City City Bang Bang, Columns

Drawing the line?

It is a rare opportunity. In these fractured times, when acute polarisation prevents us from ever being able to even talk to people of a different ideological persuasion, this is a moment when it is clear that we need to hang together and fight a common enemy. One can disagree with the strategy that the government is using to try and control the transmission of the disease, but there is no reason to doubt its intentions. Indeed, it is important to acknowledge that no one across the world has definite answers and that all countries are, in small measure or large, struggling to find ways to deal with this crisis. The debates in some countries are of a fundamental nature, and in comparison, the Indian situation is still reasonably good.

The lockdown has its costs and for a large section of the country, these costs are prohibitive. The manner in which it was declared has contributed to the problem that it has created, and even today those problems continue. One would have thought that by this time, more concerted effort made to address the problems faced by migrants and the poor. And yet, given India’s size, the density of populations and fragile health infrastructure, the lockdown could not have been avoided. While the economic costs, particularly those paid by the poor are high, not acting now could have led to a spiralling both of the healthcare and economic costs.

It is possible to debate the strategy and disagree, even vehemently with what is being done by the administration, but it is possible to do so within a framework of good faith in the administration’s intentions. What one sees on social media are the usual polarised debates between the supporters of the government who criticise nothing and those opposed who criticise everything. Faced with a situation like Covid-19, disagreement is not only legitimate but it is natural. Equally, it should not be difficult to acknowledge the ways in which the government has acted with alacrity.

What is not possible to accommodate with the same spirit is the manner in which the conversation is being communalised. A line must be drawn here. Media, particularly some popular TV channels are leading the charge, and the government is tacitly and otherwise supporting the narrative that is being built. It is true that the Tableeghi Jamat’s act of stupefying irresponsibility has created fertile ground for this narrative. It unquestionably involved Muslims and it was directly related to religion. None of this can be argued, nor should it be. But to extrapolate from there and to demonise an entire community is absurd. There have been any number of infractions in the name of religion that we have seen across faiths in the same time period, which have been adequately documented. It is true that they did not have the impact that this particular one did, but all of them operated with the same foolhardy lack of regard for the consequences. Also, it cannot be denied that the government had a big role in allowing this gathering to take place in the first place, particularly considering the fact that there were people from so many countries that travelled to Delhi, all of them with legitimate government clearance.

The need of the hour is not to point fingers, and deal with the situation the best that one can. Unfortunately, the manner in which leading channels shaped this story was not merely irresponsible, but criminally so. To use a term like Corona Jihad, for instance and to present this as a deliberate strategy to spread the virus should in any reasonable time, be considered laughably far-fetched. There is no question that the Jamat’s foolishness has cost its members dear, but to believe that it was part of a plan is bizarre. To believe that an entire community is bent on destroying itself so that it can eventually destroy another, is a sign of the degree to which irrational hate has become normalised.

Pointing fingers at and discriminating against a community not only takes the risk of setting off a communal conflagration, which would make things immeasurably worse, but it also serves to undercut efforts to control the transmission of the disease. Demonising a community or discriminating against it, like a few hospitals in the country have begun to do, will only push the disease underground and eventually the infection will find its way back to everyone.

The manner in which the protest by the migrants in Bandra has been covered makes it clear that when a communal angle does not exist, it will be invented. To try and suggest that a mosque was involved in some form and to use Urdu descriptors to make it sound like a Muslim uprising, goes well beyond the limits of journalistic licence. It is deliberately inflammatory and crudely divisive, and should not be tolerated at a time like this.

It is noteworthy that Uddhav Thackeray and even BS Yeddyurappa , neither of whom can be called a liberal lefty by the wildest stretch of imagination, have come out unequivocally in distancing themselves from any communal characterisations of the problem. All it would have taken is for the PM to have added an eighth item to the list of actions he wanted citizens to take in his most recent address to the nation.

Eventually, it is a question of our priorities as a nation. Even at a time like this, the priority seems to be to keep the communal pot on the boil. What we are seeing is a dangerous attempt to relocate old resentments in contemporary settings, by finding new ways of othering the Muslim. Right now, it is important for the government and the media to focus all its energies on one thing alone- how to get everyone, regardless of religion, caste and economic status to the other side of this crisis.

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