3.4.20

Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic

“Go corona! Corona go!” Ramdas Athawale, a minister in the state government of India, chanted this phrase again and again at a prayer meeting at the Gateway of India. Among those invited to participate were Buddhist monks and the Chinese Consul General in Mumbai. The rap-like cadence soon inspired memes and a pop version.



While places of worship have been shut down to facilitate social distancing, nobody had the courage to stop a ‘gaumutra’ (cow piss) party on March 14. Guests drank the urine from mud bowls. They recited prayers before a holy fire beseeching the virus to leave. Swami Chakrapani, the president of the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha that organised the event, said, “Coronavirus has come because of the people who kill and eat animals. When you kill an animal, it creates a sort of energy that causes destruction in that place. They (global leaders) should get cow urine imported from India because the almighty resides only in the Indian cow and not in any foreign breed. I request all the presidents and prime ministers of the world to take cow urine on a daily basis. You have all these scientists who don’t know the cure, we have the cure given to us by the gods.” He also claimed that this was the “only cure” for COVID-19.

All this took place in the country’s capital even as government officials and ministers were issuing statements about scientific measures used to deal with the virus. This was a well-publicised event, yet there were no calls for a ban on it.

There is a call for a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat centre in New Delhi. The immediate reason is that between March 11-13 it hosted around 2000 people, some from overseas, before the lockdown. 24 of the participants have tested positive, and some are untraceable. This has come as an opportunity for the rightwing; the ruling party’s minority affairs minister called it a “Talibani crime”. However, some questions have been raised regarding the permission granted for the event as well as police laxity; the Jamaat premises share a wall with the police station. For a few days now some media channels are seeking a ban on the organisation under the garb of restraining ‘spreaders’.

Such communalisation apart, this event was unnecessary and could be one of the major instances of community spread. Gatherings, be it sects, churches or such jamaats, where devotees have ignored reason to be one with god in the company of others, have resulted in several such spreads.

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Since temples, mosques and churches are shut, devotees look for other outlets, other gods. In the South Indian state of Kerala, the prayer being shared on social media is, “Saint Corona, protect us from coronavirus.” St. Corona has never been popular in the state nor was she the patron saint of epidemics. Her name has promoted her as the annihilator of the virus.



Applauding medical workers too has been imbued with a fantastical explanation: That March 22, the day Indians rang bells and clapped, was Amavasya, the darkest day of the month when evil forces like viruses have maximum power. Clapping and clanging vibrations reduce virus potency, it was said, and the increased blood circulation boosts immunity.

What is it about superstition that holds people in thrall, sometimes even more than religion does? Unlike belief systems, they do not have a halo. Superstitions give people the power to deal with an immediate threat to themselves. Some may even perceive their belief as a rational exercise that they are ‘scientifically’ experimenting upon.

Mass superstitions such as the cow urine drinking one are dangerous simply because, like placebos, they cannot be proven wrong. There have been instances of people refusing medical intervention based on the belief that faith, or faith-approved palliatives, alone can cure.

Adding to the mythology of magic cures, the government announced that the serials Ramayana and Mahabharata, based on the revered Hindu epics, would be telecast again on the national channel after over three decades. It is assumed that this will help people forced by the lockdown to retain their moral fibre through its kitschy portrayal.

India is, quite literally, in ‘Ram bharose’ mode, where riding on faith is considered as a confirmation of its efficacy. That the virus hasn’t yet affected the country as much as it has the rest of the world – 1932 confirmed cases, 55 deaths – is seen as some sort of karmic victory.

The facts are quite different, though. According to the director of the US Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, Ramanan Laxminarayan, by July end 300 to 500 million Indians would be infected of which a tenth would be severe cases. Our model predicted that at the outbreak’s peak, even with conservative assumptions, there would be 10 million patients with severe Covid-19 disease in India, many of whom would need to be hospitalized. India has fewer than 100,000 intensive-care unit beds and 20,000 ventilators, most of which are only in the large cities.”

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Large cities depend on migrant labour. Most are daily wagers, of which about 744 million earn Rs. 44 (58 pennies) a day. They have little or no money left. Some are walking several miles to reach their villages. They believe hunger will kill them before the virus even gets to them. As one of them said, “I know everything about coronavirus. It's very dangerous, the whole world is struggling. Most people who can afford and have a place to stay are indoors. But for people like us, the choice is between safety and hunger. What should we pick?”



There have been instances of people dying on the way.  The finance minister announced a package worth $22.5 billion as well as rations for three months to reach the poor. Many have not heard about these schemes nor received anything. Returning to their villages isn’t a panacea. As a man on his long trek of 542 kms to home said, “We came to Delhi in the first place because our farms were destroyed due to stray cattle who use to eat our crops. So, if we go back to our village, there also we have to work as labourers, but there is no work anywhere.”

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged people to applaud the doctors, nurses, paramedics who served selflessly despite risk to themselves, those from the informal sector that constitutes 90 percent of the labour force in India were not on anybody’s mind.  There is nothing grand about sweeping floors, dusting furniture, doing the dishes, or hawking and collecting garbage; they do not save lives, or minister to the ill.

However, the elite shared their ‘awws’ over a picture of a rag-picker noiselessly clapping, his expression confused. For them, it was evidence that the PM’s message had reached this poor man who cared for the carers. Ironically, social distancing that is embedded in the Indian casteist culture considers people like him to be a virus. Nobody cares that he belongs to the amorphous population of 1.8 million homeless people who do not even figure in the poverty or infected statistics because they do not even exist on any document.

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Published in CounterPunch

2.3.20

Who Will Douse Delhi’s Flames?



The dead are not spared. A part of Delhi, the national capital of India, has been reduced to ashes. They’ve desecrated a cemetery, mangled vehicles, broken homes, injured people, killed people – 39, as I write this. North East Delhi is a lower middle-class area, the residents are mostly small shopkeepers and labourers.

On February 23, the eve of Donald Trump’s visit, mobs had collected in pockets and started torching houses. Their anger, apparently, was over the anti-CAA and NRC protests. According to the Citizenship Amendment Act, people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can seek asylum in India, but only if they are non-Muslim. In North East states like Assam, detention camps have already been built. To serve the government’s purpose, legitimate Muslim residents are being detained as illegal immigrants using the National Register of Citizens. If it is introduced in the country there are fears Muslims will be most affected.

The identification idea was expressed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he said that arsonists could be identified by their clothes. The mobs in Delhi had begun to place saffron flags outside Hindu houses to identity whom to not target.

The rightwing has been on a high. Among them are two members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Anurag Thakur’s chant, “Desh ke gaddaron kogoli maaron saalon ko (shoot the traitors dead)” has become the go-to anthem of the Hindutva herds.

Kapil Mishra’s role can be directly linked to the present violence. “He threatened to mobilize a mob to clear out the protesters. He said he did not want to create trouble while Mr. Trump was visiting, but he warned the police that as soon as Mr. Trump left India on Tuesday night, his followers would clear the streets if the police did not. Tensions shot up. As Sunday evening approached, gangs of Hindu men and Muslim men began throwing rocks at each other. This quickly degenerated into wider violence, with Hindu residents accusing Muslims of attacking Hindu statues and Muslim residents expressing fear that a Hindu mob was forming to get them.

Shaheen Bagh has been the fulcrum of the protests; women gathered here day and night to peacefully demonstrate. It spread to other areas and would have continued had the mobs not struck. This was clearly an attempt to derail the protests and to project the brute power of majoritarian politics.

Is the world interested? At the press conference in Delhi, when Donald Trump was asked about the violence a few miles from where he was, he said, "As far as the individual attacks, I heard about it, but I didn't discuss that with him (PM Modi). That's up to India."

Bernie Sanders reacted: "Over 200 million Muslims call India home. Widespread anti-Muslim mob violence has killed at least 27 and injured many more. Trump responds by saying ‘That's up to India’. This is a failure of leadership on human rights."


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A few Muslim protestors were dragged along the ground, beaten up with batons, and made to sing the national anthem – not by the crowd, but by the police.

The complicity of the police force has been evident for a few weeks now. In one chilling incident, a guy aimed his gun at protestors at the Jamia Millia University campus. The cops standing yards away from him merely watched. They watched silently as he shot at a Kashmiri student. Another time, the cops entered the university library and beat up the students. In N.E.Delhi there has been a repeat. Many people have said that the police were helping the goons, or had a tacit arrangement not to interfere. One mob leader said, “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do. You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.”

When mobs offer the protect the police, it ceases to even qualify as a police state. It is a gangster state that is asserting its religious identity by using nationalism as a trump card. As happened in Ashok Nagar. They set fire to a mosque, put up a saffron flag on its minaret while waving the national flag; they raised slogans saying, “Hinduon ka Hindustan”, the nation belongs to Hindus. In another mosque, they burned a copy of the Quran, the holy book. A man who probably had lost everything in the violence was collecting its singed pages.

People are stopped at random and asked what their religion is. One man lied that he was Hindu; they asked him to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, a beloved verse for Hindus. He could not. They beat him up.

Mohamed Zubair’s photograph pleading for mercy has become the face of these riots. “They beat me till they broke me. I begged them and they beat me some more, viciously. They made communally charged slurs and took (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra’s name. I don’t remember much. I just hoped my children were safe. I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.”

85-year-old Akbari burnt to death inside her house when they set it on fire. She was too old and frail to run and save her life.

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After three days of silence, and two days of his ostentatious show with Donald Trump, Narendra Modi woke up to comment on what is happening in Delhi. He did not address the nation nor did he hold a press conference, but he tweeted to say: “Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times. It is important that there is calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest.There is violence in the streets. People are in hospital and dying. And all he can think of are homilies about harmony. There is no reaching out to the people, no assurances about how such normalcy will be achieved.

There is no one to question him. Arvind Kejriwal of the Opposition Aam Aadmi Party (People’s party), and the chief minister of Delhi, took a bunch of his ministers to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, every politician’s favourite man for all seasons. Kejriwal has been mimicking Modi by taking a soft Hindutva stance, reciting verses on television and thanking Hanuman, the saviour of Lord Ram, in his victory speech. Politicians in India have to use religious nationalism to appease the majority that constitutes 80 per cent of the population. 

The role of mainstream media has been questionable. While the liberals among them give a fair exposure to both sides, as they must, it is the editorialising with such false equivalences that is problematic. There are indeed casualties on both sides, but a pogrom is a clear agenda against a particular group.

There are other casualties. Tahir Hussain, an opposition politician, has been booked for arson and murder because they found petrol bombs on his terrace. Nobody is interested in facts – the fact that he called the police several times because a mob had gathered outside his house and he was taken to a safe place. One is not opposed to an investigation into the truth, but there is a definite bias. Ruling party members who called for the murder of Muslims, that resulted in Delhi burning, are free.  The judge who asked the police to issue arrest warrants against them for incendiary speeches has been transferred. Delhi Police has told the high court that FIRs will be registered at an “appropriate time”. Are they waiting for more bloodshed? Is there a casualty quota they have to meet? The matter has been adjourned until April 13. In six weeks, there will be more destruction, evidence will be doctored, witnesses will be silenced, there will be more graves.

And they don’t even spare the dead.

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Published in CounterPunch