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Of Migrants, Muslims, and Other Non-People

The coronavirus lays bare India's shameful inequalities

The coronavirus entered India by plane, hidden in the lungs of upper-class travelers. It then jumped to their family members, colleagues, drivers, and maids. The first case of Covid-19 was reported on January 30, but it was only over a month later, in early March, that the government began screening passengers from all international flights. By then, there were twenty-eight known cases in five states; in some parts of the world, the virus was killing nearly as many people as all other causes of death combined.

India is the world’s second most populous country. Yet it boasts one of the globe’s lowest levels of public expenditure on health care, just 1.3 percent of GDP, less than a fifth of what the European Union countries invest. Knowing this, the government recognized the virus as a grave, perhaps catastrophic, threat. Public health officials heroically pursued contact tracing. “Social distancing” and “self-isolation” rapidly entered the national lexicon. By March 23, with the number of confirmed cases nearing five hundred, the government had prudently shut down all domestic and international flights and hardened its borders.

The following day, amid a growing sense of alarm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly ordered a nationwide lockdown, the largest in the world, meant to last twenty-one days. He made the declaration via a live telecast to the nation at 8 p.m., leaving people just a few hours to plan their affairs. The timing of the announcement was needlessly theatrical, as if he wanted to take the public by surprise. In this it resembled his decision in 2016 to rescind all higher denomination banknotes overnight, an order intended to defeat the shadow economy run by “black money”; the foolishly conceived plan, known as “demonetization,” never stood a chance of achieving this stated goal, thought it struck a brutal blow to India’s vast informal sector, which relies on cash transactions. Other parallels soon emerged: the same disastrous planning and execution, callous disregard for the poor, and ruthless policing. As before, Modi continued to avoid all interaction with the press, defying a rather basic expectation in a democracy.

The response to Modi’s announcement was chaotic. He had conveyed the gravity of the situation well—so well that his speech triggered panic shopping that very night. People descended on food and liquor stores, making a mockery of social distancing. By midnight, all factories, offices, and businesses were shut; alarmingly, so were all passenger trains, buses, and taxis. Going forward, no one would be allowed to step outside their homes except for essential services.

What does “self-isolation” mean to those in a shared room barely large enough for as many single mattresses as the people in it?

But then, not everyone can afford to stay indoors. The next morning, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were leaving cities and walking home along highways, carrying their belongings in cloth sacks, pitiful scenes that reminded many of Partition. More than twenty died from exhaustion or hunger, often hundreds of miles from home. When a fleet of buses was dispatched in Uttar Pradesh to aid the migrants’ journey, hundreds of thousands more swamped the city bus depots, once again defeating the aim of social distancing and risking the spread of the virus to remote villages.

Most of these migrants were daily wage laborers working in construction, factories, shops, and restaurants, part of the hundred million rural workers in urban India. Many had left their villages to find work or to escape the indignities of caste. In the cities, they led hardscrabble lives, working without employment contracts, health or other benefits, minimum wage protection, or labor unions. As they were registered to vote back in their villages, urban politicians took little interest in them. Their identity documents, tied to one state, made them ineligible for relief measures in other states. Now out of work, many couldn’t continue living in the city on their meager savings.

In his speech, Modi had asked these migrants to stay put, but he didn’t offer emergency shelters or kitchens to help them—it didn’t seem to have even occurred to him. What does “self-isolation” mean to those in a shared room barely large enough for as many single mattresses as the people in it? Many migrants lacked access to enough water to wash their hands frequently. Others feared that hunger might kill them in the city before the virus would. More primal fears surfaced too. If we died here, a migrant told one reporter, “there is no one to even take care of our cremation.” A stark reminder of how the state saw them soon appeared: the same country that had deployed its national airline, Air India, to bring back hundreds of Indians stranded abroad, now humiliated many of these migrants by rounding them up like hogs and spraying them with chemical disinfectants in Uttar Pradesh. In other parts of India, many migrants were beaten up and humiliated by policemen who forced them to do squats and push-ups by the roadside.

In the city, these migrants had served a social class whose members quickly stocked-up on food, drinks, and hand sanitizers. As offices and schools shut, most began working from home with no loss of income and more time for movies; their kids switched to online classes. In a caste society that has long internalized a sense of physical and spiritual contagion from certain humans it deemed “untouchable,” I’ve wondered whether the new “social distancing” comes extra easily to this class. From what I see in my own neighborhood, it seems to have dovetailed nicely with ancient superstitions and notions of purity and pollution.

I live with my partner in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi. Famous for its high-rise apartments, shiny corporate offices, malls, and craft breweries, much of this urban sprawl sprung up in just a few decades on what used to be agricultural land. Now among the most cosmopolitan cities in India, it is also an object lesson in the dysfunctions of profit-centered urban planning and what happens when land is carved out and sold to corporations to build gated “communities” with little regard for civic welfare. Our middle-class residential complex consists of triple-story blocks of apartments, comprising about three hundred homes, set around a park. The park has a children’s play area and scattered benches on which gender-segregated groups shoot the breeze in the evenings. It also hosts other events, such as a laughter club, taekwondo classes, and Hindu pujas and festivals. Both the entry and the exit gates in our complex have a guard, though entries are not logged, as in the more upmarket gated communities.

An overwhelming majority of the residents are caste Hindus and 3 to 4 percent are Muslim. Most are salaried professionals, businessmen or realtors, own cars, and speak some English. From our neighbors’ living room, where prayerful gatherings are often held, the tinkling of puja bells and the singing of bhajans drift with the scent of burning incense. Several times a week, the wife of a senior government official upstairs steps out to worship a tree across our street. Other expressions of piety appear during religious ceremonies held in the park. Many revere dodgy gurus, priests, and assorted god-men, whose portraits appear on living room walls or on dashboards in their cars. Support for the BJP is disproportionately high in this demographic, and my neighbors seem to be no exception.

We have a neighborhood WhatsApp group for our shared concerns: water, electricity, waste disposal, security. It’s led by an elected Residents Welfare Association whose administrators disallow posts on all other topics, including politics and religion. But this rule sometimes breaks down, as it has since the start of this pandemic. Blustering male elders emerge to confidently air their views on society and politics. For instance, after the Pulwama attack in Kashmir last year, when an Indian suicide bomber killed forty-four security personnel, some called for the annihilation of Pakistan on WhatsApp. Young and old alike took out candlelight vigils on the streets around the park; staid men, women, and children waved flags, chanted patriotic slogans and cheered the Indian airstrikes. In other words, my neighbors are representative—la condition Indien—of the modern urban middle class.

Fear has also unleashed much magical thinking. Our WhatsApp group began sloshing in “घरेलु नुस्ख़े,” or home remedies, with potions and tips for repelling the virus and boosting your immune system.

March is my favorite month in Gurgaon; the days grow warmer, and the trees glow in a brighter light. This March in particular, the skies turned a deeper blue as air pollution levels have dramatically fallen due to the lockdown. But grave fear has gripped my neighbors. Some feel a menace in the air and refuse to even step out into the street (“हवा धातक है”, said one, “the air is lethal”). Fear has also unleashed much magical thinking. Our WhatsApp group began sloshing in “घरेलु नुस्ख़े,” or home remedies, with potions and tips for repelling the virus and boosting your immune system. Others forwarded inspirational quotes and stories, jokes, astrological forecasts, fake messages attributed to NASA and Bill Gates, and even healing mantras and rituals. One message claimed that this pandemic was prophesized with great precision in a Hindu scripture dating back ten thousand years, and it will last three to seven months. Some residents obsessed about tighter neighborhood security, keeping all domestic workers out, and banning all walks in the park.

My neighbors seem to be at the heart of the demographic the Prime Minister was targeting when he proposed certain antics be performed by people on their balconies—clap or bang utensils for five minutes at 5 p.m. to thank frontline workers; light oil lamps or candles for nine minutes at 9 p.m. to dispel the darkness that threatens us—symbolic acts aiming to raise social conformity, the modus of all demagogues. Nearly all of my neighbors dutifully obliged. In cities across India, some people got carried away and even burst firecrackers after lighting their oil lamps. A joke soon went around: “Since coming to India, corona is having a hard time understanding whether it’s a virus or a festival.”

With life pared to the essentials, my neighbors saw afresh their huge dependence on the basic services rendered by others—street cleaners, delivery boys, security guards, daily trash pickers—work mostly done by “invisible” people, usually from near the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Most upper-caste folks among my neighbors would not normally spare a thought for such workers. So when they raised funds online for them, calling them “heroes,” I was surprised. A nice gesture, yes, but will the sentiment outlast the pandemic? Yet, imagining my fearful neighbors cooped up all day in their two or three bedroom apartments, taking care of puttering kids and living out loveless marriages, I realized that they were suffering too. As the lockdown wore on, some posted enticing images and videos of nature resurging: clearer mountain vistas, bluer skies, more birdsong, deer roaming in towns. Perhaps, I thought, they will come to see that a better world is possible; perhaps there would be renewed calls for better environmental stewardship.

Fear is a great equalizer, said a forwarded message in our apartment complex’s WhatsApp group. The virus had done the impossible, it claimed. We were no longer our narrow identities—Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Brahmin—we were suddenly all human, united in a common struggle. The message, which was much “liked,” made me chuckle. I felt that compassion, not fear, dissolves our differences. Fear merely suspends them for a while, when people cooperate to reduce their more elemental worries. Fear also makes people retreat inwards, hoard, and grow more suspicious of others. An example would soon arise to show how premature, or superficially felt, all those “likes” were.

News arrived of a large virus outbreak in Delhi. It was traced to the foreign visitors at a Muslim religious meet held just over a week before the lockdown and allowed by Delhi Police—airport screening let these visitors through. The meet took place in a nation rife with Islamophobia and fresh memories of the months-long protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which created a path to citizenship open to all except Muslims, and a pogrom in Delhi. (I’ve wondered how all the Muslims whose homes were burned down by Hindu mobs are “social distancing” now.) In this context, the outbreak at this religious meet wasn’t simply seen as a tragic, or a stupid act of the kind committed that same week by many political, religious, and other groups. Instead, the news coverage singled out these Muslims and portrayed them as intentional spreaders of the virus and betrayers of the nation. They were called “corona-jihadis.” As bigoted anchors railed on TV and fake news mavens worked overtime on social media, the pestilence of communalism flared up again.

In their press briefings, even the government unduly focused on the Muslim religious meet for days, deflecting attention from its own shortcomings in handling the migrant crisis, supplying PPE, provisioning test kits, and its denial of community transmission despite evidence to the contrary. (It didn’t help that low trust in this government led to isolated incidents in which a few Muslims fell for rumors linking contact tracing to ongoing tactics to disenfranchise them.) With these lies casting Muslims as malicious spreaders of the virus, social boycott and physical attacks on Muslims and their small businesses increased in many parts of the country. As on previous such occasions, the prime minister’s silence was conspicuous.

The episode saddened me. It was yet another reminder of what the new middle-class India had become: coarse, vengeful, reactionary.

Around this time, a resident on our WhatsApp group made an anti-Muslim jibe. A kerfuffle erupted when I protested. “No more political correctness!” he barked at me via text message, “They’ve tested our patience for months. Modi-ji must immediately declare emergency and suspend all fundamental rights.” A second man agreed, demanding “shoot on sight orders” against such people. “Human rights are only for humans,” chimed a third, implying that certain people aren’t fit to be called “human.” Several people “liked” their messages, which wound me up further. I shared an article to challenge their views—and for the benefit of many silent Hindu moderates and the Muslim residents who perhaps felt anxious—but it was swiftly dismissed as “untrustworthy” because it was published by the secular, independent website The Wire. Another man made a snide remark about “pseudo humanists” like Arundhati Roy, insinuating that I was one too. The admins had to step in to defuse and deescalate.

The episode saddened me; I poured myself a stiff drink that night. It was yet another reminder of what the new middle-class India had become: coarse, vengeful, reactionary. It brought home that my neighbors—and countless others in this demographic, including many college-mates and relatives who I find increasingly hard to socialize with—had grown hostile to the idea of secular, liberal democracy. They are now the carriers of a social pathology that had long entered the stage of unchecked community transmission, vigorously abetted by the ruling political party.

The national lockdown, necessary as it seemed, came with its own steep human costs, made steeper still by a Hindu majoritarian government in the trance of neoliberalism. Many key positions in this government are occupied by bumbling idiots—take the Union Minister of State for Health, Ashwini Choubey, who earlier pushed cow urine as a cure for cancer, and who recently advocated basking in the sun for fifteen minutes to cure Covid-19. They are one reason why, even before this virus, India had a teetering economy, record-high unemployment, a fragile banking sector reeling under bad loans, and ballooning corporate and public sector debt.

Add to this our middle-class Indians, high on Hindutva and its fantasies of past greatness, military might, surgical strikes, and superpowerdom. They are enthusiastic about, or at least indulgent of, the far right’s ongoing transformation of India into a Hindu Rashtra in which Hindus are more equal than others. Indeed, their devotion to their fascist leaders and symbols of muscular nationalism has never been greater. Now gripped by fear, they’re even less willing to ask questions or call out problems. They see those doing so as “divisive” or “too negative.”

Enabled by a largely colluding media and other hollowed-out institutions of democracy, these leaders will likely usurp even more authoritarian control, as in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, adding new policing and surveillance powers far beyond what’s justified for an honest response to the pandemic, and muzzling the few remaining outposts of genuine journalism. Earlier this month, the Uttar Pradesh government filed criminal charges against Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wire, for some critical remarks he made against the state chief minister Yogi Adityanath. This pandemic seems all set to push India into a far deeper crisis.

The markets in our neighborhood are closed now, except for shops that sell groceries and household goods. Supplies often run low, and non-essential items aren’t replenished; some food prices have spiked. Street dogs look confused, perhaps wondering what has befallen the people and vehicles; they’re getting less food from people but their social lives seem richer, evident in the more frequent, synchronized howling they carry on at odd hours. It strikes me that in just a few days, I’ve looked at more exponential curves than in my entire life. I worry about my parents who live independently in Jaipur, a city in Rajasthan. I open a book but can’t concentrate. I talk to friends. I’m glad to discover citizens’ groups in Gurgaon that are chipping in to feed migrant workers.

For so many the pandemic’s message has been loud and clear: you are poor; you will suffer; you are nothing in this order of things.

I’m also heartened to see Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi, and other states ramping up their response to the crisis. Kerala in particular has been exemplary. It’s the first state in India to “flatten the curve” through early recognition of the threat, diligent contact tracing and testing, isolation, and production of PPE like masks and sanitizers. Anticipating disruptions, the state government provided hygienic shelters and meals for migrant workers and other groups. It gave free rations and cash to the poor as part of its economic relief package. Above all, its response has been humane and sensitive, in stark contrast to Modi’s.

Led by expert advice, the lockdown has been extended until May 3. The longer it runs, the more its benefits will rear up against its steadily escalating costs: job loss; rising poverty; death from inattention to other diseases; rising domestic violence; even starvation. The lockdown is expected to be relaxed in stages, but social distancing will likely remain in force until there are effective antiviral drugs or a vaccine. This will suppress consumer demand, possibly for years, and deepen economic distress for artisans, farmers, and other laborers. The central government remains tone deaf, evident in its laughably small economic relief package equal to 0.7 percent of the GDP, compared to 10 percent in the US, 16 percent in Malaysia, and 20 percent in Germany.

The pandemic could still get very ugly—or resurge in another season—but thus far, despite India’s very cramped social conditions and widespread poor respiratory health due to air pollution, the virus seems to be relatively muted. It appears to be spreading more slowly, and killing fewer infected people, than the global average. Various tentative explanations are floating around: the versatile BCG vaccine, insufficient testing, effective case tracking, international travel restrictions, the lockdown, a younger population, hotter weather, and stronger local immunity from greater pathogen exposure. I’m keen to find out the truth.

A friend in a senior corporate job told me that this pandemic is reminding him of what’s most precious in life, and how so many of the things we chase are empty and vain. He is starting to simplify and recalibrate his life goals. Good for him, I thought, but for so many others the pandemic’s message was already loud and clear: you are poor; you will suffer; you are nothing in this order of things.