Ashis Ray

Could Covid give rise to a theocratic India?

Could Covid give rise to a theocratic India?
Activists demand the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished 16th-century mosque (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images)
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The second day of October is a red-letter day in the Indian calendar. It’s the birthday of Mohandas Gandhi, better known as Mahatma or 'great soul'. The man who with non-violence and non-cooperation brought British rule in India to its knees. The anniversary of Gandhi’s birth is a national holiday in India; a day of celebration and remembrance. Not this year, though.

India has just clocked the dubious distinction of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths; later this month it could exceed the United States to record the highest number of people infected by the deadly virus. A country not entirely integrated with the international travel grid ought to have fared better.

Narendra Modi's response was delayed, draconian and unscientific. The first case was detected at the end of January. In February, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi warned of impending peril. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), groomed by Hindu supremacist groups, mocked his caution.

As the disease rumbled on, Modi packed 100,000 people like sardines into a cricket stadium to welcome his soulmate US President Donald Trump. Flights from China continued. The World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic was ignored. In a broadcast to the nation, Modi prescribed obscurantist religious practices of ringing bells, sounding cymbals and lighting lamps to drive away evil spirits.

He finally imposing a nationwide lockdown at the end of March with just fours hours notice, leaving millions of migrant workers stranded. Modi promised to nail the epidemic in three weeks. Experts both in India and abroad have described the official death toll as a gross underestimate. In other words, India could already be the worst coronavirus stricken country in the world.

The lockdown has devastated an ailing Indian economy. There has been no stimulus package to combat the crisis. In this year’s second quarter, India’s GDP contracted by a staggering 24 per cent. An estimated 140 million people have been rendered jobless.

In such trying times, the country’s northern neighbour China has reopened a long-running border dispute. Ignoring a 1993 ‘peace and tranquillity treaty’, Chinese troops have violated the informal Himalayan ‘line of actual control’ and are now refusing to retreat. Uncomfortably for India, this territory is part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which acceded to India but is claimed by Pakistan (a close ally of China) on its western front.

The Modi regime has brutally trampled upon the mainly Muslim population of Kashmir. The region’s preeminent pro-India leader and four-time chief minister warned in a TV interview: 'Many – if you talk to the Kashmiris – would rather live under the Chinese.'

The past year has seen two court judgements that have shaken the serenity of India's constitutional secularism. In November, a court order awarded land on which stood a 16th-century mosque, before it was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992, to perpetrators of the crime. On Wednesday a verdict was handed down to say no one is criminally liable.

Dalits in Hinduism’s caste system have been oppressed for millennia. India under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, not merely banned casteism but introduced positive discrimination for Dalits — those once known as untouchables. 

But atrocities against them have increased since Modi took office, including widespread rape and murder of women. This week, a 19-year-old, who had been savagely assaulted by four upper-caste men, succumbed to her injuries in the BJP governed northern state of Uttar Pradesh. More inhumanly, police cremated the victim’s body without her family’s consent.

Sir Winston Churchill, who detested Gandhi and opposed Indian independence, lamented that after self-rule: 'Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters... India will be lost in political squabbles.' For 70 years, the Nehruvian adhesive of a scientific mindset, secularism and social justice proved Churchill wrong. But a theocratic India could prove him right.