For the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the enemy that India faces isn’t Pakistan, isn’t a Muslim or Maoist or a JNU student. In coronavirus, India’s public enemy is one without an ideology, religion or nationality. Modi did not call it a ‘Chinese virus’, like Donald Trump did.
The coronavirus pandemic was, in many ways, a test for the possibility of a non-sectarian nationalism. Indians as one nation had to come together, stay home, applaud health workers and wash hands.
But that was short-lived.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz, from where more than 100 positive cases of coronavirus have emerged, would be a legitimate topic of utmost concern in any country. And it definitely shouldn’t have taken place when a pandemic was claiming lives by the thousands. Yet, the manner in which it was cynically exploited to stoke naked communalism, on social media and TV channels, had a singular aim: to give a communal colour to the fight against coronavirus.
Injecting religion in a virus
‘Coronajihad’ was one of the top trending topics on Twitter Tuesday. BJP leaders such as Gautam Gambhir, B.L. Santhosh and Sambit Patra fuelled the denunciation parade, warning of a “disaster of gigantic proportions” from the “criminal negligence”. There had been a certain recklessness across religious institutions in the face of the pandemic, for instance even the Tirupati temple was open to tens of thousands of devotees at the time of the Tablighi congregation two weeks ago, but the irresponsibility of certain Muslims has been painted with menacing ideological motivations.
The opening monologue of Arnab Goswami on Republic TV can be quoted here because it mirrored the coverage on most English and Hindi news channels in the framing of the event as a Muslim conspiracy to defeat India. “They made fun of our national effort. They have compromised us all, we were just winning when they did everything to defeat us,” fumed Goswami. “They have been spreading hate against the lockdown and told their followers to do everything possible to defy the lockdown”. There was little doubt that “they” here stood in for Muslims. If it wasn’t amply clear, our ‘super-spreader’ of communal virus helpfully drew an arc connecting the “suffering citizens of India dying in ambulances from traffic jams caused by Shaheen Bagh” for months to “now dying because of the singular determination of the Tablighi Jamaat to spread the coronavirus in our country”. One prominent anchor claimed that the jamaatis were spitting from their buses, darkly insinuating their intent to infect other people.
Being the single most influential articulator of the BJP’s ideological agenda on English news television, Arnab has helped frame the BJP’s ‘national struggles’ against JNU and Shaheen Bagh to his middle-class audience. So, what Arnab Goswami’s fulminations foreshadow is how the fight against coronavirus would likely be framed in the coming period. It would no longer be ‘India against the virus’ but ‘India against the Muslims spreading the virus’.
What this reflects is the emphatic closure of any possibility of a non-sectarian, non-toxic Indian nationalism.
Nationalism based on ‘Muslim threat’
The coronavirus provided the perfect opportunity to cleanse our nationalism of the narrow-minded toxic accretions that had wholly enveloped it over the last six years. The virus, paradoxically, provided an opening for collective healing of partisan wounds. Momentarily, the seemingly existential issues of the past — the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Kashmir, JNU violence, Delhi riots — had been swept back to the recesses of public consciousness. Everyone was facing a common enemy. This was the hour for Indian nationalism to redeem itself by embracing everyone. After all, nationalism, at its best, is meant to achieve certain common goals that can only be achieved through united efforts, based on a shared understanding. We had a shared understanding of the extent of the Covid-19 threat, and agreement on the common goal of mitigating its damage. Yet, evidenced by the growing partisan and communal rancour, Indian nationalism has singularly failed to perform that uniting function.
There is simply no longer any Indian nationalism without scapegoats and targets. If the ‘Muslim villain’ does not exist in a national struggle, he must be created. Apparently, anti-Muslim bigotry is the only glue holding together Indian society, not any shared value or purpose. Without the Muslim villain, the national solidarity that was spawned by the ‘janata curfew’ shortly sputtered. The ugly class divisions of Indian society came to the fore as middle-class Indians either ignored or justified the State apathy (and excesses) towards working-class Indians. Much of the media, which has now sprung into action in the face of a ‘Muslim threat’, ignored this deprivation of the poor and whiled away its time playing ‘antakshari’ and interviewing celebrities.
Shared sacrifice was never a stable basis for the national struggle as the poor were required to sacrifice immensely more than the middle class. However, shared enmity provides a more powerful, and a more familiar, basis. Now, those poor working-class Indians would be given a target other than the government to direct their ire and frustration. And when the deaths pile up, God forbid, Muslims will be blamed for State incapacity. National unity would again be restored on the foundation of Muslim demonisation.
Some might protest here that this is a failure of the BJP’s version of nationalism. But we must remember that the BJP today owns the issue of nationalism, and defines it. In terms of public imagination, popular culture and state ideology, the BJP’s nationalism is mainstream, all other conceptions of nationalism are relegated to the margins. Which is why opposition parties, such as the Aam Aadmi Party, are forced to acquiesce, in varying extents, to BJP’s brand of nationalism in order to win popular support.
This failure presents two dark implications for Indian Muslims, one immediate and the other at a broader level. At the immediate level, this opens up the possibility of a dangerous escalation of prejudice and violence directed at them. During times of crisis, people revert to their tribal identities and search for ‘Others’ to blame for their problems. Pandemics have a long history of scapegoating, right from the Bubonic Plague in the fourteenth century (or ‘Black Death’) where Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the contagion. During the pandemic’s peak in Europe, from 1348 to 1351, more than 200 Jewish communities in various towns were wiped out based on such rumours and innuendo. Even in the modern United States of the early 1990s, Haitians suffered discrimination and violence after being stigmatised as carriers of AIDS.
The broader implication is of the permanence of Muslim exclusion from the Indian nationhood. If Muslims can’t be part of any collective national effort, and worse, still be the perpetual enemy around which the struggle is organised, then there is no possibility left for their integration in the national mainstream. If PM Modi doesn’t immediately switch course and rein in his media supporters and social media apparatchiks, the incalculably dangerous effects of communalising this coronavirus would long outlast the pandemic itself.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.