By Mursed Alam & Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha
The coronavirus has to a certain extent lowered the political temperature of the country, given the fact that just a few weeks back we were plagued with a vicious orgy of violence and ideological division. It is really interesting to see that those brutish powers of violent politicking have perhaps taken a temporary retreat for the time being. Even though the entire country has been “locked down”, causing unbearable plights for the poor and in spite of the menacing climate of survival threat posed by the spread of the virus, this current lull in political mud-slinging and communal hate mongering has provided some amount of apparent peace to the Indian public sphere after a long time. It is amazing to see that for three long weeks, Indian media is not debating the NRC-CAA or the social media machinery of the ruling dispensation is relatively silent on Saheen Bagh, the bogey of “infiltrator” or on strident calls for majoritarian nationalism. To put it bluntly, the arrival of the Coronapandemic in India has given a temporary respite to Indian Muslims who were until recently petrified with the devilish fallout of the triumvirate of CAA-NPR-NRC. The whole country seems to have changed its political gear and the public arena today is primarily abuzz with the unknown fear of corona. The streets have been vacated by the Hindutva brigade and hate-mongering stopped for a moment. The media, too, has muted its high-pitched nationalist battle-cry and sought to defeat its monotony by playing antakshari! But is this a real respite or is the irony of the situation lost on us?
The arrival of corona has halted the NPR drive which was scheduled to begin from 1 April. Although several state governments have taken resolutions against the NPR, there is the lurking question of the legal validity of such stances. Corona, however, has exposed the pathetic condition of public healthcare in India. Questions are being asked about the lackadaisical approach of the government or about the shortage of basic medical equipments such as PPE, ventilators or masks, etc. to cope with the current crisis. However, the government has resorted to its familiar armory of cultural diversion and turned the ‘fight’ against corona into a nationalist war-cry in which everybody is asked to be a zealous ‘corona sainik’ fighting from their homes/ bunkers. Thus, a so-called ‘Janata Curfew’ was amorously imposed and to boost up the morale of the corona soldiers a ‘mini-diwali’ was arranged! Whether it bore any practical result or not on the corona threat is a different question, but it appears to have cemented the image of the Prime Minister as a dharma-jodhha against corona.
The national space and almost the entire mediascape are completely virus-ified as the topic of collective national fight against corona has usurped all 24×7 news time. Suddenly it appears that at least in certain quarters, all that “the Nation wants to know” is how many corona test kits does India have, or how many doctors in India have been provided with PPE, or how robust is our national disaster relief policy, or how generous is the Indian government towards the Indian poor who are the worst hit in this crisis – after a long time, such real nationalist questions are doing the rounds.
Corona, it appeared, in spite of its dangerous health hazards, had a benign effect on Indian nationalism and Indian “nationalist” media. But then at that very moment, all of a sudden (or perhaps it was not at all a sudden affair, as the undercurrent of communalization was always simmering within, and was waiting for a suitable pretext to raise its ugly head) the Nizamuddin Markaz event surfaced in the Indian media and the entire pandemic discussion was completely transformed into a, for the lack of a better word, Hindutva pandemic exercise. The hate-machines resurfaced, the fake news industry boomed again and the national infection zone was communally charged. The vicious cycle of intercommunity hatred, an offshoot of religious polarization emanating out of months of NRC-CAA debates, gripped the nation again. To put bluntly, the Indian Muslims are doubly afflicted even in the time of pandemic – corona bite along with communal bite.
Tablighi Jamaat and Saffron-Speak
While the terrible negligence and miscalculation of the organizers of the Tabligh event can hardly be condoned (and here law should definitely take its due course), the question of the state’s failures to do its proper monitoring duty cannot be ignored either. Although similar gatherings – both religious and political – happened in the country during the same time, the Markaz incident was exclusively taken up as one more example of Muslim dissension and animosity. Such infection spreads have happened from other gatherings and other instances of negligence too (one glaring example is the recent Madhya Pradesh IAS Officer case) but they are not subjected to such fake representations and communalization.
A spate of fake news blaming the Tabligh for massive community spread of corona, alleging them of misbehaving with the police and the medical staff went viral and the whole discourse in the media was framed as if the Muslim invaders with corona were out there to infect a Hindu nation! This is how saffron spin-doctors toyed with the entire event. Some even went to the extent of terming the Markaz incident as ‘Corona Jihad’! Subsequently, there have been attacks on a mosque at Alipur in North West Delhi, one Muslim youth was beaten in Delhi on the pretext that he attended the Tablighi Jamaat event at Madhya Pradesh and was trying to spread corona.
Along with the physical attack came apartheid. According to some media reports, a doctor allegedly refused to attend to a pregnant woman, resulting in the death of a new born baby at Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Posters and videos with calls for shunning Muslim vendors and even putting ban on Muslims from entering villages surfaced. A Kolkata-based doctor allegedly made vicious Facebook posts, maligning those who attended the Nizamuddin incident in obnoxious terms. A section of the India media suddenly found itself awakened, began competing each other in their old game of maligning Muslims. It should be mentioned that almost all the news that were circulated on WhatsApp and on other social media platforms about the Tabligh event proved to be false.
Latent and Manifest Islamophobia: What Lessons Muslims Learnt From Corona
Edward Said in his book Orientalism talks about both ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ forms of Orientalism. Simply put, Orientalism is the prejudiced representation of the Orient in a knowledge-power game of controlling it. It is a provincial and ethnic view of otherised cultures and communities. While manifest orientalism is amenable to change with the change of circumstances, the latent co-ordinates of (mis)conceptions about the Orient remain constant. Similarly, in the wake of the Markaz incident, the latent Islamophobic tropes about Muslims as marauding, uncouth and destructive invaders gave birth to phobic manifestations of hatred against the Muslims. In the whole outcry surrounding the Markaz, the Muslims across the country realized that they would be largely judged always by the negative actions of few people. The heroic acts of an Azim Premji or a Shahrukh Khan or the acts of relief distribution or selfless acts of helping the other communities, such as cremating dead Hindus when no relatives of the deceased appeared because of the fear of corona, would hardly be able to alter the latent prejudices about Muslims or would sink into oblivion.
The strong fight put up by people across the religious divide against the CAA-NPR-NRC and the confidence that was instilled among the Muslims on the secular and tolerant ethos of the country looks dissipating and the Muslims at the bottom of their hearts feel dejected. The Muslims, during this corona crisis, realize that they have to fight two viruses – corona and the hate campaign based on Islamophobia.
The Gharbandi and the Informal Sector
The unplanned lockdown announced suddenly by the Central Government has resulted in thousands of migrant workers huddled together without income, proper food or sanitation in their places of migration. Economists have sounded alarm bells, forecasting that the pandemic is going to hit hard the informal sector. Although there is no clear data available, it can fairly be assumed that the vast majority of these stranded migrant workers are Muslims, Dalits and Adivais. This class, caste and religious implication of the lockdown needs to be taken into account. Thus, those social groups who bore the brunt of demonetization are once again going to be worst hit by Corona.
It is now widely shared by the economists that the pandemic is going to put the world economy under recession. Indian economy, too, would slump. The central Government might use this opportunity to shift the attention from its abysmal economic mismanagement by blaming the pandemic for it. It would also mean there would be more constraints on spending on the social sector. Would that also mean the permanent closure of the costly NPR and NRC exercise? The government has not shown any such sign. Even as late as on 19 March, the Central Government told the Supreme Court that the NRC is a ‘necessary exercise’. And the NPR was postponed only on 25 March because of the declaration of the lockdown. On the other hand, the government has gone on to brand the anti-CAA activists as anti-nationals and, in some cases, FIRs were filed against them.
To end on the same initial note, for the Indian Muslims, corona might have brought in some temporary political respite, but the bigger and continued virus of religious hatred appears to remain unchecked and untreated. Can there be a simultaneous call for “social distancing” from hate? In the long run there will be vaccines for corona, and the long-drawn lockdown shall slowly reduce the corona menace through collective measures and national drive against the corona virus, but will the equally bigger infection of hatred and violence remain unaddressed? Is another “Janata Curfew” against communal hatred and against poor medical and economic support system, the real service to the Nation?
Mursed Alam, Assistant Professor, Gour College, University of Gour Banga, West Bengal. Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, Professor, Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal.
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