Coronavirus and ‘Social Distance’ (part 2)

By : Update Study Group | : 17 March, 2022
Coronavirus and ‘Social Distance’ (part 2)

The first case of Corona was detected in India on 13th January. At that time the government was quite indifferent to it. Even when the World Health Organization (WHO) alarmed the world, the Government of India was unmoved. When the WHO declared pandemic on 12th March, still the government’s stand was not to pay much attention to it. Rather the Central Government declared on 13th March that there was no reason to panic as it was not a state of health emergency.1 Thousands of devoted pilgrims visited the temples, churches, mosques uninterrupted in those days. Large gatherings at marriages were very common. The government kept the parliament open till 23rd March because of the skulduggery horse-trading going on in MP. On 19th March, while this pandemic was billed as the greatest crisis since the second world war, and the red alerts ringed all over the Europe-America, in India the Government declared “a mass-curfew on the coming Sunday”. Then on 24th March, leaving only 4 hours for the perturbed people and arranging no means, or backup or planning to provide for the daily income and livelihoods of millions, the great ministers of the government went wading through the cheers and applauses of their supporters and declared, “a nation wide lockdown from the next day onwards” would be “effective immediately”.

The extreme misery migratory labourers are facing for survival, the way government is playing cards over their lives and livelihoods and their desperation to reach their homes even on foot is another story.  We have already discussed about these problems in the first part of this essay. But by the end of March the stage was set for another drama. On 30th March the peoples were informed that Corona virus has spread in India due to a Muslim congregation named ‘Tablighi Jamaat’ held in Delhi at Nizamuddin. Therefore, “Be on your guard countrymen”!

 This is what happened at Nizamuddin in Delhi. A sect of Muslims organized an international congregation in Delhi between 13th and 15th March. 2000-3000 delegates participated in that meeting. Central Government granted visa to those foreign delegates. They have entered this land along with other Indians studying or working abroad. At their arrival the government has either conducted minimal health check-ups at airports or allowed thousands of unrestricted visitors mingle freely in the sea of people. (Instead of sending them for quarantine). The building that housed the congregation is adjacent to the police station and Delhi Police is under the control of Central Government. So, this is hard to believe that the government was totally in the dark. The Central Government claimed on 13th March that no health emergency has been created although on the same day AAP government (of Delhi) had banned gatherings of more than 200 people except for weddings. But offices, courts and public transports were running as usual. There is enough reason to doubt the ability of the police and administration of AAP government if they claim that they did not know anything about the congregation that took place right in front of their locality. Anyway, the AAP government prohibited any gatherings of people exceeding 50 persons on 16th March.2 By that time the Tablighi Congregation had ended, all the participants could have been sent back immediately only if the government wanted to do so. But neither the Central Government nor the AAP government had taken any initiative to send them back.

Even the doors of the great temples of India were kept open for devotees till 18th, 19th and 20th March. Thousands of devotees visited these temples during that time. For example, around five thousand devotees visited Somnath temple in Gujarat on each 18th and 19th March. Khoaldam temple has received seven thousand devotees daily. Iskcon temple in Ahmedabad has received eight thousand devotees on 18th March and around ten to twelve thousand devotees on 19th March. Dwarka temple has allowed five thousand devotees on 18th March and 2500-3000 devotees on 19th March.3 Besides this Siddhi Vinayak and Mahakaleswar temple was opened till 16th March. Shirdi Sai temple and Shani Shingnapur temple was closed down on 17th March onwards. Vaishno Devi temple had been closed on 18th March and Kashi Viswa Nath temple was kept open till 20th March.4 Even Tirupati temple remained open for the devotees till 20th March. Moreover, till 20th March, Uttar Pradesh Government was firm on organizing a Ram Navami fair between 25th March and 2nd April. Only after the declaration of the lockdown on 24th March they gave up that plan.5 Though Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh along with his followers has founded the idol of Ram-Lala in the so-called birthplace of Lord Ram on 26th March in between the lockdown.

The leaders of Sangh Parivar, members of the IT cell of BJP and the media – ‘His Master’s Voice’ of BJP – began to spread different types of news against Tablighi congregation from 30th March onwards. Needless to say, most of these news is fake. B.L. Santosh, the national general secretary of BJP remarked, “Markaz in Nizamuddin” is a “new hot spot of Coronavirus”.6 A senior journalist Twitted on 31st March, “if Corona jihad is a reality there should be proper probe against it”. (Ibid) In reality, #Corona Jihad has been tweeted o.3 million times in social media since 28th March and 165 million people have viewed it. Besides this, the Muslims were referred as ‘corona bomb’, ‘human bomb’, ‘traitor’, ‘terrorist’ etc, in an indiscriminate manner. (Ibid). Sambit Patra, national spokesperson of BJP referred Tablighi congregation as “criminal negligence”. Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal referred this congregation as ‘highly irresponsible’ and ordered to file FIR against the Tablighi chief Maulana Saad and Delhi Police has applied epidemic act of 1897 Against him subsequently. (Ibid). Everyday, between 1st to 5th April, Lav Agarwal, the joint secretary of Central Government accused Tablighi Jamaat for spur in Corona cases. He told on 5th April, the cases of Corona are doubling in 4.1 days, and had the congregation at Nizamuddin not taken place, it would have doubled in 7.4 days.7 On 8th April, seven days after the central government first blamed the conference at Nizamuddin for the spread of Covid-19 in India, Mike Ryan, emergency program director of WHO expressed the organization’s disapproval. “This does not help” Said Ryan, "having Covid-19 is nobody's fault. Every case is a victim. It is important that we don't profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines”.8 But the Central Government had nothing to do after this comment. Anybody, informed of the situation will agree that the international congregation of Tablighi Jamaat was quite unnecessary and irresponsible at that time. Still it must be noted that there was no prohibition from the part of administration against the congregation at that point of time. But it is more irresponsible to make accountable 200 million Muslims for the spread of the disease.  Isn’t it very pertinent to ask why a particular community should be condemned for the spread of Covid-19?

But the profiling was done. Amit Malviya, the chief of BJP’s IT cell twitted on 1st April, “Delhi’s dark underbelly is exploding! Last 3 months have seen an Islamic insurrection of sorts, first in the name of anti CAA protests, from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia, Jafrabad to Seelampur and now the illegal gathering of the radical Tablighi jamaat at the Markaz. It needs a fix!”9 On 6th April, BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje claimed that the members of the Tablighi Jamaat who were admitted at hospital in Belagavi in Karnataka were spitting, misbehaving with the hospital staff, dancing and gesturing indecently. Her claim was later denied by the Deputy Commissioner of the district. (Ibid) On 5th April, Hindi daily Amar Ujala has mentioned in the cover story that the Tablighi Jamaatis in the quarantine centre in Saharanpur have refused to take vegetarian meal, threw away the food and defecated in the open. Here also police denied any such reporting.10 Fraudulent reports of the Muslims being spitting on the food they've been selling, somewhere they have been alleged to urinate in the bottle and spread the urine over the fruits they were selling, at some other places patients are demanding for egg and biryani at hospitals, again there is news about Sufis sneezing together to spread coronavirus! False and misleading news aired by channels like Hindustan, ABP News, TV9 Gujrat, S24 News Channel, India Today etc.  At least 69 fake videos were released, viewed and shared by millions, and twitted by 0.25 million of people. (Ibid) Even the left-leaning newspaper The Hindu published a cartoon showing the world being held hostage by the coronavirus – with the virus itself depicted wearing clothing associated with the Muslims.11 The atmosphere of hatred is so overwhelming as if each Muslim is a virus himself. When an appeal was made in the Supreme Court for circulating and transmission of fake news, the Chief Justice remarked on April 13, “We cannot curb the freedom of press.”12   

The result was evident. M.P. Renukacharya, a BJP MLA of Karnataka accused the Tablighis for the spread of Coronavirus and openly declared that those who were denying health check-up should be shot. He further added that those who were spreading Covid-19 were terrorists, traitors.13 Also, the chief of Navnirman Sena of Maharashtra, Raj Thackeray, suggested to shot the ‘undisciplined’ Tablighis. Rajeeb Bindal, BJP chief of Himachal Pradesh remarked that some people like Tablighi jamaatis are roaming around like ‘human bombs’. In 3rd week of April, in the outskirts of Delhi, an angry mob raised the slogan as, “they” are conspiring to smash the Hindus by Corona Jihad while mercilessly beating Dilshad Mehboob Ali with sticks and shoes.14 In Haldwani (Uttarakhand) the Muslim fruit sellers were forced to shut their shops by a group of people. In a village in Mangalore posters came of stating that no Muslim traders was allowed into the village.15 The small minorities of Muslim families of Harewali and Qutabgarh villages near Haryana-Delhi border region, have been told that they must live according to Hindu customs otherwise they would be thrown out of the villages. In one egregious incident, two Muslim social workers who had been distributing food to the needy in Bengaluru was attacked by a mob.16 Actually, this news are only the tip of the iceberg. How many media are daring to print what is happening in reality?

 The independent permanent Human Rights Commission of the organization of Islamic Corporation had condemned the unrelenting vicious Islamophobic campaign in India maligning Muslims subjecting them to discrimination and violence with impunity. On April 19 Sunday, the OIC-IPHRC urged the Indian Government to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia in India.17 It is surprising but true that just after this criticism Prime Minister Narendra Modi twitted on April 19, “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, cast, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together”.18 After all, India is dependent on Gulf countries for supply of crude oil and Gulf countries employ over 10 million Indians, who contribute billions to the Indian economy. Notwithstanding all these, it is very hard to erase the sort of profiling and data went on for almost 3 weeks.

It is quite true that number of participants of Tablighi jamaat have been found Covid-19 positive. The reason is not obscure. The government has conducted an intense testing on these representatives and so their infection has been detected. Had the government conducted such intensive testing on thousands of devotees visited the temples, or NRIs, certainly the detected rate of infection would have mounted specially when government itself informed that 80% patients are asymptomatic. Therefore, the doctors, specialists, and ICMR have zeroed on the fact that a number of asymptomatic patients have been spread all over India.19

 Advanced western countries are purposefully blaming China from the beginning for the spread of pandemic. Apart from blaming China, Indians pointed towards the people of North-Eastern states for the spread of the virus. They're often teased as ‘momo’, ‘chinki’, etc. and passers-by pass lewd remarks at them, started referring to them as coronavirus and even assaulted them. It is not that this racism has started because of corona but amid the novel coronavirus scare a new wave of racism and xenophobia seems to have started.20

People of the world as well as India have been told repeatedly to maintain ‘social distance’. ‘Social distance’ is a meaningful term at least in the context of India. One out of every five citizens in India is either a Dalit or a Tribe. They’re treated as untouchables by upper cast people. They live in the outskirts of the villages or towns, in the slums or ghettos or in remote forest and hills. Over and again they become bound to carry barehanded excreta of the upper caste so that the upper caste may live neat and clean, well educated, cultured, creative. All the filthy jobs of the society are entitled for the Dalits. They're around 210 million in number. The condition of the Adivasis (tribals) in India is no different. Around 115 million of these marginal people are none but wild and uncivilized or barbaric for the babus. Upper caste Hindus have been very cautiously maintaining social distancing from these 325 million dalits and Adivasis. Sometimes these people living outside the periphery of the caste system want some share of the privileges preserved for the upper caste; but they are answered for their ‘insolence’ in lynching, murder and even the innocent women of their families are gang-raped. Moreover, there are around 410 million shudras living in the lowest rung of the caste system.21 They are believed to be destined to serve the upper caste people. They are regarded as lower caste, socially alienated shudras, living far behind the dignity and aristocracy of the upper caste people. But the spread of capitalism has created a creamy layer among them who are equally eager to keep distancing from the dalits and the Adivasis. Apart from them there are 20 million Muslims – no comparison could be made between the upper caste elites and these ‘uncultured’, ‘uneducated’, ‘filthy beef-eaters’. Basically, they have been made to live in overcrowded slums, shacks or ghettos. They are those ‘others’ whom a number of upper caste Hindus and others detest, keep away from their touch, slams all the Muslims as ‘Pakistani’ or ‘terrorists’. This is our India! Here social distancing is very much a part of daily life and this social distancing prevail in India from time immemorial.

Therefore, it does not create any inconvenience for the upper caste people when it is advised to practice social distancing; but for the marginalised people living in slums, shacks and ghettos where they are compelled to packed up together in a room of 10 feet by 10 feet, it seems to be the greatest joke of the century.

Moreover, the prevalent system of social distancing becomes ominous when it is cocktailed with Hindutva or fascist ideology. By means of this any group or community may be pointed as ‘enemy of the people’. One particular community is blamed for any kind of crisis (as it is pandemic now) that may arise and rest of the community is enraged to take necessary action against them. This very practice is going on in India now. Long before the Second World War European countries have targeted the Jews. The way Nazi Germany coined the Jews as the enemy of the people and murdered them brutally in the concentration camps to secure the purity of the ‘Aryan’ German civilization and society – that gruesome violence is still alive in the annals of history. In the meantime, countries like the USA, Italy, Germany, France, Hungary, Austria and the UK began to blame the Chinese, Asian, Blacks, Africans or ‘illegal immigrants’ accountable for the spread of the coronavirus and the process of criminalization of refugees as enemy of the people has intensified. What the capitalists can do to cover up their crime will be clear in the days to come.

The rulers of India have adopted the same path. They have gained pace in using the pandemic situation in favour of setting up a fascist regime or stamping a particular community as the ‘enemy of the people’. However, if the economic crisis intensifies due to the pandemic, if millions of people lose their livelihood, if the country faces famine, how the rulers would implement their policies will be clear in the days to come – specially in a situation when the ruling classes are taking the advantage of the pandemic situation to sharpen the state machinery. That will be discussed in the next part of the essay.   

Update Study Group, 08.05.2020



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21. Sangh Parivar and Hindutvavad: Basis, Genesis, Development, Update Study Group; Kolkata: Setu Prakashani, p 281-82.