BANGALORE, INDIA—Here, in the world’s most congested city, there is a midnight quiet at all times of day. On the streets, where the occasional two-wheeler or pedestrian can be seen, there are no trucks or public transport. Police checkpoints have been set up along the main arteries. Cars are confiscated if drivers take them out for no good reason. Some hospitals are open, and groceries, and ATMs. Everything else is shut; and each time the lockdown reaches its endpoint, it is extended.
In India, the pandemic came as a bounty to the ruling BJP party: taking advantage of the chaos the virus brought, the Indian government consolidated powers it would have been impossible to imagine even half a dozen years ago. It has enacted measures that played on the idea that Muslims were knowingly spreading the virus, resulting in the further persecution of India’s 200 million Muslims, as well as its Dalit minorities. It has used the police and the army to enforce the nationwide lockdown. It has penalized political dissent, using archaic laws against sedition to arrest its critics.
Indians as a rule take pride in being part of an experiment routinely described as “the world’s largest democracy.” When that description has been tested, for instance during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, journalists took it upon themselves to resist. Some went to prison. Others used blank, black-bordered editorials in the national newspapers to register their protest. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, the independent press has all but vanished. Journalists go out of their way to praise the party line; those who do not are dealt with summarily.
Violence against journalists, intellectuals, and opposition figures has been part of the strategy against the party’s critics for some years now. Earlier, shadowy assassins carried out right-wing vendettas against a number of writers and activists: Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi. Of late, the full machinery of the state has been brought into play, as if the government no longer needed to disguise its intent.
On April 10, in the midst of the lockdown, a black police SUV drove 400 miles from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi to deliver a legal notice against Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of the independent news portal The Wire. His crime: The Wire had published an article related to a meeting in Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighborhood of the Tablighi Jamaat, a group of Islamic missionaries similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The government had condemned the meeting as a “super-spreader” of the virus, immediately followed by a wave of fake news and propaganda disseminated by text messaging. The spread of the disease was deliberate, the messages said, a way for Muslims to destabilize the country and kill Hindus. In response, The Wire said “Indian believers” had also been late to adopt social distancing practices, citing a religious fair planned for the holy city of Ayodhya by Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Ajay Bisht, a saffron-robed autocrat who calls himself Yogi Adityanath. In retaliation, Bisht’s BJP government registered a complaint against Varadarajan with the police.
Four days later, while the rest of the country was distracted by the rising rates of infection and death, Indian authorities invoked the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to arrest two human rights activists, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha. The men are currently in jail, at a time when convicted criminals are being released to ease India’s notoriously overcrowded prison system threatened by the virus. In an open letter, Teltumbde, a Dalit intellectual and activist, wrote:
As I see my India being ruined, it is with a feeble hope that I write to you at such a grim moment… I earnestly hope that you will speak out before your turn comes.
That little-known statute permits the government to detain individuals by branding them as “terrorists.” On Saturday, it was used to charge a twenty-six-year-old Kashmiri photojournalist named Masrat Zahra with “uploading anti-national posts [on Facebook] with criminal intentions to induce the youth” and “causing disaffection against the country.” Zahra, a freelancer whose subjects are women and children, has been joined in recent days by a host of others booked under the same act: the student leader Umar Khalid, student activists Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haidar, the journalists Gowhar Geelani and Peerzada Ashiq. All of them happen to be Muslim—where does coincidence end and religious persecution begin?
Since the arrival of the virus in India, the prime minister has addressed the nation twice. On both televised occasions, he asked citizens to enact an odd set of rituals at specified times of day, as a way of defeating the virus. Recommended were community activities such as the blowing of conch shells, the lighting of diyas (lamps), and the beating of thalis (platters), each of these customs and rites acting as a dog-whistle to upper-caste Hindus intended to isolate the nation’s beleaguered minorities. Soon enough, neighborhoods in Delhi posted notices saying Muslims visitors were unwelcome, vegetable vendors were asked for proof of their religious affiliation, and, elsewhere in the country, hospitals denied care to Muslim patients.
In a little less than a month, we learned that the virus is not the leveler we thought it was. If this is a war, it is, in fact, a class war. The upper-caste and upper-class residents of seafront Worli, in Bombay, are faring better than those who neighbors their high-rises, the residents of slums where entire families share a room and social distancing is not an option.
For the new populists, and the corporations that fund them, the only rule is to keep the wheels of industry turning: those low-paid workers—hospital staff, grocery and pharmacy store workers, security personnel, municipal employees, food delivery contractors—have become the front line of the pandemic, because they are easily replaceable and fundamentally disposable.
In the days following the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of casual workers in Indian cities found they were suddenly without money, or even the hope of earning money. They set off on foot for their hometowns in rural areas and distant provinces, walking for days, entire families carrying children on their backs, their belongings stuffed into cloth sacks carried on their heads. Many of them, particularly the elderly, died along the way. The choice was stark and non-negotiable: stay in the city and die of hunger or take to the road and hope for the best.
In a last twist, if and when they managed to reach their homes, they found they were unwelcome, ostracized as possible carriers of the virus. In one haunting image from those days, a family took shelter in a tree, squatting on its branches like migratory birds, staring at the camera, in their eyes not defeat but defiance.
This is the price paid by the poor of the world to those who wield the power and the prestige. It is the same everywhere. The algebra of need and exploitation will not change from one society to the next.
In India, as in the rest of the world, the pandemic is teaching us to be vigilant against the old men whose greed for money and power is wielded at the expense of the people they have been entrusted to protect. They are the new elites, the enemies of democracy, inclusion, women’s rights, science, all forms of expertise, and every kind of intellectual singularity. We must be as on our guard against them as we are against the virus.
Jeet Thayil, a former journalist, is a novelist, poet, and musician. His five poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct (2008), and his collaborations include the noise quintet Still Dirty, the experimental trio HMT, and the opera Babur in London, which premiered in 2012. His first novel, Narcopolis (2012), was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize; his most recent is Low (2020). (April 2020)