‘Modi asked us to light it up’
by Skye Arundhati Thomas
Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago.
The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.
On 24 March, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, declared a three-week nationwide lockdown. Nearly forty million Indians who work as daily wage labourers were immediately rendered unemployed. There was a mass exodus, with migrant workers deciding to travel back to their villages because of financial and social uncertainty.
They are an underpaid and undervalued workforce who keep the country’s cities going as domestic staff, security guards, couriers, chefs, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, handymen and more. Many were forced to walk because public transport services were suspended, and several died on their way home, either in road accidents or simply from the exhaustion of trekking hundreds of miles. The lockdown has also broken supply chains, and food is not reaching people in time.
Six hours before announcing the lockdown, Modi held a private video conference with the owners and editors of more than twenty media organisations. He asked them to publish only ‘inspiring and positive stories’ in the days to follow. A week later, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court asking that all coronavirus coverage be first approved by the central government. In Kashmir, the state has gone as far as to issue a complete gag order: healthcare workers in public hospitals are no longer allowed to speak to the press.
India has reported 6771 Covid-19 cases, with 228 deaths. It has one hospital bed for every two thousand people and, like most of the world, a dwindling number of healthcare professionals, in part because many who train in India go abroad to seek better paid employment. There is not enough basic equipment. Given the lack of proper testing infrastructure and the density of the population, it is impossible to believe that the official Covid-19 numbers are accurate.
The first case was discovered on 30 January, when the government was busy with Donald Trump’s visit. Rather than investing in preparations for the coming pandemic, state funds were being used to build walls to hide the poor, and roast wild Atlantic salmon for fish tikkas to serve at grand dinners.
While Trump was in New Delhi, a state-abetted anti-Muslim pogrom raged in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods. Hindu mobs burned down houses, mosques, shops and schools; they dragged Muslims out onto the streets and beat or lynched them. Thousands had to leave their homes and seek shelter in makeshift refugee camps. When asked to stay at home two months later, they didn’t have homes to stay in.
The right-wing, Modi-supporting press has also spun Islamophobic tales of the spread of the virus, attacking Muslim religious congregations and calling Muslims ‘super-spreaders’ while ignoring similar, much larger Hindu pilgrimages and ceremonies.
The lockdown has emboldened and intensified police brutality. Given the revolutionary energy of recent months, with the anti-CAA and NRC protests gaining momentum across the country, the pandemic has made possible what the central government was desperately hoping for – an opportunity to stamp out anti-government sentiment and tighten the grip of totalitarian rule. Most Indian cities, especially in states where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, are heavily militarised, and the police have been given free rein.
Two days after the lockdown was announced, a 32-year-old man in West Bengal went out to buy milk. A group of policemen cornered him and beat him for breaking lockdown restrictions. He died shortly afterwards.
Footage has circulated showing police officers upturning carts full of vegetables and hitting vendors, striking delivery boys, flogging ambulance drivers, and forcing migrants to do squats at the roadside for no apparent reason. In the Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh, a group of incoming migrants were sprayed down with bleach. More than six hundred people have been arrested in Kashmir for violating the curfew.
Meanwhile, amid the unchecked state violence and encroaching threat of starvation, and in lieu of any proper information, Modi comes up with a new task every couple of weeks for citizens to perform. On 22 March, he called for people to stand at their windows, bang utensils and ring bells to show their appreciation for healthcare workers. In cities across the country, people gathered outdoors in droves: dancing, waving pots and pans in the air, and shouting such slogans as ‘Go Corona Go, Go Back to China’.
On 5 April, Modi asked for a nine-minute candlelight vigil at 9 p.m. In many cities people marched through the streets brandishing burning torches; a man blowing fire set himself alight; houses caught fire in Rajasthan and New Delhi because of firework displays; part of an airport burned down in Solapur. A viral TikTok video shows a group of topless teenage boys dancing in front of a blazing field. ‘Modi asked us to light it up and so we did,’ they chant, punching the air.
Skye Arundhati Thomas lives in Mumbai. This article was first published in the London Review of Books. Republished with the author's permission.