In April, Dr. David Nabarro, a WHO special envoy on COVID, singled out India’s coronavirus response for praise, saying ‘Indians know how to do it’, after the country decisively locked down the entire country to prevent the disease from spreading. What we see in India today tells a very different story. As cases have continued to rise, the most vulnerable in India have been hit hardest by the lockdown, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is using the lockdown as a way to suppress his critics and make dramatic changes to the Indian state.
Surprise Lockdown: Panic, Distress, and Climate of Fear
Modi surprised the entire country on 24 March. At 8 pm, he announced on a government-owned news channel that a nationwide lockdown would be enforced from midnight. All workplaces, schools, shops and hotels were shut down. India had one of the harshest lockdowns in the world in March, according to Oxford University’s Stringency Index.
The government did not consider the 88 million people living in extreme poverty when it locked down. After the measures were announced, the homeless and beggars had only four hours to find shelter, and rural migrants were forced to flee to their homes thousands of miles away as any prospect of work disappeared. These migrant workers ended up travelling thousands of miles back to their villages without any money or medical supplies.
Men, women, the elderly, and the pregnant walked barefoot, carrying their small children and heavy luggage on their backs and heads.
Some only reached their destination after tolerating the brutality of the police, who used violence to enforce the coronavirus restrictions.
Immediately after the lockdown, most hospitals stopped taking non-COVID patients and were forced by the government to close their out-patient departments and cancel elective surgeries. Pregnant women in labour were denied admission. Meanwhile, the government’s closure of factories and workplaces led to the loss of livelihoods of another million workers, who are struggling to survive. Many have died due to a lack of medical care and hundreds have committed suicide. In a normal year, 27 percent of the people who die in India will have received no medical attention. That number will be far greater in 2020, thanks to the lockdown measures.
Modi’s administration has dangerously ignored the scientific advice during the pandemic. According to leading Indian professional health associations, the government has failed to consult the country’s epidemiologists and experts and relied on the technical advice of the clinical establishment and bureaucrats. As a result, India has introduced ‘ill-planned, hasty lockdowns’ even though the pandemic has ‘not been as fearsome as projected’.
Even the Indian health ministry’s own epidemiologists and health teams have reportedly been side-lined by the government. Annoyed with this, an anonymous epidemiologist working on the PM’s Covid-19 task force has told a leading Indian magazine that ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the lockdown has failed due to the adoption of unscientific methods.’
Modi’s approach to the pandemic can be summed up by the measures taken in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya. The region is one of the areas least affected by COVID in India, with just 44 confirmed cases and only one death. On June 2, the local health department declared that all of its citizens would be classed as asymptomatic carriers of COVID ‘by default’. The government claims the best way to prevent community transmission is through a ‘behavioural change model’. In reality, this has hampered the civil rights of its citizens.
Recently on August 7, a 15-year-old returned to her village from Shillong, the state’s capital. A village secretary instructed her family to temporarily leave and stay in the nearby jungle. The entire family including a 5-month-old baby had to leave the village and spend 9 days in the jungle. Meghalaya Health Commissioner and Secretary Sampth Kumar said “First thing we must remember is that behavioural change does not happen through scaring people,” But ironically declaring every person as an asymptomatic carrier creates nothing but panic.
Often it appears that Modi and his BJP party are more interested in creating a climate of fear in India than actually fighting the disease. The government has used the virus as a tool to suspend civil liberties and punish those who oppose Modi’s dream of making India a Hindu nation.
Scapegoating Muslims and Suppression of Dissent
‘To get a disease is not a crime but to hide it, definitely is’ said the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityananth, in March. Adityananth, who belongs to the BJP, blamed Muslims for the spread of the disease after they attended a religious event in Delhi a day before religious gatherings were banned in the capital. Most news channels joined him in blaming Muslims for the spread of the virus across the entire country. By comparison, relatively little attention was paid when the Chief Minister himself took part in a ceremony to move a Ram idol to a new shrine in the city of Ayodhya after a complete lockdown was imposed.
In December a citizenship bill was passed by Modi which gave citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The bill has been criticised by Muslims and supporters of secularism, who believe it is a way to marginalise Muslims in certain states. But due to the lockdown restrictions, people are not able to protest the changes.
Modi is using the lockdown to crush his ideological opponents and police are arresting those who protested the bill before the lockdown began, on charges of sedition and terrorism.
It’s not just Muslims who are being targeted. The government has used the pandemic to silence intellectuals, activists, and writers who have spoken out against the Prime Minister. In August, two Delhi University professors and critics of the government, Hany Babu and Anand Teltumbde were arrested for their alleged involvement in violent protests. The police have drawn up elaborate conspiracy theories to curtail their right to dissent, and they have been accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. No evidence has been provided for these claims.
Not only this, the registered cases against many intellectuals who oppose the making of a Hindu nation were reopened and they were harassed on the pretext of interrogation by police. These include the names of a tribal writer hailing from Jharkhand, Vasavi Kiro, and a Dalit writer who was also the former Director-General of Uttar Pradesh Police, S.R Darapuri. Kiro was charged years ago for organising a political demonstration, while Darapuri was accused of leading the anti CAA protest in Uttar Pradesh. The Uttar Pradesh Government has threatened Darapuri to promptly compensate for the loss of government property during anti CAA protest, otherwise, his private property would be confiscated.
Meanwhile, 55 journalists have been charged by police since the beginning of the lockdown, after criticising the government’s coronavirus response.
For some people, exercising their freedom of speech has become more dangerous than the virus itself in India. The real result of the pandemic measures enacted by Modi has been the curtailment of citizens’ right to dissent and the transformation of Covid into a pandemic of fear.