Why many Indians believe Muslims spread COVID-19

Wazukhaana in front of Fatehpuri Masjid, a Sufi mosque in northern Delhi, in 2015.

Here’s an analogy. If people are standing in line, and a brown person shoves a white person, it would be incorrect of the white person to conclude that brown people have no manners. I think most Indians understand this. So when we Indians stand in line and a Muslim person shoves a Hindu person, it would be incorrect of the Hindu to conclude that Muslim people have no manners (especially when all of us have seen how our fellow Indians cut lines, everywhere, even when there’s assigned and assured seating, as when boarding a flight).

What prompted this was a conversation I had recently with an old friend, in which Muslims as a whole were being held responsible for one Hindu (said friend) getting shoved while waiting in line at a store, at a time when everyone is supposed to stay 6 feet apart. The friend started to say something about “these people”, so I felt compelled to point out to them that just the previous day, I had to tell a Hindu fellow shopper blocking a narrow aisle in the grocery store to cover her nose and mouth with her mask. Her mask was hanging around her neck like a necklace, and she made no attempt to put it on or to give way when I indicated that I needed to pass her. She had already breathed over who knows how many products, leaving germs all over the place. I told my friend that the definitely-Hindu cashier had no mask either. Everyone knows that this sort of behavior is currently punishable.

A word about Hindus, Muslims, and cleanliness. People who have researched sanitation in South Asia have found that in general, personal hygiene levels in predominantly Hindu India are lower than in the predominantly Muslim neighboring countries of Bangladesh and Pakistan. They surmise that this may be directly related to the fact that Islam has clear prescriptions pertaining to personal hygiene, which are daily rituals. In contrast, they note, Hinduism has none (or no clear and effective ones that are widely taught and practised, at any rate).

And yet our fascist government/media/social circles have brainwashed us into racist thinking by repeatedly portraying Muslims in particular as vectors of Covid-19 (for example, see thisthisthis, and after the Delhi government’s own complicity, this). And sadly, even those of us who sincerely believe we are good, smart, sensible, righteous, reasonable, and not-evil take up such racist thinking and let ourselves become pawns in the politics of hate. We slip into believing greater lies like “Muslims are destroying this country”. Many of us vote for leaders based on the racist belief that we have chosen to embrace, instead of voting in the interest of ourselves and our fellow citizens.

(Photo credit: Uma Asher / Medium)

The pandemic of desperate poverty: A Third-World view of the Covid-19 lockdown

The other day I saw a beggar who did not know how to beg. I was in my local market in an unfashionable middle-class Delhi neighborhood. As I was loading my grocery purchases in my car near a tiny supermarket, I heard a tentative “Madamji”. That’s when I noticed the man sitting on the curb in the desolate street. 

He asked softly if I could give him some food. He sounded so hesitant and tentative that I got the sense that he was new at this. I asked him whether he wanted food to cook or food that was ready to eat. My mind was racing and I thought that if he had nowhere to cook, I would give him bread and cheese, although that would certainly not be a traditional meal for him. He said he could cook. I asked where he lived, and he said in a shanty nearby. Was his family here or back in his village? He said they were all here.

I went back into the store and bought him two kilos of rice and a packet of soy nuggets. I explained how to cook the soy. He broke down, thanking me profusely and wishing me a lifetime of blessings. He broke down because I had bought Rs 300 (about $4) worth of food for his family.

On my previous grocery-shopping round too, a disabled boy in ragged clothes had approached me, begging for flour and rice. I bought him a couple of oranges, which he accepted, but he repeated his entreaty for flour and rice. I enquired how he would cook them, and he eagerly assured me he had a home. I asked where, and he named a nearby neighborhood that people like me politely describe as “low-income”. 

The reality is that such neighborhoods are home to people who are oppressed because of their caste, faith or gender. Many of these people are dirt-poor and earn precarious livelihoods. I bought the child two kilos each of flour and rice. I thought maybe people in his family have lost their livelihoods in the lockdown. 

My friends say they are glad I was there for these starving people. The fact is: I was there that day. A week or two weeks later, I cannot be sure they are okay. I cannot imagine the terror of the ongoing lockdown – is it a colonial hangover that we’re using the word “curfew” interchangeably? – for people who used to earn a living, no matter how humble, and who now have to beg.

Often, we hear middle-class Indians urging others not to give anything to beggars, because they’re part of a “begging racket”, implying that begging is organized crime. And yet, nobody has ever come across evidence of such a racket. Even people who have studied the lives of beggars say they have heard of no such thing. So why do we choose to believe that begging rackets exist, and that what is right in front of our eyes is not actual desperation?

In India’s version of the Covid-19 pandemic, hunger is as much of a tragedy as the disease itself, even in a relatively well-administered city like Delhi. Among the hardest hit are migrant daily wage earners, unemployed people, and the homeless. This video, shot on April 18 in Delhi, shows people waiting for food in a two-kilometer-long queue in the scorching sun:

State and local governments, faith groups, volunteer groups, and non-profits are trying to provide food to such people. But 26 days into India’s lockdown, it is obvious that many are still falling through the cracks. Stories about attacks on, and deaths of, the poor are surfacing with increasing frequency.

For example, 29-year-old Gangamma, a migrant construction worker, was forced to leave Bangalore when work came to a halt. After walking 300 kilometers, she died of hunger on her way home to Raichur. Mukesh, a house painter in his early thirties, in Gurgaon, near Delhi, sold his cellphone for Rs 2,500 ($33) to buy flour, sugar, rice, and a fan for his four children so that they could sleep comfortably in the rising heat – and then ended his life. His neighbors pitched in for his last rites, because his family had no money. Sudarshan Rasal, a 49-year-old taxi driver in Mumbai, died of acute respiratory distress after being turned away by eight hospitals. Despite coming from a locality officially declared a Covid-19 hotspot, Rasal remained undiagnosed, because doctors cannot take a swab from a dead man. 

The image below, of a starving man, was taken near the Yamuna river in North Delhi on April 15, by Sunil Kumar Aledia, whose Facebook profile identifies him as convenor of the National Forum for Homeless Housing Rights:

Aledia also took this picture of hungry men rummaging through rotting bananas dumped in the Yamuna:

There are two parallel Indias at the best of times, but the Covid-19 pandemic is making it harder and harder to avoid what we pretend not to see most of the time. One India is missing its maids and drivers, virtue-signaling about paying them through the lockdown, rediscovering the kitchen, and cheerfully taking on the challenge of trying to recreate from its limited pantry the taste of that amazing crepe they had that one time at that tiny creperie in Paris. The other India is trying desperately not to die.

Tomorrow I plan to go out to buy essentials. I don’t expect to find the coffee filters or vanilla extract that I “need”. But I think I’ll be okay. 

New Delhi, April 20, 2020

(Video credit: YouTube/ Scroll) (Photo Credit: Facebook / Sunil Kumar Aledia)

Love and Moral Panic in India


A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi.

In August 2013, a 22-year-old Hindu woman in Meerut, a town India’s Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, claimed she had been abducted, gang-raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. Right-wing Hindu groups held her up as an example of their campaign against love-jihad, or the alleged rape of Hindu girls by Muslim men to force them into marriage and convert them to Islam.

With a national election expected in April 2014, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigning in UP, the timing of the Meerut case was significant. It spurred Hindu-Muslim violence in UP in August and September 2013. Around 60 people were killed, 93 injured, and tens of thousands displaced (link opens PDF), many permanently. In the May 2014 election, the BJP made substantial gains not just in UP but nationwide, and its candidate, Narendra Modi, became India’s Prime Minister.

Less than five months into Modi’s tenure, the Meerut woman revealed that the “love-jihad” was in fact a love story. She informed the police that she had not been abducted or gang-raped, but had eloped with a Muslim man. Fearing that her family and society would harm her, she sought refuge in a women’s shelter.

Her dramatic volte face blew a huge hole through the BJP’s election campaign. But it would be naïve to conclude that the “love-jihad” rhetoric will now subside, or that the BJP is substantially weakened. To understand why, we must consider both sides of the hyphen.

The “jihad” part is significant in India’s largely Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim, and often anti-western context. Prime Minister Modi, often portrayed as modern, forward-looking, and statesman-like has refused to apologize for the pogrom that occurred on his watch in 2002, in which around 1,000 Muslims were killed. Today, Modi enjoys rock-star status at home and among the Indian diaspora (many Indian-Americans, for instance, feel a connection because they share Modi’s Gujarati heritage). However, his party’s growing grassroots base in India consists overwhelmingly of ultra-conservative, often violent, Hindu groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Stirring Hindu-Muslim animosity has become a replicable and increasingly efficient political strategy for the BJP. This is, of course, not to deny that Muslims also contribute to growing communalism (in the South Asian context, “communalism” refers to Hindu-Muslim animosity) and violence.

But the other side of the hyphen – love – is perhaps more revealing. The threat is not just jihad; it is as vast and amorphous as love itself. At a recent public meeting on “love-jihad” in New Delhi, film maker Nakul Sawhney shared video footage of election campaigns in riot-affected UP. It showed how the BJP had made a concerted effort to woo khaps (councils of local caste patriarchs). Khaps have long regulated relationship choices in many villages by endorsing child marriage, sentencing women to be raped, murdering defiant couples and persecuting others. Khaps have no legal authority, and their methods are, of course, criminal. Sawhney said the BJP had wooed the khaps – hitherto unconcerned with anti-Muslim politics – to gain mass support for the election, and thus fused violent local patriarchy with its communal agenda.

The other speaker at the event, Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, added that if people were free to choose whom they marry, caste boundaries would be erased, and so would the power that maintained them. She likened the fear of this erasure to the Nazis’ fear of miscegenation. She also argued that the collusion of communalism and patriarchy was not confined to Hindus or Muslims. Two decades of economic liberalization in India had increasingly drawn women into the workforce. Their growing independence was a threat to patriarchy, and this has caused the violent backlash that seeks to keep women in a state of dependence and “protection”.

As another example of how love threatened the patriarchy, she noted that leaders of several faiths stood united in their support for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law that makes “unnatural” sexual acts illegal and thus makes all homosexual relationships criminal.

On November 2, a protest in Kerala state drew national attention to this fear of love. After a BJP youth group attacked a café where a couple was kissing, a handful of people organized #KissOfLove, a mass kissing event, in Kochi. The goal was to protest “moral policing” and demand the right to express love in public spaces.

Despite demands to ban the protest, the court refused to interfere with the November 2 protest (a legal precedent (PDF) has established that kissing in public is not illegal). Despite this, the protest did not take place, as its opponents reportedly outnumbered the would-be kissers and tried to attack them, and its organizers were arrested as a preventative measure. So although the court saw no reason to intervene, the vigilante “moral police” and the actual police closed ranks against the protest. Those arrested were not charged with any crime.

#KissOfLove did not go as planned, but there have been more such protests in quick succession. Love is becoming a political issue in India, where 46% of the population is 15 to 44 years old. Valentine’s Day – always a fraught occasion in India – is still months away, but it promises to be interesting.

(Photo credit: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama)