How Has India Managed to Make Covid-19 About Religion?


How Has India Managed to Make Covid-19 About Religion?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Less than two months ago, the average Indian would have had little clue what the term “social distancing” meant. But today, as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise in the country, this practise of avoiding large gatherings and minimising person-to-person contact to prevent the virus’ spread has become a bone of contention. Not because people have doubts over its efficiency – that has been proven in studies – but because like so many other things in this country, even the spread of coronavirus has acquired a religious and political colour.The reason social distancing is such a controversial subject at the moment is because there are several large-scale mass protests against the government taking place at locations across the country, which sprang up in the wake of the government passing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. These protests have immediately become the centre of debate over whether a citizen’s right to protest should come before their civic duty to uphold public health. And while there is definitely a nuanced discussion to be had over the topic, many pro-government voices have chosen to use the virus as an opportunity to pile on and paint the protesters with the same villainous brush they’ve been using since the start of this movement.

The loudest pro-government voice of them all, Arnab Goswami, hosted one of his signature debates on Republic TV over the same topic, going with the obviously unsubtle headline of “Shaheen Bagh Health Risk”. While there is truth to that headline, it also served its dual function as a dog-whistle, as the responses under the hashtag #ShaheenBaghHealthRisk showed a glaring religious bias against the protesters.

This, unfortunately, is hardly the only example of a tweet expressing such an intolerant sentiment. In fact, the religious-baiting by social media trolls went far enough to create a separate hashtag to disparage the various protests: #CoronaJihad.

While the Covid-19 outbreak across the globe has had some unintended benefits, like seeing pollution levels drop and people supporting each other in heartwarming ways, it has also had the much more predictable effect of bringing out the worst in some. There are those who are using this health crisis as an opportunity to further demonise their ideological opponents. Of course, the omnipresent IT cells have also gotten in on the act, as some of the tweets are identical in their wording, suggesting a copy-paste job.

Funnily enough, the same right-wingers who are so keen on finding faults with mass gatherings that are against the government are happy to look the other way for the UP BJP government’s plans to conduct a massive multi-day fair for Ram Navami in Ayodhya, which is predicted to attract approximately one million pilgrims.

Once again, regardless of your political or religious leanings, you can see why such a large gathering is a bad idea. The entire scenario developing in Ayodhya has chilling parallels to the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak in China, where the virus’ spread coincided with the arrival of holidays for the Chinese Lunar New Year. In that example, a cultural event prompted movement of thousands across the country, and drastically increased the scope for further contagion. And with over 80,000 cases in mainland China alone, it should be clear why the Ram Navami Mela is not a sound idea.

Criticism of both the Mela and the Shaheen Bagh protesters on religious grounds is emblematic of how easily these fault lines in Indian society can be brought into sharp relief. The coronavirus outbreak has not created these problems, only highlighted them. Take the case of the family in Kerala, with three members positive for coronavirus, who avoided screening by fudging their travel history to Italy at the airport. This obviously grievous overstep on one family’s behalf was used as a stick to beat the state government and their politics. 

Even as this crisis is bringing some people closer, like the Italians entertaining one another with live music performances from their apartment balconies, there are some in India who are letting it divide us along the same ideological lines that have always divided us. It’s a plainly ridiculous response to a contagious virus, which is non-partisan in choosing victims, but old habits die hard.

As for the upcoming Ram Navami Mela, from 25 March to 2 April, the UP government has not indicated that it will be calling off proceedings, instead announcing that all measures will be taken care of to ensure that the Mela proceeds as planned. However, the Ayodhya Chief Medical Officer has expressed concerns about being able to effectively screen the tens of thousands of people entering the city for the nine-day festival.

Presently, India has 151 confirmed Covid-19 patients (and counting). That’s not a number that anyone wants to see spike upward, and once again, social distancing might be the only thing that comes to our rescue. Whether it’s an anti-CAA protest or a religious festival, congregating in large numbers for any cause goes against the greater good at the moment. There will be plenty of time to fight each other over religion and politics once the threat of infection has passed. Because the coronavirus, unlike Indian society, truly does not discriminate.