Tekriwal: Please Pay Attention to India


Tanisha Tekriwal, Assistant Opinion Editor

This is the first column in “The Politics of a Pandemic,” a series that aims to examine and critique some of the political and governmental reverberations of COVID-19.
The Indian population is 1.3 billion, according to the government census, which I believe I need not explicitly mention is a gross undercount. Those left out include, but are not limited to, the 2 million declared illegal by a piece of legislation in the state of Assam in 2019, the greatest mass disenfranchisement in human history.
Often when we speak of events and injustices in India, people don’t realise just how many people are being affected. Now, COVID-19 has changed the world to say the least, and it is no secret that lower income countries are disproportionately struck.
When COVID-19 hit, India managed, at first, to keep its reported cases in double digits. Of course, we cannot forget that this is primarily because of its woefully low testing rates. Nevertheless, for a second, the public could wrap themselves in a false sense of security and relish the calm before the storm. Which is not to say that there was much to enjoy before.
Ever since Narendra Modi’s ruling party, the BJP, secured a second mandate from the people in the 2019 General Elections, India has suffered. Come December it saw huge protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, strategic instruments of furthering communal divide and partisan politics, and in January, it saw ‘riots’ that put it back on Genocide Watch.
The CAA and NRC elicited country-wide resistance, the symbol of which was Shaheen Bagh, a road in the capital where a 24-hour, 100-day long peaceful sit-in took place by thousands of courageous protestors led by inspiring Muslim women. But COVID-19 gave the government a clean chit to dispel the protestors, even though many other mass gatherings continued across the country. The women of Shaheen Bagh left their slippers and shoes at the site as a symbol of solidarity. This is one of the political costs of COVID-19— people having to cave in to their fascist governments who shall happily use any excuse to claim ‘victory’ and paint over dissent.
And speaking of COVID-19-sanctioned draconian measures, immigration law and borders come next. Often in the cacophony of the “wall,” people forget that the US isn’t the only country with a serious case of xenophobia. India is one of the rich, forgotten examples of this global trend. The anti-globalization that the pandemic has triggered, counterintuitive as it sounds, has crystallized boundaries around the world. The Indian government has seized this opportunity and strengthened control between India and Bangladesh and India and Myanmar. And for those who had nearly forgotten about the Rohingya refugees, that tragedy is still going strong.
But a bigger (only numerically; there is no hierarchy of suffering) problem looming on the Indian horizon right now is the internal migrant crisis. Millions of Indians from rural regions travel hundreds of miles to make their livelihoods on the threshold of urbanity. And they are all out of work.
COVID-19 necessitates everything go remote and online. And despite all the racist American jokes about tech support, India sorely lacks the digital infrastructure for such a shift. And so unemployment, already at a decade-high before the virus, has now skyrocketed to 23.4 percent. Many people will be jobless, and the government shall be able to conveniently pin its failures on the global recession. How many people? 23.4 percent rounds to about 400 million people, which — for the record — is the entire US population and then some. One in five people in a country responsible for one in seven people in the world. This is 1 in 35 human beings on Earth.
I will not hesitate to say that this is a humanitarian crisis.
If this isn’t an alarming enough development, allow me to shed some light on the communalizing of COVID-19. For a constitutional democracy, India is very good at being a practicing authoritarian state. Freedom of press sounds like a Stone Age advertisement, and very few trustworthy sources of information remain, theWire and the Indian Express being two of them. Many even refuse to publish “op-eds” or consider the idea that the BJP-led government might be flawed, either because they are terrified, or because they share its views. Foreign media is hailed as inaccurate and funded by Islamic nations.
There isn’t much to explain but that the inherent Islamophobia of the administration and its staunch devotees is revealing itself quite unabashedly. There was a 8,000-strong meeting of an Islamic missionary group — the Tablighi Jamaat — against lockdown orders and nearly a third of cases have been linked to it. What people ignore is that this happened between March 1 and 15, and the government said on March 13 the “coronavirus is not a health emergency.”
On March 19, a Hindu temple hosting 40,000 visitors per day finally closed. The lockdown was announced on March 24. However, only the Jamaat incident has been weaponized to make it appear that Muslims are deliberately attempting to spread the virus. And because the claim couldn’t hold itself, old videos from 2017 of a man spitting on food are being circulated as false evidence.
Further, the medical superintendent of an Ahmedabad hospital is said to have segregated patients on the basis of faith on government-orders, which the ministers have subsequently denied. And so in 2020, the “largest democracy” in the world is perfecting the South Asian version of the structural racism model that the “oldest democracy” is desperately trying to claw its way out of.
Already, the separation of Hindus and Muslims and the “upper” and “lower” caste Hindus in most cities has laid the ground for this — the renewed reports of lynching adding to the pile of things we inherited from our ancestors. Last week, three men suspected of being child kidnappers and organ harvesters were lynched by a senseless mob in Palghar and not a day after, false reports of how “sadhus” (Hindu ascetics) were killed by a mob of Muslims made their regular rounds.

Protest, one might suggest, in the fraught times? The lockdown has made it impossible to risk even voicing concern or criticism without repercussions. Under the veil of paranoia-induced distraction, multiple journalists and critics of the government have been arrested for “conspiring against the State.”
I want to end this with two more snippets of the pandemic narrative: widespread discrimination against Indians with stereotypically South East Asian features and the spineless government allowing private hospitals to charge citizens for COVID-19 treatment.
And did I mention the prime minister’s response has been to ask us to light candles and bang kitchen pots on our balconies? Too bad for those who don’t have any.

Tanisha Tekriwal is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.