Islamophobia Studies Center recently published a report on COVID-19 and India’s Islamophobia. In this report, we attempt to examine India’s recent developments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which comes as a follow up to our more extensive and detailed research on Islamophobia in the country. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, India’s political and civic leaders have opted to use the opportunity to drive Islamophobic messaging in public discourses and fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiments. India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi, leader of the Hindu ultra-nationalist BJP party, is no stranger to stoking racial and religious tensions to achieve political ends; the pandemic is another example as this report illustrates. The BJP’s platform and India’s policies are textbook examples of utilizing every political and economic crisis to drive maximum benefit for the ultra-nationalists in the country. Furthermore, fear and demonization are used to target marginalized populations that include Christians, Dalits (lower caste Hindus), Muslims, and Sikhs.
The BJP party is founded on the Hindutva ideology, a modern rightwing ultra-nationalist formulation first mentioned in V.D. Savarkar’s book Hindutva, which “constructs an idealized Hindu as the archetypical citizen of India and through the superiorization of the Hindu.” Thus, the Hindutva ideology “necessarily imagines an array of identities to be unworthy of belonging to its conception of India,” and the “otherization project inferiorizes a number of identities: Dalits, liberals, Christians, feminists, but most of all, Muslims.” Furthermore, Hindutva, in more than one context, “envisions India to have always been a Hindu nation and perceives Islam and Muslims as an alien force which, through invasion and war, caused a seismic shift to the detriment of the natural state of Hinduness in the subcontinent.” Various nationalist groups in India have adopted Hindutva’s ideology, or “Hinduness,” which “has three pillars—common nation, race, and culture—and forms the basis of an exclusionary national narrative focused exclusively on the rights of Hindus. These groups’ views and activities range across a spectrum: from extreme activities that include the expulsion, killing, or conversion of all non-Hindus, while more moderate forces demand greater influence of Hindu principles in the state’s decision-making process.”
Accordingly, the BJP party and the Hindutva ideology closely resemble Nazi thought and fascism, rather than any type of liberal democracy promoted in the Western press in regards to India. The fact that India has elections and is the largest democracy in the world should not be used as a reference point to obfuscate the nature of the BJP and its affinity to a Nazi and fascistic worldview. The BJP party and its main arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were inspired and referenced in their writings and speeches both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy. An example of this is B. S. Moonje, a Hindu nationalist leader, who met Italian dictator Mussolini and expressed admiration and affinity to fascism: “The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people… India and particularly Hindu India need some such institutions for the military regeneration of the Hindus… Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr. Hedgewar is of this kind.” It comes as no surprise that the RSS was implicated in the assassination of the ‘Father of the Nation,’ Mahatma Gandhi and on the 71st anniversary went as far to stage a re-enactment and celebrate the murder’s success.
Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP government under Modi’s leadership has moved to target all non-Hindu populations systematically and deliberately while making sure to weaken institutional protections. After the first election victory, the BJP party undertook massive purges of voters from the electoral rosters, suppressing voters during the actual elections and violence and intimidation at the polls. All the fascistic tools have been mobilized against the targeted communities while simultaneously pressing other Hindus in the country to embrace the Hindutva ideology, and, at the same time, urging those who converted to Islam, Christianity or Sikhism to return to their “original” state of Hinduism. Here the change in Kashmir’s legal status and the intensification and escalation of violence in the region must be viewed within the scope of the Hindutva ultra-nationalist ideology of the Indian government, which reflects a desire to “take back” the imagined but currently separated homeland. Taking over Kashmir for the BJP is about “re-uniting” the “national motherland” and removal of the supposed “impurity” that has prevented the imagined pristine past from being actualized, which translates to the need to remove or exterminate the current Muslim population. Moreover, a particular effort is directed at the Dalit population in the country and calling on them to “return home” to Hinduism while manipulating the existing historical caste system to achieve this end. The role of the media and, in particular, social media should not be underestimated as the BJP’s leadership, and grassroots have successfully deployed it to deadly consequences.
Thus, India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has to be understood and positioned within the broader BJP’s strategy that targets Christians, Dalits (lower caste Hindus), Muslims, and Sikhs as a way to continue to build and solidify a Hindu ultra-nationalist identity based on exclusion and otherization. In India, the COVID-19 pandemic was framed as a Muslim problem or another type of “religious” invasion intended to once again undo the Hindu nation through the use of the virus. This framing was articulated in the media as the “CoronaJihad” or “Corona Terrorism,” which resembles the same strategy the U.S president Donald Trump used in framing it as the “Chinese Virus” to push anti-China discourses that are key to his 2020 election campaign. Here, the public discourses used by India’s BJP government officials and the Trump administration in the U.S are paradigmatic of populist and ultra-nationalist politicians utilizing crisis to stoke racial, ethnic, and religious tensions to cement their hold on power while driving further divisions in societies.
Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the effects of neoliberal economic and political order. Indeed, over the past 40 years, the neoliberal order has moved to cut healthcare coverage, reduce spending on education, and dismantle the social welfare safety net, and shifting the blame makes it possible to divert attention from the unfolding structural crisis. Here, the massive push for privatization, deregulation, and corporatization of society’s critical services and assets has led to an intensification of poverty and marginalization of the middle class and poor, which were instrumentalized to deepen the racial, class, gender, and religious, societal fault lines. In the Global North and Global South, the pandemic has brought upon power consolidation and domination of public discourses by populist and ultra-nationalist parties and racist public figures, which is also a primary symptom of the neoliberal economic and political order. The pandemic has exposed the structural effects that weaken every aspect of societal collective social safety net in a short period.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, the global political landscape experienced a dramatic swing toward a populist and ultra-nationalist end with a poisonous mixture of racism, xenophobia, violence, and the shaping of an exclusivist closed and surveilled civil society spaces. In Austria, Brazil, the U.S, U.K, Israel, and India, the world witnessed in shock the arrival to power of populist political figures promising a national rescue and a project to reconstitute an imagined pristine, pure, and idealized past. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” was a powerful populist call to reclaim a distant past and project it into the present to shape the country’s racial, social, political, religious, and economic future horizons. Not surprisingly, the call for a glorified “stolen” or “undermined” past came on the heels of the 2008 economic crisis and the coming to power of the first Black president, Barack Obama, a threat to the idea of Whiteness of America’s imagined and exclusivist narrative. Indeed, the search for the pristine glorified past disrupted by a designated and demonized group is the normative pattern deployed by every populist, xenophobic and racist political party or figures and India’s BJP strategy is following the same course.
Populist political rhetoric that fans the flame reads: If it was not for the “x” group in society (Muslims in India), then our people, nation, state, tribe, and religion would have been better positioned than they find themselves today. It is “x” that is causing your pain and suffering, but if you give me the reins of power and elect “me” and the populist party, then we will make sure to get rid of the “problem people” and reconstitute the pure and pristine distant past. The suffering is real, the pain is real, and the need for solutions is more urgent than at any given time before. However, the populist leader and his political party are offering the people as sacrificial lambs to climb over their skulls into seats of power.
“Do Not Let This Crisis Go To Waste” is the ultra-nationalist and populist apt description of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis; rather than responding with sound healthcare plans and policies and building collective empathy, they selected to solidify racist and xenophobic attacks and intensify their campaigns. The pandemic crisis was not wasted by the populists to drive their malicious and racialized agenda. Blaming the targeted group for the virus, a foreign country, or the real domestic political opposition is the populist ultra-nationalist and preferred xenophobic responses to the unfolding crisis.
Consequently, India, Brazil, U.K, the U.S, and the Russian Federation are the five countries that are led by populist politicians and have so far have experienced a sustained increase in the rates of COVID-19 infections with no end in sight. Here, the calamity of the biological virus itself is only matched by the catastrophe and the consequences of populist, xenophobic and racist leadership that used the crisis to intensify the social-political-religious divide and deployed to solidify or shape upcoming elections cycles. More critically, the populist leadership in these states utilized the healthcare and financial responses to the pandemic to redistribute resources to their corporate supporters and electoral base. Simultaneously, the pandemic was utilized to deploy a militarized authoritarian framework in response to the crisis, which further targeted the already marginalized and demonized group or groups.
Pouring fuel to stoke the flames of racial, religious, and ethnic tensions is intended to provide the populist leader a stage to ride into town to put out the fire and give the impression that all is fixed. However, the flames are created, and the extinguisher is brought into the scene by the same populist actors. They also are skilled in using all of the media platforms to drive their messaging and stoke their base into violence and intimidation. Nothing is unique in the strategy and its success is tried and tested throughout history.
The COVID-19 pandemic provides the best cover for the populist to drive toward maximum consolidation of power and reshape society in line with their worldview. Just like the Plague in the Middle Ages, it was used to fan the flames of anti-Semitism and target the Jewish population as a strategy to consolidate Christian Orthodoxy and identity by manipulating public sentiments and fear. Fear can make people do and accept things that, under normal circumstances, they deem unacceptable and beyond the pale. Populist political and religious groups are stoking fear on top of the real horror of the COVID-19 pandemic to shield themselves from any responsibility and building more support for their distorted and ill-conceived policies. They will target anyone who dares to express opposition. In the days and months ahead, we will see further stoking of fear for populist political purposes while leaving behind the stench of death and destruction, along with divided communities. The only hope is that people of goodwill and intelligence take principled and collective steps to change the societal course toward optimism, inclusiveness, and a shared future.
The writer is a faculty of University of California, Bsserkeley & Co-Founder, Zaytuna College