This May marked seven years of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule. In 2014 and again in 2019, majority of Indian electorate believed in the development narrative of Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) giving it a resounding victory.
Many people, fed up of misgovernance and corruption of earlier governments, hoped that the answer to India’s woes lay in the development and growth that Modi was promising to bring about. Ordinary citizens as well as some eminent intellectuals bought into the development narrative based on the ‘Gujarat model’ without much interrogation. They chose to overlook the BJP’s communal antecedents and Modi-Shah’s record after the Gujarat communal violence of 2002. The denial of compensation, rehabilitation and justice to survivors was apparently a small matter compared to the mesmerising promise of development.
The gross mishandling of the pandemic is the latest disaster that demolishes the development myth carefully crafted by Modi. Equally significantly, persistent attempts by his acolytes to communalise the pandemic give away the actual game plan of dividing and ruling India. It lays bare the stark truth that there is no policy or plan as consistent as the ideological framework – demonise the Muslims and polarise society.
The politics of polarisation
The pandemic was a reality in February 2020 in most parts of the globe although the intensity was relatively low in India, other countries in South Asia and some other parts of the developing world. The communalisation began right then by demonising Muslim women-led peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) through spreading canards about this community being blind to the risk of COVID-19. Pliant TV channels carried ad nauseum debates on the threat of “Corona Jihad” being carried out by the Tablighis through a gathering at the Markaz in Delhi in early March.
There was no need for a national strategy or operational plan to counter the pandemic when the focus was the “Corona Jihadi Muslim”. The baseless accusations became the staple diet of nightly “debates” for many months, with ruling party spokespersons gleefully contributing to the demonisation of Muslims.
In the meantime, these channels ignored the gory riots in the national capital killing 54 persons, mostly Muslims. They did not question the competence of the government on whose watch the riots happened. They did nothing to call for arrests of those openly caught shouting “goli maaro…” on videos invoking hatred against Muslims. Many Tablighi Jamaat members were arrested on false charges only to be released in 2021 when the Delhi and Bombay high courts called the bluff of the so-called “Corona Jihad”. This pattern has continued throughout the pandemic even as the death toll has risen alarmingly and the virus is raging throughout our cities and villages.
The overcrowded cremation grounds and dead bodies floating in the Ganga provide evidence that insidious politics of religious polarisation helps nobody except the ruling dispensation. It is a handy ploy to evade accountability. It certainly does not help the Hindus even as it dehumanises and decimates Muslims.
Helpless Indians, most of them Hindus if you like, running from hospital to hospital desperately seeking ICU beds for COVID-19 positive family members today will have no doubt that the development talk was only an election strategy. Hopefully they also realise that “blame the Muslim” is a strategy to deflect attention from outright governance failures.
This is amply clear from the way Bangalore MP Tejaswi Surya along with some MLAs tried to yet again blatantly communalise the pandemic by displaying a list with names of Muslim employees engaged in Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) COVID-19 relief work. It is shameful that these BJP men would not deploy their offices and energies to provide succour to the hapless public during the pandemic. They would rather resort to their expertise and the old playbook of communal polarisation and hate.
This highlights another important dimension of the politics of polarisation. The men of Hindutva have no use for the values of empathy, compassion and service to humanity marked by many schools of eclectic Hinduism. The constitutional values of justice and equality for all citizens were abandoned long ago.
Even the latest “toolkit” controversy has a Muslim demonisation and Islamophobia angle. The now deleted tweet by Sambit Patra ostensibly suggested that the Congress party is targeting the government to deflect attention from mass gatherings during Eid. We have all now seen that the government can’t provide adequate vaccination or oxygen cylinders or life-saving injections and drugs or ICU beds. But their acolytes can provide objects to hate if that is a consolation!
The mishandling of the pandemic highlights abject incompetence and ineptitude of those in charge of the nation. The sheer absence of sympathy and compassion for fellow humans drives home the fact about the real purpose behind the controversial CAA. How can a government so immune to the suffering of fellow Indians be so worried about minorities in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh? CAA is nothing but “legalised discrimination” of Muslims and a tool to be deployed whenever convenient.
During the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of middle class citizens complied with the prime minister’s call for thaali bajao (banging plates) to support the fight against the pandemic. Many rational-minded persons laughed at it. But few may have known how this act sends a chill down the spine for so many Muslims in Gujarat.
Growing up in Ahmedabad, I remember how we ran for cover in my Muslim mohalla whenever we heard the thaalis in the curfew hours during communal riots. For us, it announced the attack by a rampaging mob on our locality as peace-loving middle class families indulged in thaali bajao from within the safety of their homes!
The pandemic has proven to be much more than a mere health crisis. It has been a humanitarian crisis, a huge economic crisis as well as a crisis of survival for many. It has brought out the social fault lines in our casteist communal society and the fragility of our public infrastructure. It has brought out how those who rode to power on the promise of development have done nothing to build our healthcare or economy or employment for informal daily wagers.
Instead they have callously attempted to communalise the pandemic. In the meantime, the Muslims continue to live in poverty and backwardness in ghettos reeling under the multiple effects of the pandemic. The pandemic has heightened their exclusion just like scores of other poor and Dalit communities. The mishandling of the pandemic has proved beyond doubt that the politics of communal polarisation is a huge disservice to India and her people, be they Hindus or Muslims.
Zakia Soman is co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.