Annus horribilis : Living in Modi’s India

Joyce Sebastian
21 Dec 2020

When the first set of COVID-19 lockdowns was enforced around the world back in March, it should not have come as a surprise. 

It had been more than two months since China had informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) that several cases of pneumonia of unknown cause had been detected in Wuhan city. On March 8, 100 countries reported cases of coronavirus and the worldwide toll touched the 1,00,000-cases mark. Countries such as Iran and Italy were already struggling under the weight of this unprecedented crisis, and three days later the WHO declared that “COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic”.

In what was the most severe step taken by any country in the battle against the coronavirus, India announced a three-week total lockdown on March 24. “There will be a total ban on coming out of your homes… Every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a televised address. A 1.3 billion-strong population was given less than four hours’ notice before the order took effect at 12:01 a.m.

March 24 is also a significant date for another reason. On this day, Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh was cleared after 101 days of peaceful sit-in protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). It was a leaderless and self-disciplined movement led mainly by women – Muslim women who had been helpless spectators to years of threats, harassments and violence. Through their occupation of Shaheen Bagh, these women, and those who offered support to them from around the country and the world, were doing more than speaking truth to power. They were exercising a newfound sense of autonomy and agency. For 100 days, they gathered as a community, read out the preamble of the Constitution, waved the tricolor and sang songs of patriotism.

It was an important moment in India’s history. It was a euphoric moment for the women at the protest site for theirs was the loudest voice to be heard in the country at that time. It was also a major thorn in the side of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Built on the principles of care and compassion, the anti-CAA protests exhibited a kinder and more inclusive alternative to the segregationist and hate-filled version of democracy employed by the BJP. 

The sit-in at Shaheen Bagh was India’s longest citizenship protest and when it was cleared on the morning of March 24, it was as a part of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Months later, Delhi once again became the epicenter of demonstrations. Farmers from the nearby states of Punjab and Haryana congregated at the borders of the national capital to protest a set of three newly passed farm laws.

Simmering since September, this is again the biggest such protest in many years. Realising that they have more to lose than gain from the new regulations, these farmers are waging the protest of their lifetime.

Interestingly, this protest is being played out against the background of the coronavirus pandemic – the same reason behind the systemic crackdown on the Shaheen Bagh gatherings.

So in a sense when the farmers of Punjab and Haryana decided to go up in arms about the farm laws, it was an indication that the culture of protests in India had come full circle. 

Throwing social distancing concerns to the wind, thousands of farmers are rallying at the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders for the revocation of the new agri-business laws. For these farmers, the black laws enacted by the Narendra Modi-government spell more trouble than the threat of contracting the coronavirus. 

“The government has already tied a noose around our necks with these laws… we cannot afford to be afraid of coronavirus,” Livemint quoted a farmer as saying on Dec. 9.

Another farmer said, “We are losing our rights. We do not have time to worry about coronavirus.”

At both Shaheen Bagh and farmers’ protests, the tenacity of the participants and the high mobilisation potential within the respective communities have laid bare some major chinks in the armour of the BJP, chief of which are the party’s discriminatory, exclusionist, pro-hate and pro-corporate approaches and the direct attempt to  stifle dissent in the name of lockdown.

With both protests, the BJP has been at the forefront of misrepresentation of peaceful and constitutional agitations. If the protesters at Shaheen Bagh were anti-nationalist, the farmers are “Khalistani terrorists”.

As for the outward display of BJP’s suppression tactics, early this year, the Modi government went out of its way in orchestrating attacks against varsities, thrashing students, arresting activists who supported citizenship protests, and branding them as Urban Naxals, Maoists and traitors. 

A similar show of authoritative strength erupted in November against the farmers. The “annadata”, or the providers, of the country were met with lathis and water cannons when they marched into the national capital to exercise their democratic right to register protest.

In the digital space, BJP’s IT Cell has worked overtime to vilify and denigrate the dissenters. Supported by a crew of stooges and lackeys, they have put all their efforts in mocking the protesters and insinuating falsehoods. A certain actress, who is infamous for her baseless rants and her allegiance to the ruling party at the centre, went to the extent of claiming that 82-year-old Bilkis Bano from Shaheen Bagh, who Time magazine included in its list of the most influential people this year, was available as a hired protester for Rs. 100.

Journalism is supposed to be the fourth pillar of democracy, serving as a mirror to the world and reflecting the true realities of the people. Unfortunately, a major chunk of mainstream Indian television media could not stop itself from jumping into the muck of hatred propagated by the BJP. A good number of prime-time television journalists have been observed to fall at the feet of their dear leaders and their corporate sponsors in deference and pay daily obeisance.

The discussion here is limited to two protests – one before coronavirus and another one after the pandemic was declared, but it is enough to show that it is really a matter of shame that all of these gross injustices happened in a strange year punctuated by stranger events. 

Under this government, any type of resistance is demonized. We have seen this in excruciatingly painful detail from the manner in which the farmers and citizenship protesters have been treated. The government expects that we, the people of this country, conform, comply and toe the line. No matter how arbitrary and questionable their decision-making skills, it is demanded of us to move according to their ill-conceived plans. 

Circling back to the quick imposition of the nationwide lockdown by the Modi government, the lockdown was necessary, but how much did it help in minimising the number of cases is open to debate. The numbers point towards a massive failure in COVID-19 efforts. India is the second worst-affected country in the world. The timing, the planning, the execution, all of it was way off the mark. The lockdown also led to a mass exodus of millions of migrant workers struggling to reach their home states. Unemployment, hunger, lack of access to healthcare, crashing economy were some of the other visible effects of this poorly planned and hastily implemented move. 

The lockdown was supposed to be a solution to a crisis, not a crisis in itself. 

Any recap of the events of this year is not complete if these incidents are not included and if we do not question the prime minister’s exhortation to become “aatmanirbhar” or self-reliant. 

Contrast this with New Zealand, where lockdown was implemented on the same day as India. At the time of announcing the lockdown, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “I say to all New Zealanders: the government will do all it can to protect you.”
Isn’t this the confidence we ask from our leaders in moments of extreme difficulty? Instead our government absolved itself of all responsibility and passed the buck to the citizens to tackle the situation. 

This year, as the world shut down around us and we spent our days in limbo and lockdown, at least some of us must have thought about Kashmir, where lockdown and communication blackout was enforced much before the pandemic even existed. 

The BJP has consistently hid behind a series of lockdowns and shutdowns to establish its vile electoral tactics. At the time of writing this piece, 500 days had passed in Jammu and Kashmir without the people there being allowed to use high-speed internet. The Modi government did not just revoke special status in the valley, it also imposed the biggest crackdown on life there.

The hasty implementation of nationwide lockdown was a sneaky political fix meant to efface chaotic and bureaucratic nightmares and expunge it from public memory. 

It’s been a very long, bleak, exhausting year. Annus Horribilis 2020 – this has been a year for the ages. This is the year the world came to a grinding halt and shut down. At some point or the other this year, we have all experienced the entire gamut of five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Through the course of the year, as citizens of this country, our government owed it to us to make this horrible time bearable – our personal pain and grief aside, of course. But instead the government made the going even tougher and inflicted unnecessary trauma in the form of arbitrarily passed laws, suppression of rights and guileful hate-mongering.

From politics to policy to people, there are lessons to be learned from this annus horribilis. The Modi government is already at work dishing out a pretend version of the year where it excelled in every respect. Going into 2021, it is on the people to hold this government accountable, especially as we look towards the planning and implementation of a vaccine distribution programme. Shouldn’t be difficult, right, considering we are, after all, “too much of a democracy”, according to a powerful official?
 

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