nation, of participating in its battle against COVID-19. This is Modi’s offer of deliverance to the nation that is frightened, shackled, and helpless.
His offer will likely silence those on whom the burden of the 21-day lockdown fell disproportionately. Think of migrant workers who marched from cities to villages, or healthcare workers deputed on the frontline to check the novel coronavirus from spreading.
Their plight raises the question: was the Modi government caught napping at the wheel, too distracted by games of power to tackle the looming COVID-19 challenge? The lighting of candles on the night of April 5, was designed to turn away people from focussing on their woes in the present—and his misgovernance.
COVID-19 has plunged India into darkness and uncertainty; we can only progress to light and certainty through our collective resolve, or so Modi suggested on April 3. The candle or the diya is the symbol of the collective resolve. It will bring to heel the coronavirus. Modi said as much by translating a shloka: “Meaning, there is no greater force in the world than our passion and spirit. That there is nothing in the world that we cannot achieve on the basis of this strength.”
In his April 3 speech, Modi did not disclose what other methods his government was mulling to check COVID-19—for instance, detailing the steps taken to augment the supply of PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment, or whether India plans to increase testing. The only panacea for the individual in these torrid times of COVID-19 lies in enhancing the “passion and spirit” of the nation, and becoming part of it.
This is more or less what religious and cult leaders offer. The Tablighi Jamaat, too, seeks to unite the faithful for engendering a collective passion and spirit for their idea of Islam. According to the Jamaat, the woes of Muslims are not because they are trapped in an unequal social structure, or are lacking in scientific temper; it is because they have deviated from the straight path, as defined by the Jamaat. This is the reason why the Jamaat remains, infuriatingly for many, apolitical. The Jamaat’s goal in this life is to prepare its followers for a more rewarding after-life. It is Allah’s will that protects or makes us vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Indeed, the illusion of hope, invincibility, and fatalism are typically the offerings of both nationalism and Tablighi Jamaat’s Islam.
The lighting of candles on the night of April 5, acquired a religious undertone because of the mystery surrounding the number 9. Modi spoke on the ninth day of the lockdown; he released the video of appeal at 9 a.m on April 3; he asked people to light candles and diyas at 9 p.m April 5, for nine minutes.
It had people immediately trying to figure out the celestial significance of the number 9, which was, minutes after Modi’s speech, explained by cardiologist KK Aggarwal, a former national president of the Indian Medical Association. Aggarwal claimed that Modi’s appeal to people to light candles and diyas at 9 p.m for nine minutes was based on the principle of collective consciousness listed in Yoga Vasistha; and that the collective consciousness could keep at bay the coronavirus.
Was Modi’s reference to India’s collective strength an allusion to the yogic principle of collective consciousness? Yes, or so it seemed to many, largely because a government portal—@mygovindia—tweeted a link to Aggarwal’s video, only to delete it minutes later.
Yet, the speculation gained ground because Modi, in the past, has shown a propensity to mix up myths with science, and mistake fantasies narrated in ancient Indian texts as evidence of the technological prowess we possessed. In 2014, he had famously claimed that plastic surgery and stem cell technology were known to India centuries before the world discovered these.
Modi’s assertions about ancient India’s technological prowess are not too different from Maulana Saad’s claim that Allah’s angels are a Muslim’s best guarantee against the coronavirus. Fantasy and unreason, ostensibly, define their separate world-views.
Faith provides comfort to individuals. But faith replacing medical science as a strategy to combat COVID-19 is a sure recipe for disaster. The fault is as much the preacher’s or the leader’s as it is of his followers.
Modi, in his April 3 speech, harped on the need for people to maintain social distance. This was the principle a lot of people forgot when they spilled out of their isolation at 5 p.m on March 22, the day on which the ‘Janata Curfew’ was observed, to clang utensils and ring bells.
By contrast, media reports suggest that the Tablighi Jamaat thought of social distancing as a conspiracy to divide the Muslims. There has been a flurry of social media posts accusing the Muslims of violating the lockdown code with a devious intent. Many of these posts were proved to be fakes. Yet it is also true that many Tablighi Jamaat members subordinated their reason and will to Maulana Saad’s world-view, his interpretation of Islam.
With so many coming out with lit-up candles and diyas at 9 p.m Sunday night, we can say the nation too suspended both its reason and free will at Modi’s call. They did not question the efficacy of his prescription to check the coronavirus. They became puppets. They will likely dance to another tune in the future. For those nine minutes on Sunday, the distinction between us and the Tablighi Jamaat was blurred.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.