Tales of a Pandemic: Migrants, Dissidents and the State

With the Covid-19 vaccine(s) seemingly on the horizon, it is important to reflect upon this period of acute stress and paranoia with regards to national politics. India, as far as domestic political discourse is concerned, has declared itself the champion of lockdowns and preventive measures.

While the world was grappling with the monumental failures of the American government pertaining to healthcare and the oppression of its own people, many aspects of the Indian lockdown flew under the radar, barely questioned by even the most vehement critics of the Indian government, out of fear, reservation, or bewilderment. It has been observed for over six years now that the current government exercises something of a blitzkrieg in the announcement and implementation of its policies. This suddenness is, indeed, an extremely deliberate political strategy that incapacitates any thought of opposition. This is evident in one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speeches where he remarked how people in other countries resisted lockdown measures, but the Indian people immediately fell in line. What the Prime Minister leaves out in his speech, however, was the manner in which the citizens of India were confronted with the lockdown. 

With a one-day trial run of a voluntary lockdown on 22 March 2020, a nationwide lockdown was announced on the 24th March, barely four hours before it was to be in effect. It is important to note that the total number of reported positive cases in India at the time were approximately 500. This four hour notice, quite predictably, threw people in a fray, disoriented them as they crowded outside grocery stores and pharmacies to stock up on food and medicine, suspecting that they may not have access to them for at least a month. The lockdown then continued for several months. It is debatable for how many months, especially since it got rebranded as an “unlock” once certain relaxations were announced. In the course of the pandemic, India has seen four lockdowns and six “unlocks” (as of now) with varying degrees of movement allowed. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been something of a mixed bag for the BJP, the political party currently leading the Government of India. It is known for its acute Hindu Nationalism (Hindutva), and its general disdain and/or indifference towards minorities, Muslims in particular. The pandemic shone light on a different kind of indifference towards a different community. While the government keeps patting itself on the back for an extensive “mission” that brought back Indians stranded in countries around the world, thousands of Indians, within India, had to walk hundreds of kilometers to reach their towns and villages. These people constitute the large migrant worker community, central to India’s industries. 

The government somehow forgot about these people, perhaps because they work outside their voting constituencies and rarely cast votes. With lockdown measures in effect, factories, constructions projects and other labour oriented work was at a standstill. The workers who relied on these jobs for daily wages had absolutely no means to afford food. With transportation suspended they had no means to return to their villages, which were in faraway states. So, they walked, and many died on their way home. The government, of course, did not acknowledge this, and conveniently shifted the blame to the now non-existent (politically) opposition party if someone dared to raise this issue, which the Indian media, rarely did. Instead, they clogged prime time debates with tales of war with China and brooding upon the unfortunate suicide of an actor for three straight months.

The lockdown measures proved to be unplanned, half-baked and rushed, and ultimately damaged the country socially, demonstrated by the general paranoia and the migrant crisis, and economically, as evidenced by the current state of the GDP. What the lockdown measures lack in policy, they make up in politics. It is therefore important to look at what the government actually achieved by socially engineering absolute compliance at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in a time of extreme political turmoil (CAA & NRC protests).  

The streets of every major city in India were flooded with protesters resisting the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The new legislature was considered unconstitutional by many as it systematically excluded the Muslims who sought refuge in India, and who subsequently faced a life in refugee camps. The political discourse was heating up and for the first time perhaps, since coming to power in 2014, it seemed that the government was on the brink of being overwhelmed. 

Then came news of a new virus terrorizing parts of China. An interesting opportunity presented itself as India along with the rest of the world watched Wuhan go into lockdown. It was the perfect trojan horse, primarily because the lockdown in India (arguably) served its primary purpose – containing the spread of Covid-19. But it did much more than this for the government.While some protest sites (like Shaheen Bagh protest) held out for a while amid lockdown impositions, the momentum of the CAA & NRC protests had died down due to the disorienting effects of the announcement of the lockdown, mere four hours before it came into effect. People were faced with more fundamental questions of existence like the availability of food and medicine, meanwhile, tension settled heavily through the periodic renewal of the lockdown, which left people worn out, without respite, and more importantly, without employment. What were once issues of national importance, disappeared into the Covid shaped void and haven’t come out since.

It would be naïve to assume that the government did not anticipate this panic, because it caused a similar panic when it announced the now infamous demonetization/note-ban in 2016, again four hours before it was to be implemented. As the lockdown continued, the government exercised its newly amended anti-terror law, the UAPA, to arrest dissidents who participated in, or led the CAA & NRC protests, as well as Muslims and people critical of the government in general. More than 800 people have been arrested in connections to the protests and since there were no lawyers available and the courts weren’t functioning due to the lockdown, many stayed locked up for a very long time, some still are.

The indiscriminate exercise of state authority has cast a shadow longer than the virus itself amid the various lockdowns and “unlocks” in India. People who fear the unpredictability of their government, do not fear the unpredictability of disease. The threat of Covid-19, while very real and immediate, ended up being a political tool for the suppression of dissent in India. People, desensitized by their reality, remain glued to their televisions, watching their Prime Minister urge that citizens maintain social distancing, while massive crowds gather at various electoral rallies, including his own. To quote a placard from the CAA protests, “This episode of black mirror sucks”.

By Parijat Pandya

Parijat Pandya is a Ph.D fellow at the Central University of Gujarat, India. He is a poet and a translator, and was published in India’s National Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi’s Journal Indian Literature in 2019. His areas of interest are Cultural Studies, Semiotics, Postcolonial Theory, and Digital Humanities. His research area deals with the semiotic structure of memes and their function in socio-political discourse.

The featured image (top) is by Balouriarajesh on Pixabay. 

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