India: Politics Of Hate Continues To Spiral Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
The normalization of hate in contemporary India has shocked people worldwide that had admired and celebrated post-colonial India’s democracy and multi-culturalism, and has drawn the criticism of the international scholarly community. Much of this hate is expressed in the form of Islamophobia.
Everyday expressions of hate range from abusive rants against Muslims on social media to mob lynching, video recording and sharing on WhatsApp. Arjun Appadurai, one of the most well-known anthropologists in the world, argues that this normalization of hate has happened with the subversion of all state institutions, and in turn the emergence of fascism. Appadurai states that “the judiciary and the legislature have made fascism far more respectable than it ever was in India, at the highest formal levels. At the same time, the spate of rapes, murders, burnings, lynching, and other humiliations of women, Dalits, Muslims and children throughout India have raised substantive fascism to an unimaginable public level.”
Lately, the COVID-19 pandemic has been weaponized by the Hindutva brigade and its many apologists to attack, abuse, collectively punish and economically boycott Muslims in several parts of India. A Muslim missionary group called the Tablighi Jamaat, with participants from across the world, had held a gathering in Delhi just before the Indian Prime Minister ordered a sudden lock-down. And the missionary group failed to disburse when the lockdown was ordered. The supporters of the BJP government and many in the media, immediately dubbed Tablighi Jamaat’s irresponsible behavior as — corona jihad, conspiracy to infect and poison Hindus, biological warfare, and several others.
Additionally, through a process of selective tracking and testing, and in turn a biased statistical sampling, the national BJP government and the local Delhi government run by the Aam Admi Pary claimed that one-third of all COVID-19 cases in India could be traced to the Tablighi Jamaat. While major international news outlet like the Guardian, the Intercept, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post and several others express shock and remain critical of this new wave of hatred, its business as usual for much of India. While speaking about the COVID-19 related lockdown in India, world renowned dissident scholar Noam Chomsky stated that “Modi, who is a Hindu nationalist extremist, is systematically moving to destroy Indian secular democracy and to crush the Muslim population.”
Even though regional and national newspapers and television channels have stoked Islamophobia and cashed in on increased viewership, yet some of these media outlets have also provided space for challenging such perverted narratives. The Hindutva groups, including the Aam Admi Party continue to play politics by alluding to the Tablighi Jamaat as a dog whistle for some kind of jehadis that have launched a biological warfare on Indian Hindus – but several columnists, television commentators and academics, across religious identities, have at least for the sake of history, contested hate and stereotyping with facts and logic. And given that hate has been normalized in India, there has been an upwelling of phobia and anger directed against China too, where cases of coronavirus or the pandemic first showed up. Numerous newspaper reports cast China as either careless or as villainous. Facebook walls and WhatsApp messages are particularly abusive and nasty and often calls for boycotting Chinese goods.
Much of this fear and hatred against China is based on wild speculations and conspiracy theories. Within my own social media circle, I have noticed that those who are at the forefront of promoting Islamophobia, are also at the forefront of spreading hate against China. And these are not always semi-literate individuals or the so called ‘aam aurat/admi’. Even the additional commissioner of income tax of Mumbai was indulging in hate-mongering as he posted the following on this Facebook wall: “The world is doubting/accusing China of fake reporting/fake news on Corona. But what else is expected from Communists!” Unfortunate, this upwelling of hatred against China and Chinese people has not been sufficiently contested and debunked.
As I proceed to contest and debunk the wild conspiracy theories that are being floated against China, I would like to add a couple of caveats. First, on principle, I am not opposed to a social movement and boycott that opposes the authoritarian Chinese state, Xi Jinping’s dictatorship, oppression and persecution of Uighur Muslims and Tibetans just as I am not opposed to a social movement that would oppose and boycott India, the land of my birth, for its treatment and persecution of Muslims, the people of the Kashmir valley, and failure to provide adequate protection to them. Similarly, I am not opposed to other countries boycotting the United States, the county of my residence, for its immoral support to the occupation of Palestine or immoral wars based on lies (aka weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) and several others. Second, hate in society is not superimposed by some external institution, it has not been handed down to the Indian society by the Sangh Parivar. Rather, hate is entrenched in our everyday practice – in our choice of movies, news shows, literature, version of histories, what we share on social media, how we react to lynching, and so on.
Hate has become normalized because of the collapse of institutional mechanisms to counter, mitigate and punish, if required, those committing the hate-crimes and we, as a society, have allowed and facilitated this collapse. Yet, the Indian population is not a monolith. Normalization of hate does not preclude the presence of countercurrents or many that continue to celebrate India’s cultural diversity and remain committed to peaceful coexistence and continue to contest prejudices in all forms. In other words, hate and prejudice does not define India, yet our everyday practices in contemporary India are dominated by the politics of hate.
The current wave of hate directed at China has gained credibility in India because of the well-crafted propaganda run by the Right-Wing and Alt-Right media outlets in the United States that support Donald Trump’s presidency. There are very many versions of the propaganda, but the most popular and often repeated one goes somewhat like this: The coronavirus emanated from a lab in Wuhan because of poor safety protocols. It happened when an intern got infected and she went on to infect her boyfriend. The couple visited the wet market of Wuhan and spread the virus. In other words, this is a human engineered virus.
President Donald Trump and his apologists have strategically stoked conspiracy theories and even gone on to name SARS coronavirus 2 as “Chinese Virus” merely to deflect blame and responsibility. But the reality is that Donald Trump and his administration have been exposed as incompetent and ill prepared to handle the pandemic. In the month of January, Trump had insisted that “we have it totally under control…it’s going to be just fine.” In early February, Trump assured that it “looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” In late February, he assured that “it’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Even on March 10 Trump insisted that “we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm.” It is May, 2020 and there are more than one million confirmed infections and more that 68,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States – the fact that President Trump has not taken any moral responsibility and resigned speaks volumes of how much he values his own promises and assurances to the public.
The American mainstream media, and the academic and scientific community have not been seduced by the Right-Wing conspiracy theory related to the engineering of COVID-19. But this idea is quite popular in the mainstream media as well as on social media networks in India, particularly within elite circles. Accusing China of pushing the world to a catastrophe helps many in India to project ‘legitimate’ hatred on to a geopolitical rival that surpasses them in terms of economic growth and military might. And Donald Trump has tremendous goodwill and credibility within the Indian ruling elite and supporters of Hindutva that see him as being ‘tough’ on Islam. Hence siding with Trump seems only natural.
While the scientific community agrees that the SARS coronavirus 2 or cases of COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, Pentagon’s top general, Mark Milley has stated that coronavirus likely came from natural sources and not a Chinese lab. But more importantly, The Lancet, the premier peer-reviewed medical journal in the world put out a statement that “scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife.” Scientists estimate that there are approximately 1.7 million unknown viruses in wildlife and many could emerge in the future. Ebola, H1N1 flu, H5N1 flu are all from wildlife, often carried by different species. At this point, it seems that the current pandemic causing virus may have emerged from bats that live close to human population as they fly over them, urinate, defecate, and people sometimes use their feces as fertilizers, use their caves as shelters and eat them as free sources of protein.
According to Peter Daszak, disease ecologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, virology labs in Wuhan are very well-run and they have been inspected by the United States Center for Disease Control, by people working in biosafety level 4 labs in the US and in France and they are accredited by the United States. In other words, based on the evidence we have, we need to put a stop to the rumor mill. These rumors have already led to hate crimes and attacks on people of east Asian origins in the United States. In India, hatemongering against the Chinese is currently rampant on social media. This hate could easily escalate to physical violence in cities like Kolkata, my hometown, that have sizable Chinese population.
Finally, even if the virus had its origin in the labs of Wuhan (that it does not), it would be bizarre to blame the people of China, collectively, for the virus. I hope we can do better as a society and extend solidary in this time of crisis.
The author is an Associate Professor at Department of Geography, University of North Texas.