COVID-19 and the emotional poverty of the radicalized Indian society

Hindu Yuva Vahini members pose inside the vigilante group’s office in the city of Unnao. | Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

As dead bodies float in the rivers mirroring the regime’s brutality, India has been plunged into a crisis it may never fully recover from. With each day bringing new horrors to this macabre reality, there has been a massive outpouring of shock, anger, and grief. As devastated as I am, I’m unable to fathom what exactly has triggered the shock. Is it because scores of Indians are being choked to death by a brutish regime or because the fear of death which used to hang exclusively over Muslims and other oppressed groups, now engulfs everyone. If it’s the former, I wonder why this shock turns into indifference at best and joy at worst when Muslims are butchered with full impunity; if it’s the latter then it won’t be long before this fiery rage settles to a murmur.

Despair, sorrow, and bewilderment are rolling through the streets of India desperate to pierce the government’s apathy. The crematoriums are burning, the graveyards full, the hospitals exploding, the doctors breaking, the patients choking, the families mourning and the government unseeing it all with the same ruthlessness it was once admired for. The carnage that’s unfolding these days shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, least of all to the BJP’s supporters. Weren’t the pogroms, lynching, and massacres of Muslims enough to convince them that they were voting for a genocidal regime? Were they fatally innocent or actively murderous?

Hate crimes indeed happen through political sanction but it’s our society that has preserved the sentiments of bigotry, constantly seeking out representatives who can best channelize them. The sustained investment in hate has left the majority with an emotional poverty so deep that brutalized Muslims have become the stepping stones to political careers.

To overlook the mass radicalization of the Hindu community requires one to be delusional on some deeply disastrous level. Yet, the liberals have so thoroughly absorbed the myth of a tolerant India that naked, glaring reality does not stand a chance against this fantasy. Therefore, the cheerleaders of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb continue to happily exist in their bubble while every hour brings more distress, despair, and dishonour to the likes of me in this country.

Nothing can more nakedly reveal the ethical vacuum of Indian liberalism than the ferocity with which activist Sharjeel Usmani was targeted for merely reminding why the deceased news anchor, Rohit Sardana doesn’t deserve to be remembered as a journalist. He declared this in response to the brazen whitewashing of Sardana’s work undertaken by those who have monopolized and thus distorted the idea of humanity. The venom spread by the anchor was trivialized as a mere difference of opinion, making the blood of Muslims flow into a deep cavern of forgetfulness. Thus, for trying to stall our collective descent into amnesia, Usmani was vilified by the custodians of hypocrisy; Sardana’s legacy was sanitized, his victims rendered irrelevant.

I could hear the wails of my community echoing in the tweets praising Sardana. I couldn’t help but think of Aqlaq’s mangled body and countless others like him whose lynching he justified, whose perpetrators he glorified. I could not read them without a cold, dark, bleak wonder about the future and the worthlessness of my life in this country.

The liberals would never engage with a person like Usmani because doing so would compel them to acknowledge a fact about India they’ve been hitherto willing to ignore- that the bloodletting of Muslims in this country is a ritual performed not only by the ones who kill us but also by those who try to dictate our reaction to the killing.

As the country reels under the pandemic, two parallel worlds exist on social media these days. One where ordinary citizens are doing the government’s job in a beautiful display of empathy and another where hatred is ruling unfazed by the prevailing misery. While praising the former, it’s important to not lose sight of the latter because the threat posed by it is enormously real.

People denying aid from Muslims and instead preferring to die of COVID-19 validate my concerns. To perhaps mitigate their own suffering, many Indians are drawing solace from the horrors unfolding in Palestine. If the bombing, killing and forced expulsion of Muslims in a faraway land can cause so much euphoria, imagine how profound the joy is when such crimes happen at home.

In order to cover up the violently mishandled pandemic, the government has started doing what it does best and what perhaps, it was chosen for. A video surfaced earlier this month wherein BJP MP, Tejasvi Surya could be seen calling out 17 names in the BBMP COVID War Room, accusing them of being involved in a bed allocation scam. It is no surprise that in this war room of over 200 employees, 17 Muslim names were singled out, falsely accused, and humiliated. The volunteers were later reinstated into their job after no evidence could be found against them. However, no explanation was offered as to why the dignity of these Muslims was so easily trampled over or how their harassment should be compensated for.

Liberal enthusiast Shashi Tharoor couldn’t call out Surya’s bigotry without prefacing his remarks with adjectives like “smart”, “passionate”, and “talented”. It is ironic how an Islamophobe could be thus described by a liberal who thought chanting La Ilaha Illallah was communal. The harshness reserved for assertive Muslims melts into “civility” and “grace” when required to be used against bigots spilling filth.

The liberal articulation of support is layered with a skewed understanding of my community’s pain. They’re driven by an impulse to set things right but the outcome of it depends on what they perceive to be the problem. We, therefore, cannot trust them until they obtain a clearer sense of what they have let themselves in for. Before climbing the progressive ladder, they didn’t expect that they would be compelled to judge harshly their own family, friends, acquaintances, and ancestors, to confront the extent of their sheer hypocrisy, and to realize above all that they’re part of the problem they claim to solve.

The BJP is but one adversary upon the landscape of Islamophobic violence that is the heritage of our country. As a Muslim, I don’t remember the last time I felt at peace. Sorrow drives my mind backward to places, events, and years I now think were happier except that they bring back memories of demonization, cold-blooded murders, gruesome massacres, and unjust arrests, reminding me how for us, peace is almost an alien concept. A quick overview of India’s history tainted with violent bigotry should be enough to convince anyone how the BJP is the prime but not the sole evil in an otherwise tolerant country.

Persecution of Muslims was either actively sanctioned or passively dismissed even before the BJP’s rise to power. Despite its crimes against Muslims, the Congress couldn’t satisfy society’s lust for bigotry. Thus were elected the most efficient of genocidaires, revealing the moral inversion of the nation. If the time spent on teaching “humanity” to Muslims been used for deradicalizing the Hindu community, the country could have been a merrier place.

The BJP does not exist in a vacuum. It emerged from within our society. Unless the mindset that helps it thrive is recognized as a problem, the festival of death will rage on. It’s perfectly understandable that the Aam Aadmi Party which was hailed as a paragon of “change” and “development” now feels compelled to adopt communal overtones. Its response to the anti-CAA protests, the Delhi riots, and the arrest of students and activists does not warrant surprise. Why would the secular parties who have already exhibited both subtle and pronounced forms of bigotry not become even more communal if it guarantees them victory? Why would they serve bliss if the voters crave blood? How many murderous leaders and political parties will it take for the liberals to realize that society is the problem?

Muslims know that once this chaos subsides, we’ll yet again find ourselves struggling to retain our citizenship. We don’t know whether to mourn the present crisis or prepare for impending doom. This, however, does not mean we’re too weak to resist the CAA-NRC anymore. We won’t betray the activists who lost their freedom to tyranny nor the people who were slaughtered in the streets of Delhi. We were battling then, we’ll be battling now. Fear has since long given way to an anger that is deep, fierce, dark.

I wish the rage this pandemic has made us capable of feeling had been directed towards the news of deaths that flow from Kashmir. Kashmir ruled by despair and chaos, marked by graveyards, blinded by pellet guns. Kashmir where families are often denied the bodies of their dead and prayers are offered before empty coffins. Kashmir where wounded protestors often do not avail medical aid due to fear of arrest. Kashmir whose detention centres produce disabled wrecks permanently scarred by vicious torture. Kashmir where life is either a shrieking prison or a morbid grave.

Many believe that as the country writhes in pain, the government’s supporters would now realize how they helped create a regime that is swiftly and visibly crumbling, revealing in its most lethal and frightening sense, the horror it has always been. Clinging on to this hope, however, makes me afraid and anyone even faintly acquainted with the trauma of persecution would know how intense and strangling my fears are.

I’m afraid that however stifling and disastrous this crisis may be, its memory won’t be sustained by the people of my country. I’m afraid this sea of blood will be washed away by the news they’ll get and the way they’ll swallow it, by the Muslim who’ll be butchered and the jubilation it will arouse. I’m afraid that with the erection of a temple miles away, the memory of this pandemic will wither and decay. Optimism, therefore, is too expensive a commodity for me to buy right now.

As for Muslims, we are permanent dwellers in the hell the nation is only now traversing. Having grown up under the necessity of constantly defending our lives, we have learnt how to live them. Every Muslim, whatever the age, is armed with a resilience that deepens with pain. The young among us have worked our way through a traumatic childhood into a restless youth, having met only hatred along the way. It is the young, however, who are now revising the Muslim identity; we are both braver and more vulnerable, both free and bound. Free because we’ve realized that having endured everything, we can confront anything and bound to the knowledge that to be born a Muslim in India will always be a mortal challenge.

Saniya Ahmad is majoring in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She frequently writes about politics and human rights. Her interests revolve around history, political philosophy and critical engagement with literature and current affairs.