Politics in the Time of COVID-19

politics of covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis has created a new normal – empty streets, closed cafes and restaurants, sealed borders, restricted travels, and virtualised human interactions – a world paralysed at its own pace. Coronavirus has engulfed everyone’s lives with the fear of the unknown, or rather, of the unforeseeable. People, in billions, have been forced to stay at home. Young and the old alike, complaining of fever and dry cough, have filled hospitals in thousands.

Citizens, at least the privileged, lined up in supermarkets to stock up groceries and toilet papers. Meanwhile, the rest complained, “We will die – either from the virus or from hunger”. In a globalised society, the pandemic has produced a new form of self-organisation that isolates the self from others to sustain itself. The pandemic has made uncertainty a new normal.

COVID-19 and China

The novel Coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The virus has since spread like a wildfire across the globe. More than two million people throughout the world have contracted the virus and tens of thousands of them have died.

Initially, China had covered up the extent of the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak for several weeks in December. The Chinese Government denied all the initial evidence and suppressed those who had warned of it, most tragically the Wuhan physician Dr Li Wenliang. The global response to the crisis has been too little, too late, and too laggard. The nation-states have been seeking to look inwards. As a result, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be nowhere in sight of control.

Pandemics provide the nation-states with an opportunity to seek to control the human population. They enable the rise of a big-state that takes tough measures towards its survival. Three such features of a pandemic-state are surveillance, authoritarianism, and xenophobia.

Surveillance

Countries, both democratic and non-democratic, have been using technology to track the movement of their citizens. Surveillance has become a new tool to control the spread of the pandemic. Nation-states have enforced their citizens to follow the norms of social-distancing, while also punishing those not adhering to them.

Surveillance technologies have been used to track where people are, where they have been, and what their recovery status is. This data is further used to determine the extent of the spread of disease and then track those who have been in contact with those infected by the virus.

Israel has authorised the internal security agency to tap the secret trove of cellular data of its citizens. South Korea and other East Asian countries have had their initial success in digital contact-tracing using mobile applications. Many countries across the globe have been following suit. States have been exercising the power to monitor people using technology. Several leaders across the globe have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to suppress their population, thereby resulting in an Orwellian State – Big Brother is Watching You.

Authoritarianism

In response to the crisis, the world autocrats have been employing a mixture of propaganda, suppression of political rivals, and expansion of political powers. As an old maxim goes, “Never let a good famine go to waste”, many world leaders have been successful in their power grabs.

Pandemic has enabled the leaders to legitimise the use of executive powers, detain people, and infringe on the freedoms of expression. Hungary has passed a new law that grants Prime Minister Victor Orban the power to suspend the country’s existing laws. An indefinite State of Emergency has been declared in Hungary, curtailing the freedom of expression and penalising those breaking quarantine orders.

Philippines legislature has granted President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers. And the President has imposed shoot-to-kill orders of those not following the quarantine norms. In Egypt, chemical warfare troops, clad in the protective suit have been deployed to disinfect the suburbs.

Pandemic has allowed the Governments to ban public assemblies, quarantine, close borders, limit trade, impose restrictions on movement, and censor media. History also suggests that after a crisis, the state does not give up on all the ground it had secured. Thus, it is imperative to speculate about the kind of state we would live in after the crisis.

Xenophobia

There has also been a rise in the process of ‘othering’ with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of taking the opportunity to embrace and support one another, the nation-states have become the spouts of xenophobia. Even as the Coronavirus spread across the globe, reports of racism towards East Asians have been on the rise in Western democracies.

The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has repeatedly referred to the Coronavirus as ‘Chinese Virus’. Incidents of racially motivated crimes have risen throughout the United States since the outbreak of the virus. Xenophobia has become a petty tool for governments and their citizens to colour responses concerning the pandemic.

Media also plays an important role in the creation of ‘the other’, as a contrast to the self. Xenophobia systematically enables the social stigma towards others in society. The moment a pandemic is regionalised and stigmatised, humanity will suffer a sad demise.

Scholars across the globe have given their verdict on a post-pandemic world, with many affirming that the “world will be less open, prosperous, and free”. Some scholars believe that China would rise as a new global power; some others have written an obituary to hyper-globalisation. Climate change, for good, will gain limelight in a post-pandemic world. It is interesting to see how the crisis in itself pans out over the period to provide an affirmative answer. A pandemic-State will always be mired by the rise of authoritarianism, surveillance, and xenophobia.

Conclusion

However, such a State will not be suitable for a post-crisis era. We need to keep in check the power of Governments in a post-pandemic society. United Nations, as an agency, has failed to provide a collective global response. Its decline seems evident, more than ever. It should not mean the demise of ‘global governance’. We need institutions with a robust and structured form of global governance mechanisms.

A world government with structured power-sharing with nation-states would be a sophisticated alternative to human society. Such a government would require enforceable jurisdiction on issues that threaten humanity, such as poverty, health, terrorism, war, and climate change. We need cooperation between countries more than ever. The pandemic will not end for anyone until it ends for everyone.


Disclaimer: The article was first published with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), and with KhabarHub.

Picture Credits: The Economist

Decoding the Narrative Around CAA

 

Narrative – a term loosely understood as a story or an account of events and experiences, has been the most powerful tools in shaping society throughout the history of humankind. Certain narratives are created by the elites within societies to nudge the individuals to think in a certain manner, to want certain things, to observe certain rules, to behave in accordance with certain standards. They, thereby, are used as a justification for the actions of the elites.

In the Germany of 1930s, a certain narrative around Jews was told and retold to the German people in the form of state-sponsored propaganda. The Jews were painted as an inferior race and a threat to German racial supremacy. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 stripped off the citizenship rights of Jews and forbade marriages and employment of Jews in Germany with the justification of protecting German Blood and German Honour. This resulted in the Holocaust carried out by Hitler, killing millions of Jews in the concentration camps of Poland and Nazi Germany.

Narratives have the power to create and recreate histories.  At times, the narratives are created in the form of binaries of good and bad, in which the one identity is privileged and ‘the other’ is deprivileged. This further emanates into the objectification of someone as evil by providing the analogy of good, ultimately leading to the process known as ‘palingenesis’ or the recreation of the past.

Much has already been debated about the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. This Act amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 to provide citizenship for members of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities, who had fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014. The Muslims, as a religious group, were excluded from the Act, with the rationale that the three mentioned countries are Muslim-majority nations. The Act has been substantiated by the ruling party as an obligation towards Pakistani Hindus as agreed upon in the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950.

Protests erupted across the country in the form of a mass movement against the CAA and the pan-India implementation of the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Act is violative of the secular doctrine as enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India. Moreover, the Act is much more than just an amendment to the citizenship law in the Constitution. With the introduction of CAA, the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is redefining the narrative around the identity of India, which would alter the very nature of how one perceives India.

It redefines India as a nation for the Hindus, moving away from its proclaimed secularism. Even if India retains the ‘secular’ character, the act changes the psychological perception of how one views India. It enables a consciousness that India is a holy land for all the Hindus throughout the world, and that Muslims have been benevolently sheltered within a predominately Hindu nation.

The nation-wide implementation of NRC would be detrimental to Muslims, as many of whom would not be able to produce the papers that the government intends to seek from an individual. Evoking Derrida’s notion of ‘conditional hospitality,’ the Muslims are recognised and tolerated as the guest, while also reminding them that it is not their own home.

The CAA is a larger project of ‘numerical domination’ of Hindus, which acts as a basic premise of Hindu nationalist doctrine. To the proponents of this doctrine, India can retain its Hindu character only with the preponderance of numerical Hinduism.

To Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the term ‘Hindutva’ meant the quality of being a Hindu. Hindus, according to Savarkar, are those who considered India as the land in which their ancestors lived. In his, Essentials of Hindutva (1923), Savarkar provides three distinct criteria for identifying Hinduness: ‘common-nation,’ ‘common race and ‘common-civilisation,’ which became the basis for exclusion of both Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.[1]

M.S. Golwalkar, a founding member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a prominent ideologue of Hindutva, goes a step ahead and declares Muslims as the enemies of the nation. In his, Bunch of Thoughts (1966), Golwalkar dedicates a chapter titled ‘Internal Threats’ to highlight the three pertinent threats to Indian society: Muslims, Christians, and Communists. “It has been a tragic lesson of the history of many a country in the world,” Golwalkar laments “that the hostile elements within the country pose a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside.”[2] He never trusted the patriotism of Muslims. While referring to the Muslims, Golwalkar writes, “It would be suicidal to delude ourselves into believing that they have turned patriots overnight after the creation of Pakistan.” He goes a step ahead and declares that Masjids are the mere representation of ‘miniature Pakistans’. These thinkers provide the ideological ground for Hindu Nationalism.[3]

In the process of recreating history, the narratives get told in the form of alternative-facts. One of the pertinent arguments held by the believers of RSS and Hindu Nationalist ideologues is that the Aryans have been indigenous people and have never migrated from Central Asia to India. Much has already been talked about the historical validity of such a claim being highly erroneous, and the claim is highly political rather than historical facts.

The term ‘Hindu’ is itself not succinct. It was more of a flexible cultural identity than any religion. Millions of gods and goddesses were worshipped in the subcontinent, with each holding its own unique value. Multiple cultural identities have been blurred into the formation of what Hindutva ideologues preach as Hinduism. This process is not very alien to Indian history, the process was spearheaded by the colonial rulers in their series of ‘investigative modalities’ in their quest to understanding India.

“The cultural effects of colonialism,” Dirks in Caste of Minds (2001) notes, “have until recently been too often ignored or displaced into the inevitable logic of modernization and world capitalism; and this only because it has not been sufficiently recognized that colonialism was itself a cultural project of control.”[4] So much so that they privileged a certain identity while deprivileging the other.

In the Census of 1911, in parts of present-day Gujarat, some 200,000 people described themselves as ‘Mohammedan Hindus’.  However, this did not fit into the narrative of what the Britishers claimed as an identity. As a result, they either boxed them into Hindus or Muslims. These colonial experimentations created a new knowledge of India and its inhabitants. This knowledge also became a treasure to the Hindu nationalists towards pushing their Hindutva agenda.

The Hindu nationalists, first, reinstated their ideologues as heroes. And then, they elaborated on the Hindutva ideas as alternate facts. And finally, they are on their path to establish a Hindu nation. The ‘idealisation project’ of the Hindutva ideologues began with reinstating of Savarkar as a freedom fighter and a revolutionary. In 2006, on the occasion of Savarkar Jayanti, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee would go on to declare, “Savarkar meant Tatva (elements), Tark (arguments), Tarunya (youth), Tej (brilliance), Tyag (sacrifice) and Tap (penance).”[5] BJP, on several occasions, has declared its intention of awarding Bharata Ratna to Savarkar.

After the BJP-led NDA came to power in 2014, the recreation of alternate facts began into two forms: reasserting religion and reclaiming science. The reassertion of the religion project began with ‘love-jihad,’ ‘lynching-in-the-name-of-cow,’ ‘renaming-cities,’ and ‘Ram-at-Ayodhya’. Several BJP leaders have been making provocative statements ever since. In 2015, Sakshi Maharaj would go on to urge “Hindu women to produce at least four children to protect the Hindu religion.” In another instance, he would go on to declare himself a true Muslim and that “Prophet Mohammed was a great yogi.”[6]

In as early as 2005, Yogi Adityanath had envisioned, “I will not stop till I turn UP and India into a Hindu Rashtra.” Today, Yogi Adityanath is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and he clearly seems to be in the direction of what he had once envisioned. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, in the Parliament, declared the killer of Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘desh-bhakt’ (patriot). These statements are often made by the insignificant members of the organisation as they could easily be dismissed off but still enable a public discourse.

The BJP’s recreation of alternative facts in a deliberate attempt to reclaim science has been in the form of narratives derived from the mythologies and epics. One of the BJP MPs would go on to state: “cow-dung and urine can cure cancer.”[7] Another added, “cows exhale oxygen.” Another Member of Parliament declared Darwin’s theory as scientifically wrong. In his defence, the Member stated, “nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, said they ever saw an ape turning to a human being.”

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had, once, made a comment that there must have been some plastic surgery at the time of Lord Ganesh, who was affixed with an elephant’s head. These narratives in the form of speeches and declarations are intended to recreate alternate histories and reclaim science. Through these narratives, an individual is created and produced as the subject of that ideology, often referred to as ‘interpellation’.

With the implementation of CAA, the BJP is in its final phase of altering the character of India into a Hindu nation. Hinduism has been an inclusive religion. All through its history, the religion has coexisted with other religions in the subcontinent. It has welcomed and incorporated a variety of outside influences within its hold. There is no one definition of Hinduism. It is personal. Hinduism is a compilation of many traditions, cultures and philosophies. However, with the introduction of CAA, we have been told, who qualifies as a Hindu, what it means to be a Hindu, and who qualifies as a Hindu. It is in this context the Orwellian quote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” become pertinent.

The narrative of Hinduism has been reinvented to suit the needs of Hindutva ideology, which aims at establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. However, the young and the old alike have risen to protect the democratic values as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In the suburbs of Delhi’s Shahin Bagh, the Muslim women have been protesting against the Government’s policies for more than a month now. There is widespread civil society movement all across India, with people taking to streets against the CAA and NRC. The dream of Hindu nationalists still seems far-fetched. And the hope lives on…


 

References

[1] Savarkar, V. (1923). Essentials of Hindutva. 1st ed. pp.41-43. Retrieved from: http://savarkar.org/en/encyc/2017/5/23/2_12_12_04_essentials_of_hindutva.v001.pdf_1.pdf

[2] Golwalkar, M. (1996). Bunch of thoughts. 3rd ed. Sahitya Sindhu Prakashan, pp.148-154. Retrieved from: https://www.thehinducentre.com/multimedia/archive/02486/Bunch_of_Thoughts_2486072a.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dirks, N. (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and making of Modern India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.9.

[5] https://www.opindia.com/2018/08/12-things-vajpayee-talked-about-in-his-speech-on-savarkar-that-hold-relevance-even-today/

[6] https://www.indiatoday.in/fyi/story/5-times-bjp-mp-sakshi-maharaj-made-controversial-statements-266628-2015-10-06

[7] https://www.scoopwhoop.com/unscientific-comments-by-indian-politicians/