As of April 26, 2020, COVID-19 had affected nearly 27,000 Indians and claimed over 800 lives in the country. Of course, these were the reported numbers; the actual number of known cases may be much higher, the number of unknown cases higher still. But even if we accept these numbers to be accurate, they are only one aspect of the tragedy unfolding in the country of 1.3 billion people.
In pre-modern times, epidemics were almost guaranteed to be accompanied by famine and war. It is fitting that in Narendra Modi’s India—which is apparently involved desperate effort to not only return to pre-modern times but to some ancient, mythical Indian civilization—this same pattern is revealing itself. In the midst of the pandemic, the BJP regime has realized its own inability to prevent mass suffering in a country where hundreds of millions live in poverty. This is their famine. And as always, the frustrations that should be channeled to Delhi have been redirected towards the usual scapegoats: Muslims. This is their war.
India reported its first case of COVID-19 on January 30, and a trickle of related cases started to emerge. All of these could be traced to returning students from Wuhan, China. In early March, 14 members of an Italian tourist group were discovered to have COVID-19. They also contributed to spreading the infection. A few days later, a Sikh preacher died, and it was only then that anyone realized that he had suffered from COVID-19.
Startlingly, it was also discovered that he had recently traveled to Europe, and that upon his return he had been one of tens of thousands of participants in a Sikh festival. On March 31, a gathering of Tablighi Jama‘at, a Muslim organization, was held in Delhi, and it emerged as a hotspot for the spread of COVID-19.
Modi ordered a strict lockdown at 8 PM on March 24, saying that it would go into effect at midnight—giving his country only four hours to prepare before shops, modes of transport, and even pharmacies were shut down. This left daily wage labourers without a source of income. Thousands of migrant workers were left to find their way home to their villages, often by walking hundreds of kilometres to get there.
Homeless shelters quickly became overcrowded and people lined up close to each other in hopes of getting some of the meagre rations being handed out. In the words of one of those seeking relief, “Some of us will die, some of us will live to suffer. We are poor. We’ve been left here to die. Our lives are of no value to anyone.”
Videos soon emerged of police brutally assaulting those violating the restrictions, and reports of people starving in their homes but refusing to seek help out of fear of what may happen to them. Protective equipment and tests for COVID-19 are scarce; India’s low number of known cases may be due to the fact that it can only do 10.5 tests for every million residents. (For comparison, South Korea can do 6,000 tests per million.) Even the factories that can produce the necessary equipment lost precious time as they tried to figure out whether they could open despite the lockdown.
As the BJP regime’s incompetence became clear, their supporters on social media took to bashing Muslims, especially the Tablighi Jama‘at due to their March 31 meeting. This turned into the #CoronaJihad campaign, suggesting that Muslims were deliberately spreading COVID-19. A BJP minister referred to the meeting as a “Talibani crime”.
Reports about Muslims spitting on hospital staff and into Hindus’ food circulated widely, and some were spread by a BJP MP despite the hospital and local authorities denying the claims. At least two young Muslims have been lynched by mobs in separate incidents, supposedly because they were violating the lockdown; one wonders how the mob itself was formed amid all the restrictions! In early April, a leader of the Tablighi Jama‘at was arrested on charges of “culpable homicide” for his alleged role in the spread of COVID-19, even though the facts of this case are strongly disputed.
Perhaps the most startling case is that of a hospital in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, which was found to be segregating COVID-19 patients on the basis of religion: one ward for Hindus, another for Muslims. The hospital staff claimed that instructions to do this came from the government, but government officials denied this—notably, without actually condemning it or mentioning any corrective action that they would take. A hospital staff member then revealed that some of the Hindu patients felt uncomfortable sharing a ward with Muslims, so the two groups were temporarily segregated. Imagine that: suffering from COVID-19, likely having difficulty breathing and knowing that these may be the last moments of their lives, some of the patients felt compelled to make sure that the Muslims suffer all of this in a separate ward!
Meanwhile, Modi was faithfully fulfilling his role as the supreme leader of India, by making tearful apologies to the country’s starving poor, showing Indians how to perform yoga while they are at home, and launching campaigns of clapping and lamp-lighting. The mere mention of the word “retaliation” by US Present Donald Trump, who warned that this is a step the US may take if India did not release supplies of a malaria-fighting drug which Trump believes can help fight COVID-19, was enough to make Modi submit to the “request”. And when social influencers in Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia recently started to release a trickle of tweets against the oppression of Indian Muslims, Modi felt obliged to finally come forward and share a generic message that all Indians must come together to fight against COVID-19.
The Islamophobia that Modi’s regime was willfully spreading just a couple of months ago, when many around the world were dismissing it as India’s “internal affair” or were simply too distracted to pay any attention to, is now embarrassing the Hindu supremacist club on the global stage. How, many wonder, can a people be so consumed by ignorance that even in the midst of a pandemic, they are so fixated on scapegoating a minority? How is it that in a country where people are scared to violate a lockdown even to get food they need to survive, there are some who are not scared of violating a lockdown to go into the street to lynch a Muslim?
There are certainly many Indians who must be living peacefully and supportively with their neighbours during this challenging time. At least one promising story that has emerged is that of a predominantly Muslim community which helped perform the last rites of a Hindu neighbour who passed away. That is the spirit of caring which enables a society to survive even the greatest of challenges, such as COVID-19. Rather than promote such a spirit, the BJP regime has tried to spread poison in their own society and has encouraged its citizens to hate and distrust each other. They are experts in creating crises which serve their interests, but one can hope that Indians and the rest of the world will remember that when faced with a real crisis, Modi did yoga while Indians starved.