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From communal violence to lockdown hunger

Updated: May 2

Emergency responses by civil society networks in Delhi, India


by Sobhi Mohanty

Jobless migrant workers on a que for food keeping social distance at Delhi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Covid-19 story in India has rapidly become one about the equivalence of a public health crisis caused by the pandemic on the one hand, and a near humanitarian crisis precipitated by government measures to control the pandemic on the other.


As five weeks of lockdown ends, a flood of reports have emerged about prolonged starvation and devastating economic costs of the lockdown for the poor, and government measures that are imperative in order to mitigate this drastic socioeconomic fallout.


Somewhat less discussed, is the critical role played by India’s civil society in ensuring that the human cost of managing the pandemic has not been even higher, and ways in which prior social movements have been intersecting with the current scenario.


In this article I aim to highlight one such intersection by using the case of civil society response to the event of extreme communal violence in Delhi that immediately preceded the events of the coronavirus pandemic. The case illustrates how the networks, knowledge and tools developed by civil society actors in one crisis scenario allowed them to act with immediacy in the next.


The discussion is informed by media reports and public discourse on social media, but also by direct involvement with civil society actors and efforts to extend support to their work.

It is useful to first briefly summarise the current lockdown scenario in India. To begin with, announcement of the lockdown without advance notice caused an attempted exodus by thousands of migrant workers from the national capital region of Delhi and surrounding border areas – one of the densest industrial hubs in the country.


There was a shutdown of inter-state borders and public transportation, with police crackdown and frequent physical brutality toward those seen to be violating curfew orders. NGOs and social workers across the country soon started receiving distress messages from migrant workers and families to request food supplies. Migrant workers' savings were running out, and they lacked the domicile documents that would allow them to access government subsidised food.


As the lockdown period progressed, many state governments made special efforts to arrange road and air transportation to help wealthier residents such as students and tourists return home. But no such efforts were made for the masses of workers stranded in other states. In Delhi and many other Indian cities, food scarcity soon hit slums, informal settlements where much of an Indian city’s informal labour force resides.


Civil society actors – themselves in physical lockdown – responded along two lines. First, loose associations of NGOs and individual volunteers such as the Delhi Relief Collective, focused on coordinating with each other and with public officials to create an extensive chain of people – district and municipal authorities, police officials, community organisations, workers unions, private volunteers – who could quickly reach food supplies to target groups within the constraints of social isolation.


Second, they focused on meticulously documenting details on ground, using WhatsApp groups, Facebook, and even websites 1, to widely share guidelines for collecting information, and to build a systematic knowledge base about the growing food crisis.


The Facebook group ‘Caremongers India’ is an example of a massive network that has reached at least 40,000 members – which predominantly comprises middle and upper class volunteers who are privately helping with individual requests for food and emergency assistance across the country. In contrast those working with low income groups have focused on building a rights-based discourse around the fallouts of the lockdown, and on using the extensive information collected to advocate for specific emergency welfare measures and pressure the government to act.

In this context, it is interesting to note how in Delhi, a large section of the civil society network leading current relief and advocacy efforts actually mobilised in response to a very different sort of crisis – communal violence. This violence followed an intense nationwide political movement that was in process at the time that the coronavirus pandemic hit.


The movement itself had started as a protest against the CAA/NRC 2 legislations that were widely perceived as a strategic intervention by the right-wing government to undermine the legal and social citizenship of Muslims within the country 3. Its focus soon broadened from a display of solidarity with the Muslim community, to dialogues around the secular principles underlying India’s constitution, and broad opposition to the national ruling party’s authoritarian and communal politics.


It took the form of both online activism, and a continuous series of physical demonstrations across the country. The most iconic of these was a sit-in organised by Muslim women in the east Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh. The sit-in started around 11th December 2019 and continued unbroken into many weeks. By the end of February 2020, it was being extensively covered by international media as the longest running peaceful protest in India.


Despite incidents of police-aided violence on university campuses in Delhi and at protest sites in other parts of the country, protestors at Shaheen Bagh and at these other sites remained non-violent. On the night of 23rd February 2020 however, there was a sudden eruption of extreme violence across multiple east Delhi residential neighbourhoods, a predominantly Muslim part of the city.


The government declared a curfew in these parts of Delhi on the next day, but the curfew primarily served to intensify the violence in these areas. Over the next week, at least fifty people were reported brutally killed in these riots, many more dead bodies started emerging in sewers, and extensive arson in these areas left thousands homeless, including both Hindus and Muslims, and the many families that lived in clusters of nearby slums.

On the night of 24th February, a key human rights activist – Harsh Mander – and his organisation started organising emergency rescue operations in the curfew neighbourhoods in response to emerging reports of violence. Meanwhile, both private residents of these areas and a few independent news media reporters started using Twitter to disseminate live coverage of mobs carrying out lynchings, setting mosques, shops, and homes on fire, and police complicity in these ongoing events.


Soon, multiple leading activists joined in these efforts to coordinate emergency rescue and relief operations by setting up private Whatsapp groups comprising NGOs, researchers, lawyers, journalists, and other private citizens across Delhi.


As civil society came together however, police and government authorities began a crackdown. They tightly cordoned off these neighbourhoods, preventing entry of ambulances, doctors, aid workers, and journalists into the affected areas, and sped up legal action against activists who had criticised government actions during the CAA/NRC protests.


Even as riots continued, the solicitor general of India filed a complaint in the Supreme Court against Harsh Mander, claiming that hate speech by him and other activists had incited the violence. As a result, Mander and his group had to curtail their operations.


Given these repressive measures by the government, volunteer operations had to be rapidly configured so as to circumvent government authorities and yet effectively reach emergency medical assistance and funds to those in urgent need.

The complete lack of cooperation by all formal government institutions necessitated enormous online coordination and communication using WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This tracked, and verified distress messages, and connected with residents within the affected neighbourhoods in order to collect detailed information about the violence as it happened in real time. It started campaigns around raising public awareness and putting pressure on political representatives once reports had been verified.


As the curfew eased, the information compiled over these few days became the basis of further investigations by civil society actors and the media. It also helped ensure that victims of this violence could seek legal redress and rehabilitation support from the government. Only under public pressure did the government start judicial inquiries and set up relief camps for the thousands of people in these areas who were rendered homeless.


The work did not stop here however. There were large gaps in provision of food, medical supplies, and legal assistance to these camps. These gaps continued to be filled by civil society volunteers and their network of doctors, lawyers, journalists, and private donors. Thus, the coordination of supplies, fundraising, and on-ground assistance in these camps and neighbourhoods continued well after the violence itself had occurred.

It was under these circumstances that news broke of the WHO declaring the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic. As with the migrant crisis, there was little pre-emptive action taken to plan for the many hundreds of homeless families in east Delhi who had just been the victims of horrific communal violence, lost their homes, and were now living in crowded relief camps.


When the Delhi government discussed shutting down these camps, volunteers who had been involved with rescue efforts made urgent attempts to help these families find a temporary home with relatives or volunteers.


The pandemic also provided the perfect opportunity for many government supported news outlets to extensively brand public protestors, such as those at Shaheen Bagh, as 'irresponsibly endangering' public health. On 25th March – while hundreds of migrant workers were crowding the streets of Delhi, and hundreds of poor and homeless families were gathering en masse at community kitchens and shelters as a consequence of government lockdown measures – the Shaheen Bagh site was cleared by the Delhi police in the interest of social isolation.

In many ways, the communal violence events described here, and the pandemic lockdown measures, have provided a similar context for civil society actors to navigate. Both violence-related curfew and social isolation related curfew: restricted physical entry into areas, prevented access to information about ground realities, made delivery of emergency support difficult, and required personal risks to civil society volunteers.


Both necessitated helping those on the margins of citizenship in urban India. Some of the areas in Delhi that are worst affected by the lockdown for example, are those same east Delhi areas that were affected by the communal violence. This is not surprising given that they are largely poor Muslim neighbourhoods, are located at the outskirts of the city, and have numerous migrant worker settlements, all factors contributing to their being relatively sidelined when it comes to government welfare provision.


Nor is it only identity politics that links these events of resistance, violence, and pandemic. Acts of government repression also link them. Thus even as the food and migrant worker crises grew during lockdown, the central government issued orders to the police to continue arresting those involved in anti-CAA/NRC protests in Delhi during lockdown.


Prominent Muslim activists and a number of university students who had been the target of police violence during the protests in Delhi, have been served legal notice under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Arrests have begun at the time of writing this article.


At a time when access to legal support is limited because of the lockdown, this puts further pressure particularly on Muslim civil society volunteers. They are beginning to fear arrest under a variety of pretexts as occurred during the time of the protests earlier this year.

Discussions about a post-lockdown and post-Covid world have already begun in many circles. There are questions of whether countries will see this as an opportunity to invest in governance and public health infrastructure; or, whether political elites will see this as an opportunity to seize greater control of government institutions, and so on.


It is too early to answer questions such as these for India. The lockdown continues here, and neither the extent of the pandemic’s health cost nor its economic cost is fully understood yet. It is undeniable however, that Indian civil society has allowed for a crisis in the making to be swiftly identified and at least partially addressed.


Using the lockdown as an opportunity to target them with repressive measures would perhaps be one of the worst uses of government resources at this time.

Sobhi Mohanty is from India, and currently a PhD student in Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International & Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. This article first appeared in Interface Journal. Reproduced with the author's permission.


1 While details of WhatsApp groups cannot be shared here due to privacy concerns, take the example of guidelines for volunteers as explained by the Bangalore-based civil society collective Maraa in the article ‘Solving hunger crisis during lockdown: A guide to documenting migrant workers in need’. By Angarika Guha. In Citizen Matters, 19th April 2020.

2 Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). The former is an Act by the Indian national government from 2019 purportedly to provide citizenship status to non-Muslim victims of religious persecution in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. The latter is a legislation to carry out a countrywide census and taking count of legal and illegal migrants.

3 These legislations have had a significantly different meaning and public reaction in the north eastern state of Assam, where agitation against these Acts was extensive and violent, but ran contrary to the Muslim-solidarity focused public response in other parts of the country. This is not discussed here.