Savita Pawnday, India and USA

Warscapes Corona Notebooks

Human rights advocate, Savita Pawnday, reflects on living a pandemic through two places, India and the U.S. She is particularly concerned about Indian Prime Minister Modi's mishandling of the lockdown measures which have left migrant laborers and masses of poor populations in deep precarity and made Muslims an easy target of politically spurred violence. Even as an apathetic Indian middle-classes watches on and mystical treatments are announced daily, Pawnday wants to remain hopeful while she is forced to be far from home. 

The enduring soundtrack of living in New York City is the ambient noise of ambulance and fire brigade sirens. Sometime over the last 20 years I have stopped hearing them. But as New York has emerged as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic the sound of sirens surrounds us and I feel my heart tightening as I wonder how many will lose their lives today and how many lives will be changed irrevocably because of that loss.  

The pandemic has made me confront my identity as someone who calls both New York and India home. For years I struggled with the decision to make a life in New York, but in recent years I convinced myself that Mumbai is only a 15-hour plane ride away and WhatsApp has diminished the distance. But the thought of my aging parents now keeps me up at night, as does the fact that this pandemic has virtually cut off all means to reach them. It has forced me to acknowledge that we are truly continents apart.

The dread is further amplified when I think about the consequences of this pandemic in a country like India. As I keenly observe what the Indian state is doing to address Covid -19, I am saddened to see that the crisis has further exacerbated existing inequalities, patterns of discrimination and attacks on democratic values. Here are some reflections on the state of Indian leadership, the nature of its polity and its democracy.

During a global pandemic, accurate information is paramount for prevention. The more information the general populace can access through credible sources the easier it is to avoid panic and pandemonium. One of the reasons for the surging popularity of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is that his press conferences are compassionate and provide practical information about how New York state authorities are dealing with the situation.

In India on the other hand, Prime Minister Modi has not held a single press conference. He has addressed the nation three times, but never through an exchange with the people. The first time was to announce the lockdown and the third time was to announce that it would be extended for additional three weeks. A fourth address is forthcoming as now India prepares to start opening up. The focus of all three addresses by the Prime Minister was on giving 1.3 billion people tasks to do during the lockdown. These ranged from banging pots and pans to show appreciation for frontline medical workers – as we do in New York and we have witnessed in other countries around the world - to lighting a lamp or a candle for 9 minutes at 9 pm on a certain day. In his speeches he also asked people to show charity to the poor, care for animals, for employers to retain their work force and to contribute to the newly created fund called “PM Cares.” What has been consistently missing in the speeches is reassurance regarding the government’s plans  for increased testing and to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable, condemnation of growing hate speech in the public domain, and an appeal to follow the advice of medical experts rather than believing in mystical treatments.

The style and substance of Mr. Modi’s address transfers the responsibility to act onto the citizen without outlining the steps his government is taking to fight the hardships caused by the pandemic. Another very telling aspect of his address to the nation was asking people to behave, to not cross the “Laxman Rekha,” a mythological reference that means being within the bounds of virtue. By making the tone of the address paternalistic he continues to transform the relationship between the polity and the government. The relationship has become about obeying a benevolent leader and proving oneself to be a virtuous citizen by following his edicts.

The way in which Mr. Modi has handled communicating with the public during Covid-19 also exemplifies how over the last six years the right to dissent is slowly being eroded. Questioning the government or holding the Prime Minister accountable is equated with being against India. Terms like “anti-national” or “unpatriotic” are applied to anyone who wants to ask questions about policy. By not holding a single press conference since he took office Mr. Modi has normalized the sentiment that it is acceptable for him to not interact with the press. He has trained the populace to accept one-way communication from him and has effectively taken away the right of the people to hold the government publicly accountable. Since the start of the pandemic mainstream media has not questioned the fact that Mr. Modi has not held a single press conference. Independent media outlets like the Wire, that have questioned the government, have been harassed and asked to appear at police stations to counter false allegations. This is a not especially subtle, but effective, strategy to train the media not to ask questions. 

Mr. Modi’s government took the right decision by opting to lockdown the country. With limited medical resources, social distancing was a necessary step to control and prevent community infections. However, the way it was implemented was problematic. Mr. Modi gave the population less than 4 hours to prepare for the lockdown and as a result, there was panic and chaos on the streets of India. People rushed to grocery stores and pharmacies to stock up, severely compromising social distancing. Also, the lockdown should have been implemented with over 24 to 48-hour notice to allow for people to stock up and for supply chains to adjust to new realities.

This situation has also created an unprecedented crisis for the poor in the country, especially daily and migrant workers. With no income they are unable to live in the big cities where they come solely for employment. But now they are also unable to go home to their villages as all trains and buses have stopped running. From 25th March onwards millions of migrant workers have been on the road walking hundreds of miles to reach their villages. Several deaths have been reported of men, women and children who have been walking without food and shoes for days on end. The ones who have chosen to stay in the cities are living in deplorable conditions under bridges and flyovers waiting for the lockdown to end, often surviving on one meal or less a day.

Central and state governments have taken no robust steps to address this problem. Although a few trains have been arranged in the last couple of days, the economically distressed migrants are still expected to pay their fare to go home. A cynical explanation for this can also be that migrant workers are not a vote bank for either national or regional parties that are in government. They are unable to vote in most elections as they are registered to vote in their villages but live in the city for employment.

Non-government organizations and charitable individuals have stepped up to provide food and assistance to the migrants, but they cannot replace the government. Private organizations cannot match the reach or the scale of government policy or programming. Through their words and deeds the ruling BJP has abdicated its responsibility to the most vulnerable and shifted the burden of action on to civil society.

Through all of this, much of the middle class remains apathetic. They blame the poor for not following social distancing rules without understanding that either they live in areas where the density of the population does not allow for it or they are unable to stay in cities as they live where they work and the loss of one leads to the loss of the other.

Muslims have also been particularly targeted since a meeting of an Islamic sect in mid-March emerged as India’s largest coronavirus vector. The mainstream media has propagated the narrative of blaming the poor and Muslims. The pandemic has been communalized to such an extent that some Muslims have been denied medical help at hospitals, separate wards for Muslim have been created and multiple BJP workers and leaders have issued calls to boycott Muslim food vendors. However, Covid-19 is not solely responsible for the increased hate speech and xenophobic rhetoric in India.

In the last six years hate speech employed by senior leaders of the BJP has created a toxic environment where calls for discrimination against the Muslim minority have been normalized. This manifested itself this February in one of the worst incidences of sectarian violence in recent years to take place in New Delhi, leaving at least 50 people dead and over 300 injured. A clear pattern of discrimination against Muslims has emerged with the continued internet lockdown in the Kashmir Valley after the abrogation of article 370, the adoption of the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the rhetoric around Covid-19.

The jury is still out on the impact of the lockdown on halting the spread of the virus. Some experts say that South Asia may be an outlier for the virus given that the rate of infection and death is significantly lower than rest of the world. The reality that has emerged is that the economic downturn will be further worsened by Covid-19 and will hurt the most vulnerable, including rural communities, daily wage earners and the urban poor. The response of the government has also demonstrated that Covid-19 will provide it with more excuses to crack down on dissent, to curb independent journalism, and to continue to target human rights defenders.

At the start of 2020 I felt optimistic about the world. Protests movements around the globe were having a tremendous impact on the unjust political structures that have been in place for a longtime. Protests in Sudan brought down 30 year old dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. In Chile and Hong Kong protesters were successful in compelling their governments to listen to the public.  Young people in India, through their own protest movement, demonstrated that they were willing to defend the Indian Constitution at a great personal cost. The images, poetry and the sense of solidarity of all these protests was a soothing balm to the cynicism that has deeply wounded many of us. Now we are confronted with an enemy of a different nature and I wonder what the future will bring.

India remains at the crossroads. Will a new kind of consensus emerge in the post Covid-19 world that puts the interest of the marginalized at the center of our politics? Will the protests that began in December once again take over our streets, neighborhoods, schools and colleges? Will we, as a polity with a vibrant democratic tradition, reject the politics of sectarian hate? As I shelter in place so far from home, I remain hopeful.

Savita Pawnday is a human rights and atrocity prevention advocate. She is the Deputy Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect where she has worked with the United Nations, governments and international civil society organizations from around the globe in creating innovative mechanisms to prevent and respond to human rights violations and atrocity crimes. Originally from Bombay, she now lives in New York City.