The Virus, the Muslim and the Migrant: Part I – Comvid 14

PART I OF A THREE PART POST

The term Comvid 14 is gratefully borrowed from Tony Joseph who defined it in a Facebook post as Communalvirus (Comvid 2014), the incubation period for which could be as long as six to seven years. Over fifty percent of infected people remain asymptomatic carriers, the rest going into paroxysms of hate and violence, many also gravitating towards TV newsrooms, according to him.

Suffocating mythologies produced by Hindu supremacism blanket India today.

So first of all, a loud, ringing zindabad to all the courageous journalists, citizen reporters and social media activists whose determined work relentlessly exposes fake news, and counters genocidal journalism in India.

Suchitra Vijayan explains the term “journalism as genocide”:

Rwandan cultural anthropologist Charles Mironko analyzed confessions of a hundred genocide perpetrators. His work confirms the thesis that hate messages in the media had a direct effect on the dehumanization of the population that was subject to persistent slander. Several months of this behavior, in the absence of credible reporting, conditioned the population to hate, and kill.

It is all the dogged fact-checking and on-the-ground reporting that continues to let in the light, through the crack, the crack in everything –  as Leonard Cohen sang; the words that Gautam Navlakha referred to just before he surrendered to the National Investigating Agency, on the orders of the Supreme Court.

This is India today – the violent Hindu Rashtra of Savarkar and Golwalkar’s dreams, under the direct control of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.  And this Hindu Rashtra is built on predatory capitalism – a toxic cocktail, far deadlier than the biological virus that now haunts us.

Just as the pandemic is inflected in its effects differently in different global contexts, the three features of the crisis in India – the virus, the Muslim and the migrant – relate in a way that is specific to ‘here’. The virus has enabled and strengthened predatory capitalism here as it has globally, but it has also reproduced itself through Hindu supremacism, generating two monstrous mutations – Comvid 14 and Coronacapitalism.

And we who will fight and resist both? What of us, how are we to combine, come together, connect to other stories the virus tells us, find our way to other lanes down which it leads us? How will we find and inhabit  those fissures and chinks in which green things can grow, and solidarities, and compassion and hope?

But first, the two monstrous mutations – one in this part, the second in the next.

Hindu supremacism/Hindu chaudhrahat ‘by stealth’

The term Hindutva is no longer sufficient to describe the ideology that drives the Indian state.  Hindutva or Hinduness is indeed the political ideology of Hindu nationalism, but the RSS used to emphasize samrasta or assimilation. What has emerged now is the naked face of Hindu supremacism in institutions of the state. Hindutva has produced the legitimation of Hindu chaudhrahat (a term I borrow from Abhay Dubey who uses it in a very different context). Chaudhrahat is domination without hegemony, backed by the full panoply of state institutions – government, police, courts, administration. But the term chaudhrahat in addition implies caste, class and masculinist power, enforced not only through the state and law,  but also by direct force – through the lathis of the RSS.

Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh men in RSS uniform at a checkpoint during Covid 19 lock-down, near Hyderabad. (Image The New Indian Express)

India has been explicitly and institutionally Hindu Rashtra since the doubtful election victory of the BJP in May 2019, through a process that Yvonne Tew has called ‘stealth theocracy’ in the context of Malaysia. The term theocracy is misleading for India, because there is no one clergy behind Hindutva, its fountainhead being a non-religious political organization, the RSS.  Nevertheless, Tew’s study of Malaysia’s transformation is instructive for us –

the fundamental alteration of a constitution’s secular character through informal change by judicial and political actors, rather than through formal mechanisms like constitutional amendment or replacement.

Formally, the role of Parliament in bringing about Hindu chaudhrahat is starkly evident since the RSS coup d’etat of May 2019 – the abrogation of Article 370, which abolished the state of Kashmir, and placed the now Union Territory under military clampdown that continues until today;  and the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 that pointedly excludes Muslims from the category of persecuted minorities that can seek citizenship of India.

The Supreme Court has played its part – ending the dispute over the demolition of Babri Masjid by declaring the demolition of the mosque to have been a criminal act, but nevertheless, handing over the site to the Hindu petitioners, and asking the government to set up a trust for the construction of the Ram temple.  Here is Hindu chaudhrahat by stealth a pliant  Supreme Court asking the  still nominally secular state to ensure the construction of a Hindu temple at the site of a mosque demolished by the very forces that run the current government.

I am not even going to list the multiple orders by High Courts and by the Supreme Court that protected the BJP; stepped delicately back from addressing Hindu patriarchy while coming down hard on Muslim patriarchy; and penalized dissenters to Hindutva and to crony capitalism.

And we cannot forget the stellar role of the Election Commission of India in the May 2019 election victory.

All of this has been accomplished while retaining the term ‘secular’ in the Preamble to the constitution.  Revealingly, the priority for the RSS now is the removal of the term “socialist” from the Preamble, the term “secular” having been rendered meaningless ‘by stealth’. Both terms were introduced during the Emergency by a Constitutional amendment, but evidently between 2014 and today, and especially from May 2019, the term ‘secular’ has been rendered toothless and can be permitted to remain. Its nominal presence in the Preamble may be necessary to act as a fig leaf for Indian business interests before their global capitalist partners, some of whom may have reservations about blatant Hindu chaudhrahat.

Not all of them, it is true – the right-wing from Europe to the US to Israel, is in tune with Hindu supremacism. But when the powerful Arab countries finally spoke out against blatant Islamophobia in India, then (on April 19, 2020) – and only then – did Narendra Modi tweet about humanist values and the virus having no religion.

COMVID 14

Here is a meticulously researched time-line by Ritika Jain on how Modi’s government deliberately and systematically set off “a spiral of Islamophobia” during the current lock-down over Covid 19.

Here is how the tide of Islamophobia unfolded over 22 days, given life by Modi’s government pointing the finger at the Tablighis and amplified into a wider attack by his party colleagues and supporters.

Until 29th  March, Jain shows,

the media were focused on reporting how thousands, perhaps millions, of migrant workers—jobless, homeless and unprepared because the government imposed a 21-day lockdown with four-hours notice—were streaming out of cities, attempting to make long journeys home by scooter, cycle or on foot.

But by evening that day,

news about the spike broke. The explicit connection by the government was made three days later.

Read this meticulous and damning piece of research here, on the site of Article 14 . The peddling of fake news and videos, and false claims about Muslims and Covid 19, emanated from every level of the RSS network – from the government to BJP MPs, Ministers, and BJP members, to BJP’s IT Cell that runs its virulent social media campaigns.

This had its inevitable spillover into larger society, signalling as it did, legitimacy for violence against Muslims, who then were physically attacked, denied admission to hospitals, a Gujarat hospital separated Hindu and Muslim Covid 19 patients into different wards.  Muslim fruit and vegetable vendors were threatened and boycotted in localities.

In Indore, The Print reported, there has been a noticeable spike in Muslim deaths, not from Covid 19, but from Comvid 14.  The number of bodies buried at one burial ground alone, between 1 and 16 April was 75, compared to 10 in March, 29 in February and 48 in January.

The cause of these deaths were predominantly heart attacks, high blood pressure, diabetes and hypertension. Only 8-10 bodies were those of Covid-19 patients, and they too had tested positive only after death. Several people told the reporters that a lot of these deaths had occurred because the people were denied treatment for ordinary ailments at hospitals, although the administration denied this, claiming that the severity of the lockdown was responsible for the rise in deaths. But there is no corresponding rise in Hindu deaths due to “severity of lockdown”.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, the Commissioner of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation on March 30th issued a circular that the bodies of persons who died of Covid-19 would have to be cremated irrespective of their religion.  There is no such health-based requirement either in the guidelines of the WHO or of the Government of India. After intervention at multiple levels, the circular was withdrawn.

But the message is clear at every level – Muslims must be “taught a lesson”. For not being Hindu.

RSS, Sanghvad and “Hindus”

Let us dwell for a bit on the massive, exclusively male organization, the RSS, founded in 1925 with an agenda of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. It terms itself a cultural, not political, organization, but its members control the BJP.  The Prime Minister and the Home Minister are both hard-core members of the RSS, as are many other BJP Ministers and office holders of the party.

Prime Minister Modi giving the RSS salute at a function when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat

There are hundreds of other organizations that function under the umbrella of the RSS, and its ideology has been termed Sanghvad, which is the particular form that fascism is taking in India.

Sanghvad is of course about Hindu supremacism or Hindu chaudhrahat, but the term “Hindu” is worth unpacking here. The RSS has a vision of Hinduism that normalizes only North Indian, upper caste practices as “Hindu”, thus delegitimizing, or attempting to assimilate, the practices and beliefs and deities of Dalit Bahujan communities as well as peninsular India. Savarkar for example, in Essentials of Hindutva, trying to establish the idea of a vast Hindu majority, says:

We have feasts and festivals in common. We have rites and rituals in common. The Dasara and the Divali, the Rakhibandhan and the Holi are welcomed wherever a Hindu breathes, Sikhs and Jains, Brahmans and Panchams alike…(P 36)

But of course this was not true in his time and it is not true now. For example, Holi is not celebrated in the South of India, and across the tribal belts, Mahishasura is worshipped by Adivasis, the demon king defeated by Durga, as seen in the picture below, from Purulia, Bengal.

Adivasis worshipping Mahishasura.

In 2017, in Pakhanjor of Chhatisgarh, Adivasis registered an FIR against the performance of Durga Puja in their district, and Adivasis from different parts of Chhattisgarh have also warned the government not to allow people to burn the effigy of Ravana as it hurts their religious sentiments. 

Hinduism is thus merely the label that enables the assertion of an eternal identity, one that claims to be in the majority in India. The term also helps to discipline diverse practices of castes and communities into this mould of Hinduism defined in a narrow North Indian, Brahminical/savarna masculinist way.  Sanghvad thus, implies the attempt to enforce this Brahminical view over most of India.

But in addition, Savarkar makes it explicit that for a Hindu Rashtra to be built, there needs to be a common enemy, defined as different in every way from “us”:

Moreover everything that is common in us with our enemies, weakens our power of opposing them. The foe that has nothing in common with us is the foe likely to be most bitterly resisted by us… The necessity of creating a bitter sense of wrong invoking a power of undying resistance…(P 12)

This possibility of a bitter sense of wrong and desire for revenge was undermined by Buddhism that provided instead “the opiates of Universalism and non-violence”, but now the time had come to emerge from that addiction and define the enemy – the Muslim.

Sanghvad in action – not just “business as usual” for the Indian state

Since the 1990s, the RSS has increased its reach over individuals in state institutions, in the police, the bureaucracy.  In states in which the BJP is in power, RSS has direct control over the state governments. Gradually since 2014 and especially since May 2019, through this kind of reach, the RSS has established a violent hold over minorities, Muslims in particular, through a nexus between state government, police and local criminals.

Only in the states in which the BJP is in power, have the nation-wide anti-CAA protests supposedly ‘turned violent’, because police are under the control of state governments, except in Delhi, where Delhi Police come under the central government.  Footage has emerged from fact-finding investigations in these states, especially Uttar Pradesh under Yogi Adityanath, by citizens’ groups, that suggests possible police complicity and even participation, along with RSS activists and local criminals, in incidents of stone -throwing, and arson on public property and so on. Such violence that “breaks out” is followed by massive and violent state reprisals on Muslims. Mass arrests, brutal beatings in police custody, and in UP, state demands for huge amounts in “compensation” for state property destruction. These claims have been made even from individuals who were actually under preventive house arrest during the time the protests “turned violent.”

Fact finding reports into the violence against Muslims in Uttar Pradesh during the anti CAA protests early in January 2020, as well as in Delhi in February 2020,  suggest police complicity in anti-Muslim violence, and that men in plain-clothes with lathis were accompanying the police.  In Delhi too, the violence was exclusively in the 7 constituencies (out of 70) that BJP won in the recent state Assembly elections of February 2020.

Journalists too, have reported on the reign of terror that police have unleashed on Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.

There is of course, a long history of police brutality and excesses in independent India, and not only against Muslims, as this reading list testifies.

So it is natural for some of those who have been justifiably critical of Indian democracy as it has functioned for over 70 years, to argue that this moment is simply business as usual, that most Indians have lived under an undeclared Emergency this whole time – Dalits, Adivasis, the poor, and of course, Muslims. This moment, they say, is just another step in that journey that began with “a tryst with destiny”.

But this would be a mistaken analysis. It’s like an old style Marxist analysis that sees no difference between the liberal democratic state and the fascist state because both are capitalist. There is a specificity to this moment that we must recognize.

There are three features I think, that constitute specific transformations to the Indian political system by Hindu Rashtra.

First, the formal dispossession and disowning of the Muslim.

Of course, as the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 showed, Muslims  were even lower in socio-economic indicators than SC/ST communities, which are historically marginalized and continue to be. And there have been pogroms against Muslims before, also mostly conducted by RSS-linked groups. But formally, legally, all communities  were constitutionally equal.

What recent developments have achieved is the dropping of this formal equality as far as Muslims are concerned. The direct targeting of Muslim lives and livelihoods has been mainstreamed. For instance, by activating or passing new laws on “cow slaughter”, which act as the cover for attacks by police and vigilante groups  on all cattle trading.  But at the same time, the threat of lynching and arrests enables a network of extortion by the Bajrang Dal, which permits the cattle business  to continue, on payment of protection money, as Niranjan Takle found when he did an undercover sting operation in Gujarat.

The government’s passing of the law criminalizing triple talaq which had already been banned by the Supreme Court, is another signal to its supporters and to Muslims, that the latter are to be disenfranchised in multiple ways.  Already Muslim men are imprisoned vastly disproportionately to their share in the population, (as are Dalits and tribals), and this law will add to their number. Why are desertions of wives only by Muslim men an issue for this government? If desertion of wives by men in general were to be criminalized, over fifty percent of Indian men of all religions would probably be behind bars.

The most crucial instance of the formal disenfranchisement of Muslims is of course, the Constitutional Amendment Act, 2019, referred to earlier, which pointedly excludes Muslims alone from refugee status, a forerunner to the National Register of Citizens that will identify “illegal immigrants”, a code word for Muslims. The Home Minister began by spelling out the “chronology” of CAA to NPR to NRC; then there was a stepping back after nation-wide protests erupted, and Modi claimed that people were being “misled” by Opposition parties, that no NRC was being contemplated. But within 3 months,  the government reiterated to the Supreme Court that “preparation of NRC was a necessary exercise for any sovereign country for identification of citizens from non-citizens, and to deport or expel illegal migrants.”

‘Illegal migrant’ and ‘doubtful citizen’ are code words for Muslims. But not all doubtful citizens will be placed in detention centres. Nor will all of these be Muslims. There simply wouldn’t be enough space to accommodate all Muslims and non-Muslims who fail the NRC test. Because what papers are acceptable, will be decided by anybody at all in the chain of command, from the local person you know, to the sahab sitting in South Block or the judge in a remote court, speaking a language you don’t understand.

After two key amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, there are 3 categories one could fall in depending on date of birth.

If you are born between 1950 and 1987 in India, birth in India is sufficient for citizenship.

If born between 1987 and 2004 in India, additionally one parent needs to be an Indian citizen.

If born after 2004, one parent should be an Indian citizen and additionally neither parent should be an “illegal immigrant.”

This identity of “illegal immigrant” is acquired on the basis of suspicion by the government officials or neighbours, or those who have an eye on the land you live in.  But effectively, every person born after 2004 in India must prove that one of their parents is NOT an illegal alien. And the burden of proof is on the person accused.

What this will inaugurate is the large scale disenfranchisement of Muslims but also of the poor in general, Dalits, and other minorities – removed from electoral rolls, deprived of all status. How will anybody prove they are not Muslim, or that they are Hindu? That one parent is an Indian citizen, that neither parent is an illegal immigrant?

In effect, the NRC will ensure that the entire country will become a detention centre, the vast mass of the population excluded from electoral rolls and living in terror and uncertainty, at the mercy of extortionists and blackmailers.

Many of these would simply be collateral damage, because the NRC’s target is the Muslim.

Already, during the lockdown, despite the fact that the NPR has been suspended, we hear of Muslim landholders, generations old  in Uttar Pradesh, being contacted by local officials and asked to produce papers of ownership. For what purpose? Why is property ownership being examined? This factor is in any case not relevant to either the NPR or the NRC.  What sinister plots are being hatched in that state now?

The functioning of Comvid 14  becomes evident from the systematic swoop down by police during the lock-down, to arrest Muslims involved in the peaceful anti CAA protests. While the protests were on, the entire country was electrified, and it was not only Muslims who were protesting. Arrests or removal of protest sites during that time would have been a huge embarrassment to the state. But once the “public health” claim was made, protest sites were dismantled violently by police, and arrests carried out, with no questions asked about the status of people in police custody. For instance, activist Khalid Saifi was seen being moved by police after his detention, in a wheelchair with both his legs in casts, an injury he did not have when he was arrested. 

Throughout the Covid 19-related lock-down, Delhi Police has continued to arrest large numbers of Muslims in North East Delhi for the community-specific violence in those districts in February this year. Muslims were the ones largely affected, in their lives and property, and it is Muslims who are being arrested in large numbers.

And now, Umar Khalid and two Jamia students (also Muslim) have been booked under the draconian UAPA, charged with “inciting violence” in Delhi’s northeast districts, which as we have already discussed, was systematically planned and incited by BJP leader Kapil Mishra.

In short there is no doubt that the lock-down is being treated as a political emergency in which democratic rights can be violated by the state with impunity, especially the rights of of Muslims.

Second, Hindu Rashtra functions through controlled chaos.

Unlike the manufacture of organized “communal riots” in the earlier phases, which had beginnings and endings, what has been unleashed since 2014 is a lynch mob culture, which produces a state of continuous turbulence, threat and terror (a  mood best captured by the dark Malayalam film S Durga). Violence can now be sparked anywhere by even one or two activists of the Sangh parivar, drawing in a larger crowd which recognizes that with impunity it can participate actively, or enjoy the violence and record it. This new kind of violence targets not entire communities, but some Muslim individuals, some Dalit individuals, some individual women. Each time therefore, the authorities can say that this particular act was not a casteist or communal incident, not an instance of sexual violence, but simply an aberrant criminal act. Each one a law and order issue to be dealt with separately.

The impunity unleashed is such that it compensates young unemployed subaltern men for their utter lack of power in the system, and for the crashing economy. They don’t need work, jobs, income, when they can have the heady rush of stopping a random middle class man and forcing him to say Jai Shri Ram.  In one case the man happened to be a Hindu doctor, and in another instance it was a white tourist in Varanasi, but there have been innumerable incidents of Muslims being forced to chant Jai Shri Ram and being thrashed, tortured, killed.

Acts of violence against Dalits too, have gone up in number and intensity since 2014, 

This lynch mob culture taps into deep reserves of justification of violence against Dalits and women in Hindu society, and what the Sangh parivar has done is to unleash it from its secret places out into the open.

The pogrom against Muslims in Delhi in February 2020 and in Uttar Pradesh in early January was of the older, more established kind – organized, manufactured targeting of Muslims homes, businesses, persons – systematic, thorough, well planned in advance.  Sometimes this may have provoked some defensive push-back from the community, but it was  by no means an equally matched “religious riot”. And it is even possible that some of the violence on Hindu homes and shops were also pre-planned to give this impression.

It is unclear what exactly happened here, as Singh was not on the scene when it was burnt. A few bystanders, including one police officer, speculate that petrol bombs may have been dropped by a mob from nearby buildings. Whether this was done in defence by Muslim victims, or on purpose by a mob, is unclear.

Paul Brass terms this as ‘institutionalized systems of riot production‘. The term ‘riot’ is a deliberate misnomer, suggesting spontaneous and unpredictable mass action. In fact, ‘communal riots’ in India involve, Brass demonstrated through extensive studies, carefully calibrated activities by people with precisely designated roles and responsibilities – informants, propagandists, journalists who produce propaganda as news.

It is a devastating disappointment for the future of democracy in India that the Aam Admi Party too adopted the stance of “both sides are to blame” in Delhi – out of political opportunism? Calculation of electoral gains from soft Hindutva?

But to return to the RSS, while the older model of sudden systematic pogroms has not been given up, the maintaining of a constant state of controlled chaos, mutual suspicion and an atmosphere of terror is the default condition now. An extreme indication of the collapse of society is the generalized violence against doctors involved in treating of covid patients, even obstruction of funerals of doctors who have died in saving lives, which has led to the Indian Medical Association issuing a demand for an Ordinance protecting medical personnel:

The IMA says that doctors have been abused, beaten up, denied entry and lodging since coronavirus outbreak. According to the letter by the IMA, obstruction to cremation of doctors who lost their lives fighting the virus was the last straw. 

This kind of violence does not have to do directly with the RSS, but it does signal the complete breakdown of societal norms in the vacuum produced by a central government visible only in its brutally repressive functions, a feature that can be directly linked to the RSS takeover.

Third, we see the unprecedented, massive, continuing crackdown on expressions of dissent, even by private individuals on social media, the throttling of freedom of expression and of critical thinking, especially in universities. In fact, the draft New Education Policy envisages bringing all education directly under the  Prime Minister.

The way in which individuals are targeted, is through police complaints and court cases by supposedly private individuals, but the fact that police and courts take such complaints seriously is an indication that RSS individuals have gained control in key places. Recently, in an extraordinary move, the government banned two TV channels for 48 hours, for “being critical of RSS” and  “siding with one community” in their coverage of the Delhi pogrom. That is, these channels did not present one of two acceptable narratives – that “both sides are to blame” or that Muslims were responsible for the violence. But more importantly, “being critical of the RSS” was explicitly stated as a reason for the ban. The order was withdrawn after strong protests from the media, but the heavy hand of the RSS on the reins of India-as-Hindu-Rashtra is very evident. The censorship of opinion is completed by the debilitation of the media, largely intimidated or bought over, so that self censorship often obviates the need for Sangh activist or government action.

It is true that suppression of dissent happened during the Emergency too , but that was a period of two declared years, and conducted by the state. Now we are over five years down – and counting – into an undeclared war on dissenters (including assassinations) – by the state, by anybody whose sentiments are hurt, by armed Hindutva terrorist organizations.

In short, how the current regime is very different from the Emergency, is that while the latter clearly polarized the situation into state versus the people, Hindu Rashtra has produced a situation of molecular everyday violence against certain sections, which has begun to take the form of an on-going, entirely one-sided civil war against Muslims in particular but also Dalits and other minorities. The other key difference between authoritarianism and fascism, as Egyptian scholar Mamdouh Habashi pointed out at a seminar, is that authoritarianism is not propelled by a distinct ideology, as is fascism. As is Sanghvad.

These three features, each inextricably tied to nationalism, are what mark out Hindu Rashtra from business as usual. Each feature has ways of marking out the nationalist from the anti-national, even in a pandemic, and each is about explicitly establishing Hindu chaudhrahat.

But while all authoritarianism is not fascism, all fascism is authoritarianism. As Suhash Palshikar puts it

In the urgent enthusiasm to ensure a national fight against the pandemic, smaller voices about cross-party consultation, federal principles, judicial oversight, are all consigned to outdated textbooks of politics and governance…. there is only one fount of wisdom, one source of policy, one centre of power.

What we see, in short, in the name of public health requirements, is the suspension of all democratic processes; the eclipse of We the People, an invocation that had electrically crackled to new life during the anti CAA protests; and the takeover of the country by an opaque Hindu supremacist government, which owes allegiance only to one organization – the RSS, which has no accountability whatsoever to anything outside itself.

To be continued

Part II Forced Labour and Data Capitalism

Part III Rewilding, Pirate Care and Solidarity

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