The Pandemic and Paranoia in India

by Rukmini Barua

October 07, 2020

In May this year, Kent, a company manufacturing water purifiers ran a coronavirus themed advertising campaign in India. “Are you allowing your maid to knead atta dough by hand? Her hands may be infected,” said the advertisement. Following outrage on social media over its classist and casteist rhetoric, the advertisement has since been taken down. Nevertheless, it is telling of the ways in which the working body is routinely cast as a bearer of pollution—and especially so, during times of disease. Historically, the management of epidemics in India has often rested upon the regulation of bodies and spaces of the working poor, as was the case during the plague outbreak in Bombay in the late nineteenth century. In the current situation, it is no secret that there has been increasing fear, panic and anxiety, globally. As much as there has been a renewed attempt to forge solidarity, collective decency and interpersonal concern as way of coping with the pandemic, there has also been a surge in suspicion and shaming, of pointing fingers at those thought to break the new coronavirus norms. It seems to me, that in India these feelings of suspicion are directed towards certain bodies over others.

As the Indian government’s coronavirus response resulted in one of the world’s harshest lockdowns, millions of urban workers commenced long journeys back to their villages, on foot, resulting in the country’s largest mass migration since the Partition in 1947. While Indians abroad were being repatriated, internal migrants were periodically hosed down with disinfectants and seen as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘careless’ for putting others at risk by breaching social distancing rules in their efforts to return home. Around 90 million informal sector jobs were lost in the month of April. With jobs gone and social and logistical support disintegrating in the cities, fears of starvation and of contracting coronavirus loomed large over urban workers. This propelled them to embark on what has been called ‘reverse migration’—a journey back to the rural areas.  Migrant workers’ households were stretched between the village and the city. This diffused home, with all its emotional connotations, could sustain workers through this crisis. The workers’ trek to their villages was arduous and occasionally, fatal. The risks undertaken in this cross-country journey were severe and workers often bore the brunt of police violence for breaking curfew and social distancing regulations.Government support was paltry; instead, workers’ desires and efforts to return home were criminalized, facing fines and up to a year in prison for violating lockdown measures.  A specific form of suspicion was being directed at the working classes as carriers of infection. The working classes, in this view, not only embodied a particularly potent risk, but were also the subjects of a more violent dynamic of regulation.

Related to the class anxiety that was directed at the walking migrants, were exacerbated forms of paranoia and suspicion towards domestic workers. Following the nearly two month lockdown period, an intense debate unfolded—in urban neighbourhoods, in the press and across TV screens—over allowing access to maids and domestic workers into middle class homes. For the urban poor, it was economically imperative to return to work, despite their fears for their own health. While government guidelines removed certain restrictions of movement by mid May, apartment complexes and middle-class residents associations introduced their own (and largely, extra-legal) measures to govern the mobility of outsiders, mainly domestic help, hawkers and other service providers. For instance, some apartment buildings did not allow domestic help to use the lifts or had residents accompany them, so that they would not touch the lift buttons. The stigma often attached to the working classes (many of them from socially marginalised and vulnerable groups) segued into a form of paranoia trained upon the working body as infiltrators and infectors of the ‘safe spaces’ of affluence. It is the dynamics of exclusion, the politics of ‘othering’ that has shaped the connected emotional and logistical responses of the Indian government and the middle classes to the pandemic.

Early on, in March, before the full force of coronavirus was unleashed upon the subcontinent, an initial cluster of cases were linked to a Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi. The participants at the gathering of the Islamic organization were then marked out by the Indian government as responsible for spreading the virus across the country. Following on the heels of state repression of the large scale protests against India’s controversial citizenship law (whereby citizenship could be granted on the basis of religion) in the winter of 2019-2020, the government’s response and majoritarian sentiments around the pandemic have coalesced in an explicitly Islamophobic form. Conspiracy theories and paranoia thickened and were manifested in heightened suspicion and acts of violence against Muslims, now accused of carrying out ‘corona jihad’.

Perhaps, the question of citizenship is important in understanding the ways in which the pandemic has unfolded in India. The differential forms of citizenship played out in the denial of care and dignity and the intensification of humiliation that certain segments of society faced.  The political emotionalisation of the pandemic and the paranoia and apathy tied to this, relate directly to the ways in which the Indian state views the vulnerable and the marginalised. The feelings generated by the corona crisis and the ways of dealing with them have brought together and intensified various intersecting exclusions—of caste, class and religion—in contemporary India.

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