Perhaps it is easier to blame and vilify a minority for the Indian government’s failures.
As Italian philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi once observed, “no human trait deserves less tolerance in everyday life, and gets less, than intolerance.” This adage perfectly encapsulates India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far. As the disease started to take root in other countries, leading international publications highlighted BJP leaders’ negative role in preventing the spread of Covid-19 in India as they encouraged the utilization of unscientific measures based on traditional medicine with roots in religion (such as yoga and the consumption of cow urine) for both the prevention and cure for COVID-19.
Religion is made to serve this purpose in the rest of the world as well. Special prayers are being offered in countries around the world, with the White House itself, for example, holding a National Day of Prayer for “all Americans affected by the Coronavirus pandemic”. It is understandable that governments use religion as a medium of communication. Verbal or non-verbal, communication is the primary means by which individuals belonging to a culture communicate with others both within and outside their own cultures. Religion is a powerful source of values guiding any culture. This is especially true when it comes to the deeply religious South Asia.
At the core of all major South Asian religions is the expression of values to guide human action. In Islam, the human being is to help “kinsmen and orphans, the needy, the traveler [and] beggars”, Hindus must “judge pleasure or pain everywhere by looking on one’s neighbor as oneself.” In the same vein, Buddhism teaches to have a “boundless heart towards all beings”. A good example of religious values guiding human actions during this pandemic is the fact that politico-religious parties in Pakistan reportedly carried out disinfection activities in Karachi’s temples and churches along with distributing cooked food.
Thus, one can comprehend the logic behind South Asian government officials supporting their recommendations, particularly in the context of the pandemic, with religious zeal and/or in support of religious leaders. While some criticized the Pakistani state for negotiating with the country’s powerful clerics in order to close down the mosques, the attempt was not ill-informed given the impact and control, both negative and positive, religion maintains over people’s lives. Wise utilization of such influence could prove vital when it comes to governance and support in a pandemic, particularly in a developing country.
However, as the disease threatened to spread in India and cause havoc on its weak health system, Indian leaders used the pandemic to impose their bigoted and hateful views of other members of the society. Indian authorities themselves linked dozens of cases of COVID-19 to a Muslim missionary group that held its annual conference in Delhi in early March, calling it a “Talibani” crime.
Fake videos falsely claiming to show members of the missionary group spitting on police and harassing nurses went viral on social media. Indian government officials, perhaps still smarting from international condemnation of a pogrom against Muslims in Delhi while the U.S. President Donald Trump was visiting in late February 2020, were quick to blame Muslim missionaries for the spread of COVID-19 in India, influencing media discourse with prominent media anchors drumming up hate against the Muslim minority, eventually translating into trending hashtags such as #coronajihad and #tablighivirus.
It did not matter that a BJP leader, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath himself, defied the lockdown and attended a large-scale Hindu religious event. That did not make the headlines at all. The hashtag #coronajihad was nevertheless shared more than 300,000 times and potentially seen by 165 million people. Indian Twitter burst with support with images shared by thousands, unwilling or perhaps unable to question their leaders’ obviously divisive politics based on hate-mongering. According to Equality Labs, a digital human rights group, many of the posts are in clear violation of Twitter’s rules on hate speech but have yet to be taken down. This clear disregard for human rights by Twitter is not unprecedented, given the case of India again with regards to Kashmir.
It can be said that the #21daylockdown enforced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not going as well as perhaps he and his government had hoped. Thousands of migrant laborers are either stranded far away from home with no money, cramping into soup kitchens and risking infection, or walking hundreds of miles to their villages in search of guaranteed food and accommodation. Millions of people are jobless and fear starvation as they wait for government help which is yet to materialize. If lockdown restrictions are violated, people are beaten and abused, while frustrations grow on social media as government officials’ family friends enjoy the freedom of movement.
Despite very harsh measures, India’s number of coronavirus cases are the highest in the region, exceeding the total of neighboring Pakistan, which did not implement a complete lockdown and has similar demographic and economic structures, fearing its anti-poor impact. Prime Minister Modi himself called for a “staggered exit” from the lockdown days.
Perhaps it is easier to blame and vilify a minority for the government’s failures. Perhaps it is easier when BJP politicians such as Subramanian Swamy, in a recent interview to VICE News, and despite having been laid off by Harvard University for his bigoted views, demonize Muslims and advocate for a reduction in their numbers. Perhaps it is easier to blame the other in such times of uncertainty. Only India has responded to the pandemic with Islamophobia and state bigotry.
Rampant misinformation is partly to blame for the weaponization of religion to achieve political goals, even during a pandemic. WhatsApp groups are rife with misinformation about both prevention and cure, with conspiracy theories turning into blame games and eventually racism.
Another reason is human aversion to uncertainty. According to Hogg’s uncertainty-identity theory, human beings tend to identify more strongly with their own people in times of uncertainty, which are undoubtedly unpleasant, to reduce its effects, even if that means demonizing an entire community in your own country. This pandemic, almost a divine mirror, has laid bare many things for us.