As of June 9, India is reporting 266,598 confirmed coronavirus infections and 7,466 Covid-19 deaths although the actual toll could be far higher. The pandemic comes on the heals of a fading neoliberal boom that has exacerbated inequality, driven by President Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while simultaneously stoking Islamophobia and restricting democratic liberties. Modi initially earned high marks for ordering an immediate and comprehensive lockdown in the face of the coronavirus threat, but the pandemic is spreading rapidly and India’s health care system is in no condition to confront it. How Modi’s market-driven, scapegoating regime will whether the crisis will depend in part on whether or not India’s left, trade unions, and social movements can find ways to mobilize, as they did recently in December against Modi’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws and are planning to do so again with a July 3 national strike.
This analysis was written by Vinod Mubayi for the International South Asia Forum and was republished by Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières. Republished by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverages.
At a time when the pandemic infection in India seems to be rising rapidly, the regime’s acts of cruelty, there is simply no other word for them, that consist of acts of both commission and omission, seem bewildering. Are they the expressions of a government that is both uncaring and incompetent, whose minions are content with projecting the image of an omnipotent, omniscient leader, a divine guru beyond human criticism? Or are they instead the actions of a would-be dictatorial government bent on crushing any manifestation of opposition in its march to Hindu Rashtra? Considering both the utterances and silences of the government’s spokespersons on various issues, it appears to be a combination of both, depending on the issue.
Migrant Workers and the working class generally
The plight of the many millions of workers who had migrated from far-off villages in the rural hinterland to the major metropolitan cities to perform essential labor in the construction sector and a myriad other occupations at low wages without job security, can be well imagined when they were suddenly informed by no less a person than the Prime Minister at 8 p.m. on March 24 that they had literally four hours until midnight to reset their entire lives before a lockdown went into effect. What was this guru thinking? That each migrant worker making at best a few hundred rupees a day, part of which he was no doubt sending to his family or relatives in his native village, would have a nice apartment in the city to retreat into at the stroke of midnight? Was this just sheer callousness on the part of this guru and his many advisers? Or, had he moved so far from his supposed “chaiwala” origins, hobnobbing with the Ambanis and Adanis, that he had simply forgotten how the vast majorities in the cities lived?
What followed callousness was more callous behavior mixed with outright incompetence and downright lying from senior functionaries of the government. With all long-distance transport canceled when the lockdown started, the migrant workers started walking back to their villages, hundreds of miles in some cases, with some dying on the roads. The bad publicity seemed to have caused the authorities in some states to have a sudden change of heart. Announcements of buses and trains were made but they were so poorly organized and chaotically coordinated that thousands and thousands of poor migrants milled around, discarding all notions of “social distancing” in the process, in hope of getting transport. Shortly after, the central ministry of home affairs under Amit Shah did a somersault and banned all interstate movement; an edict that was brutally enforced by the cops on the people as numerous videos, which rapidly went viral, graphically depicted.
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Forced to provide food and shelter to the desperate migrants anxious to return to their native villages, the authorities did another about turn after a few days, making trains available but forced the penniless laborers, who had received no wages since the lockdown, to pay for their fare home. When this miserable state of affairs was revealed in the media, the government began lying blatantly claiming that the centre would pay 85% of the fare and the state government the remainder. This whole sequence of events would merit depiction as a low-grade cinema verité farce, were it not for the tragedies inflicted on the hapless migrants as reports poured in of deaths on the roads, on railroad tracks, and on train stations. This particular aspect of the regime’s acts has been covered by the non-godi media in detail. What is worth mentioning is that the cumulative impact of these miseries seem to have finally woken up a somnolent Supreme Court that had so far turned a deaf ear to urgent petitions from senior lawyers asking that the government be held to account for its utter neglect of the suffering of a vulnerable segment of the country’s population.
Abolishing long-established labor laws
In a bizarre footnote to the plight of the migrant laborers, several states, notably UP, MP, Karnataka and some others, announced they would abolish long standing labor laws that protected worker rights in order to spur industrial growth. Among these was a proposal to lengthen the working day from 8 to 12 hours. This was common in the history of early 19th century capitalism when the working day commonly extended to as much as 12 to 14 hours.
In the Marxist analysis of the labor process in a capitalist economy, the capitalist extracts surplus value from the labor performed by the worker; in Vol. 1 of his famous book Capital, Marx states that “the surplus value produced by prolongation of the working day, I call absolute surplus value.” It took many years of struggle on the part of the working class to force the state to fix the length of the working day at 8 hours. However, BJP leaders like UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have no hesitation in attempting to drag India’s factories and workers back to the “satanic mills” of 19th century England that Marx described so eloquently in his writings. In fact, under the specious guise of “reform” and attempting to kickstart the economy from its current dismal state, the government is openly using arguments advanced by the owners of capital, using the excuse of the pandemic to open the gates to intensified worker exploitation.
The fabricated Bhima-Koregaon case was launched in 2018 with the arrest of several Dalit activists who were accused on fanciful charges of being “urban-Naxals,” notwithstanding the fact that many of them are senior citizens, including one octogenarian and one who is 90 percent disabled and confined to a wheelchair for life. But what began as a vindictive policy of arresting, under highly repressive laws such as UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, that allows police to imprison someone without bail or a trial for as much as two years), those who dissent from the Modi-Shah view of the country has now ballooned into something far more sinister.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis erupted, the Modi-Shah regime in the flush of its electoral victory last year had begun taking highly undemocratic actions to alter the social and constitutional fabric of the country. Overnight, on August 5, 2019, without the slightest pretense of consultation with legislators or the public, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was arbitrarily amputated into two Union territories, Article 370 of the Constitution of India that protected J&K’s status was dissolved, and public life in the region came to a screeching halt. Thousands of arrests followed, including the top political, business and intellectual leadership of the erstwhile state, and communication links cut off as a purely political (non-Covid-19) lockdown was imposed on the area. Kashmiri men and women who have never committed a crime, continue to languish in jail, inside and outside the former state, under stringent charges such as sedition or the UAPA. The government has no legal basis to keep them imprisoned, only a fear of what they may say or write if they were released. Fundamental rights of speech and assembly, guaranteed by the constitution, mean little in today’s India if the police can put you in jail simply for who you are.
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In December 2019, the unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed and widespread democratic protests against it erupted instantly and rapidly spread over the whole country. These protests that were completely peaceful, in the Gandhian non-violent tradition, were unique in one respect. They were led mainly by women, and, in particular, young Muslim women, who feared the impact of CAA and its corollary, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), on their lives as citizens of the country with equal rights. These protests were also unique in highlighting pictures of the Indian Constitution and its principal author, Dr B.R. Ambedkar as the icons of their protests.
After BJP lost the Delhi elections to AAP in early February 2020, the assault on these protesters, and on the minority Muslims in Delhi generally, were orchestrated by highly provocative and incendiary speeches by BJP politicians who shouted “shoot the traitors” to their supporters. This was the signal for the pogrom of Muslims, wrongly termed “riots” in the media, in Muslim majority areas of Delhi to begin. Shamefully, the AAP leadership sat twiddling their thumbs or reading the Hanuman chalisa while the violence raged, neither caring nor daring to raise their voice at what was being done to a segment of the population. After the violence, in which the vast majority killed and wounded were Muslims who also suffered by far the major proportion of the property loss, the Delhi police, which is under the central government, started making arrests.
To no one’s surprise the BJP leaders who incited the violence have not been touched. Almost all those arrested so far are Muslims, except for a few non-Muslim academics, under draconian laws such as UAPA. Typically, most of the Muslims arrested are also academics from prestigious institutions such as Jamia Millia. An example is the PhD student from Jamia, Safoora Zargar, who was reported by the BBC as “being taken by officers of the [Delhi police] special cell for questioning about her involvement in the anti CAA protests. She was arrested late at night and questioned for several hours before being jailed under UAPA. Zargar who is pregnant was ridiculed by BJP trolls for her condition. Since her arrest, she’s been allowed to make two five-minute calls each to her husband and her lawyer. She has been denied both visits and letters on account of Covid-19 restrictions,” reported the BBC.
The Covid pandemic and the lockdown have made no difference to the spate of arrests of those being victimized for purely political reasons. Well-known intellectuals and activists Prof. Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, also senior citizens, were arrested in the middle of the first lockdown and jailed in the Bhima-Koregaon case despite being highly vulnerable, due to their advanced age and medical condition, to contracting coronavirus disease that is rampant in the jails due to overcrowding. The Delhi police has still to investigate and charge the perpetrators of violence in the JNU campus in January who injured students, including the president of the student union, and destroyed computers and other property while the police watched and did nothing. But it along with the UP police is hell-bent on arresting those Muslims who dissent from the Modi regime’s policies and oppose CAA.
The former student leader Shehla Rashid in a spirited statement said “India is headed down a dangerous, self-destructive path. The arrests, intimidation and harassment of some of its finest minds is cause for alarm. What we are witnessing is nothing short of a sadistic purge – elimination of all ideological opponents…Anyone with an opinion is a target. Alongside arrests, another disturbing trend is the criminalization of minorities and political opponents…Pervasive bias and discrimination, incidents of lynching and hate propaganda – before and during the pandemic – causes Muslims to live in fear, and seeks to relegate them to second-class status in society.”
The month of April was replete with boasts by Indian government officials and spokespersons that PM Modi’s lockdown would successfully curb the virus. In fact, the central government’s Niti Aayog had predicted in April that new Covid cases would go to zero (ZERO) by May 16. As this editorial is being written, the latest news from the Quint is: India recorded highest one-day spike with 7,466 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, 29 May taking the case tally to 165,799, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. [And one week later, the total stands at 266,598 as of June 9.]
Further comment would be superfluous.
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