A 100 years after the Spanish Flu, another global pandemic could end up with a high body count; possibly even 90 million deaths, if a recent research-projection done at the Imperial College London proves correct. Covid-19, a highly contagious Novel Coronavirus strain, has spread quickly around the world, infecting people in 186 countries and killing almost 12,000 already. The pandemic has accelerated political and economic processes; some that were already in motion. In January, the IMF had warned of the possibility of a global slowdown (even a worldwide recession was not ruled out) and by March, Covid-19 has made that recession reality.
Against this background, it is important to understand how this pandemic has added momentum to India’s inertial slide into a full-fledged Hindu-fascist state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has seized upon this public health emergency as an opportunity to strengthen its hold over society. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided the BJP government a fertile ground for advancing its totalitarian project.
The global spread of Covid-19 has given Hindutva organisations a fresh target for their nationalist propaganda. In the past as well, pandemics have, disconcertingly, been blamed on or associated with minorities—such as gay men with the HIV-AIDS epidemic and African people with the Ebola virus. In India, this pandemic is increasingly being associated with the Chinese people. This xenophobia against a historic adversary is being aggressively shared on social media, popular cultural platforms and in everyday conversations, and it has created space for humiliating verbal attacks against people from the Northeastern states.
Internationally, the pandemic has, regrettably, allowed people to give vent to a simmering anti-Asian/anti-Sino racism discourse that had been flourishing quietly in the fertile climes of emergent global authoritarianisms. However, despite this, the Covid-19 pandemic has also led to an inversion of familiar tropes of minority scapegoating. Despite the perception of the pandemic as a ‘China Virus’ or ‘Alerte Jaune’ (“Yellow” Alert), there is also a bubbling resentment against jet-setting elites, who are largely being seen as responsible for the rapid spread of the virus across national boundaries.
Since January, when the outbreak in China first made international headlines, India has witnessed a steady up-tick of Hindutva propaganda on social media, primarily WhatsApp. In the initial wave, such content focused on blaming the epidemic on China; for instance a conspiracy theory was floated that Covid-19 is an accidentally-leaked biological weapon developed in China. The American far-right ecosystem also has a comparable popular conspiracy theory wherein China is accused of “releasing” the Novel Coronavirus to sabotage America’s “booming” economy and, with it, United States President Donald Trump’s chances of re-election.
With the outbreak spreading in China and travelling to other parts of the world, Hindu nationalist WhatsApp messages shifted focus to chauvinist discourses. For instance, one set of messages made specious claims in favour of India’s practice of greeting people with hands folded, namaste. Similarly, elite-caste beliefs about “hygiene” (read purity), exemplified by vegetarianism and social segregation in the form of caste-based rules for touch-ability and untouchability, were openly promoted. Ayurveda, it was said, has historically inoculated Indians from epidemics and pandemics. “India has never given the world an epidemic,” one message boasts. This is a blatant lie considering not just India’s recent history of seasonal outbreaks of dengue fever and chikungunya, but also its longer past of regular outbreaks of bird- and swine-flu and far more serious outbreaks of killer strains of malaria, typhoid and encephalitis.
Notwithstanding facts to the contrary, propelled by Hindutva-inspired beliefs, India is falling prey to myths about its own alleged cultural superiority—the act of greeting people with the non-touching ‘namaste’ supposedly embodies this ‘Indian’ culture, ignoring the salam, the simple hand wave, and numerous other greetings that do not involve touch. The Prime Minister also harped on the namaste and, a sizeable ever-friendly section of the Indian media did not miss the cue. It is important to clarify here that this is a critique of a specific strain of nationalist chauvinism and not of cultural practices of any Indian religion, nor Ayurveda.
It is within the ecosystem that Hindu nationalist organisations have spread that news of cow urine parties began to emerge. One such party, hosted by the Hindu Mahasabha on 14 March 2020, made national and international headlines. Ignoring government and WHO advisories against gathering in large crowds, this body assembled a number of members for a cow urine drinking party. A demon-like caricature of the virus was created and ‘fed’ incense and cow urine as divine intervention against Covid-19 was sought. The ‘health benefits’ of drinking cow urine were openly propagated, with claims ranging from how it can cure “everything”, even cancer, to how stagnant water may breed viruses but cow urine remains “eternally pure”. Some demanded replacing liquor at duty-free stores with it, and forcing all travellers to drink it. Another member proposed sending some cow urine to the United States, for Trump’s benefit. [It’s another matter that one participant at a Kolkata cow urine party fell ill and the organiser was arrested.]
An unrelenting stream of social media commentary supplemented these bizarre claims as Hindu nationalists seized on the public health emergency to make false claims about the benefits of a strictly Hindu upper caste lifestyle. Their proclamations were supplemented by Hindu clerics advising people to chant ‘Om namah shivay’ while applying cow dung—to sample just one of their “remedies” for the Novel Coronavirus-infected.
A host of so-called holy men have proposed chanting as “treatment”, for instance the Hindu Mahasabha’s “Corona calm down” party. Hindu nationalists also took off on social media, issuing calls, with dates and times, for mass chanting sessions to drive away the “negative energies” of the virus. Union Minister Ramdas Athawale participated in one large ‘Go Corona Go’ chanting session. This also inspired satirical remixes by rappers and music producers on YouTube.
By pitching for and amplifying quackery and cultural chauvinism over proven interventions such as rigorous testing, social distancing, respiratory hygiene and lockdowns, the Hindu-nationalist ecosystem has sought to deepen their ideological hold over an anxious citizenry. What they are attempting is to draw a deep distinction between the “Chinese” virus and the presumed purity of Hindu culture during this pandemic; to draw a clear boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Covid-19 and the police state
Apart from an opportunity for malicious propaganda, Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime found the outbreak an opportune moment to push India further into the grip of a creeping police state. As the number of cases, and fears, of community transmission grew, the government invoked the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. This law grants law-enforcement agencies greater executive powers, even to the subversion of citizen’s fundamental rights.
This is a curious paradox: the Indian government’s response to a health emergency has virtually been limited to a law enforcement response. There has been almost no focus on compassionate medical cures and treatments, but on technologies of labelling, isolating and incarcerating those who test positive for the virus.
This is a sharp divergence from how, say, South Korea and Taiwan dealt with the crisis in their countries—by using extensive randomised testing, early isolation and hospitalisation of positive cases. Both have successfully controlled the spread of the virus; the former despite extensive community transmission early on. Despite their proximity to China, the epicentre of the outbreak for weeks together, neither country found it necessary to impose a full lockdown at any point.
India has structured its response very differently. Unusually low on testing for the virus, it has been conducting thermal screening of all international travellers. Those confirming a fever are being made to undergo testing and mandatory quarantine in government facilities for long periods while they await the results. This combination of a totalising regime of quarantine coupled with long waits for test results and deplorable conditions in quarantine centres has created the unusual phenomenon of people (including some who tested positive) attempting to escape quarantine and isolation centres.
Then followed the effort to clamp down on those who did not observe home quarantines or who escaped government facilities. Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray (of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena) ordered that the hands of all international travellers landing in his state be stamped. Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa (of the BJP) issued similar orders to immigration officials at Bengaluru International Airport. The stamp stipulates the date until which the person is to remain in ‘home quarantine’. Violations can lead to arrest, even a jail term. Worryingly, such stamps mark out international travellers from others, making them vulnerable to mob violence.
Some Indian media, such as NDTV, have reported on the deplorable conditions of government-run quarantine centres. They are apparently a picture of general lack of hygiene—dirty rooms, broken toilets, no showers—where people wait indefinitely for test results and the possibility of accidentally being infected by Covid-19 is high.
The Centre’s response to criticism has been to provide a collection of the Prime Minister’s speeches as reading material for those held in quarantine; thus making the quarantine centres nothing but propaganda centres. Consider the contrasting images that are emerging—the “infected” are struggling to escape from the government’s isolation centres while the state is focused on identifying, isolating and incarcerating more and more citizens. It is an unhappy marriage of Orwell’s dystopian police state with a zombie apocalypse thriller.
Lately, the government has taken to addressing citizens through classically fascist tropes of “duty” and “sacrifice”; a sharp contrast to liberal democratic discourses of rights, government responsibility and accountability. On 19 March, Modi addressed the nation on the pandemic, saying, “Friends, whenever I asked you for something, you never let me down. Our efforts succeed only on the strength of your blessings. Today, I am here to ask you, all my fellow citizens, for something. I want your coming few weeks from you, your time in the near future.”
He compared lockdowns to war-time blackouts and proposed a ten-hour ‘Janata Curfew’ on Sunday—22 March. He pitched it as a voluntary curfew, positioning it as a willing sacrifice of the people whilst providing a classic Hobbesian dogma to curtail people’s civil liberties in an admittedly uncertain time.
Many are worried that a one-day curfew is ineffectual against a virus, and that this Sunday will merely be a trial run for longer or even total lockdowns later. Some are questioning the logic of a curfew on a Sunday, when most people stay home anyway. Writing in The Caravan, journalist Vidya Krishnan has argued that Modi’s speech was high on symbolism, low on delivery. She points out that by turning the attention to a spectacle—the entire nation clapping and making noises as a mark of gratitude to medical and essential-service workers—Modi has diverted attention from difficult questions that need urgent answers.
For instance, India’s Covid-19 response has come under severe criticism due to its unusually low testing for the virus and for the virtual absence of welfare measures—holiday pay, unemployment benefits, suspension of mortgage payments, food subsidies and deliveries, etc—to help people tide over the economic crisis that would be a natural outcome of a shutdown. Medical workers have been demanding reinforcement of their rapidly-evaporating protective supplies—none of these appear to be on the anvil, even as reports come in of doctors treating Covid-19 cases getting infected and going into isolation.
Modi’s calls for social distancing and self-isolation seem particularly hollow considering his party colleagues’ recent behaviour. Until Friday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath defended his government’s decision to organise a mega Ram Navami gathering in Ayodhya from 25 March to April 2, which millions of Hindu devotees were expected to attend. The BJP-run government stubbornly resisted critics who wanted it called off in light of a health emergency. The organisers, the VHP, and Adityanath kept assuring devotees of “divine protection” from Novel Coronavirus. “Lord Rama will protect devotees,” the Chief Minister had said at one point.’ This Ram Navami is particularly significant for the Hindutva brigade, for it was being hosted to celebrate a deeply divisive verdict in the Ayodhya matter, which cleared the way for construction of a Hindu temple where the Babri Mosque once stood. [Adityanath has now requested all religious gatherings be called off. The Ayodhya administration has banned entry of pilgrims.]
Contrast the BJP’s enthusiasm for Ram Navami with how it has shaped the discourse on the anti-CAA protests being held in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. Numerous BJP leaders and their supporters have demanded that this iconic three-month-old peaceful demonstration should be called off, saying that it poses an urgent public health and safety risk in light of the ongoing pandemic. One BJP supporter has filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that the protest is a violation of the Epidemic Diseases Act. This protest is a potent symbol of resistance to the sectarian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, and the politics of Hindutva. For this reason, Shaheen Bagh has been in the BJP’s cross-hairs for some time.
Expectations that the Shaheen Bagh protest be dismantled seem heavily partisan, considering Yediyurappa and other senior BJP leaders recently attended the wedding celebration—with 2,000 guests attending—of a BJP Member of Legislative Council. On 20 March, the BJP Member of Parliament Dushyant Singh, whose mother is BJP leader and former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, had attended a party hosted by pop singer Kanika Kapoor, who later tested positive for Covid-19. Kapoor reportedly hosted five parties over three days—possibly coming in contact with 400 people—after she arrived in India from an overseas trip, whose details she allegedly concealed from immigration officials.
Identifying future political trends
In its response to Covid-19, the BJP chose to deepen its executive authority. A health emergency became a ruse for a semi-police state and the Indian government veered far away from the compassionate discourses of cure, treatment and care to a combination of its cultural organisations’ pro-Hindutva propaganda and the stiff action of the State’s executive arm. The cow-urine parties and multiple other gatherings have continued unchecked while Shaheen Bagh was singled out as a threat to public health.
Far from the pre-emptive and proactive responses of South Korea and Taiwan, India appeared to be laying the foundation of a prolonged suspension of civil liberties.
The Hindutva response to Covid-19 also revealed well-established discursive trends that have been previously observed in other contexts. The informal description of Covid-19 as a pandemic “manufactured in China”, or due to “bad” eating practices, establishes a repertoire of “bad behaviour”. The prescription of cow urine, cow dung and Hindu chanting as “treatment” helps Hindu nationalists accomplish both boundary-marking and enforce discipline on wider society. Discipline, here, simply means limiting people’s choices of how to live, work and eat. It is “our” high culture versus “their” pandemic; “we” know that mere consumption of Hindutva symbols is the “correct” behaviour and appropriate prescription during a pandemic.
Further, the state’s partisan discourses have drawn boundaries between “good” and “bad” crowds. For example, earlier this week, the Centre told the Supreme Court that the NPR and NRC are inter-linked exercises. This is exactly what the protesters at Shaheen Bagh have been saying—and opposing. However, every time they did so, BJP leaders labelled them “anti-Indian”. In this way, the BJP has fostered social schisms to shore up its own constituencies. The Hindutva outfit’s responses to the pandemic serve exactly the same purpose. By playing along, the State is denying the catastrophic danger that Covid-19 poses to Indian society, if it is left unrestrained.
Pranav Kohli holds an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from Trinity College Dublin. His doctoral research at Maynooth University, Ireland, examines the intervention of Hindutva discourses in first-hand memories of the partition of India. Prannv Dhawan is a third-year student at National Law School, Bengaluru where he leads the Law and Society Committee. His research interests include majoritarianism, minority rights and constitutionalism.