The search for unity in a moment of crisis

It is often believed that a crisis brings out the best in Indians. We have witnessed people selflessly coming to the aid of the affected during natural calamities. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case when the pandemic hit India. First, we failed in dealing adequately with the tremendous distress caused to migrant labourers. Second, we failed to make the fight against COVID-19 a common endeavour, irrespective of caste or community. Instead, sadly, the discourse was communalised, with one community being targeted even though its members were as much victims of the pandemic as were others.

Impact of the lockdown

The government proved inept in not anticipating the adverse impact of the lockdown on millions of migrant labourers, who were overnight deprived of their means of livelihood. It failed to foresee, and therefore mitigate, the adverse consequences of its sudden decision. While extensions of the lockdown were rightly preceded by consultations with the State governments, keeping the initiation of the lockdown a secret from all the stakeholders defied logic. In addition to the distress, the fact that this exodus of migrants to their homes would cause the infection to spread to the rural hinterland was not contemplated. Much later, after untold sufferings had been inflicted on the migrants and the Supreme Court had taken cognisance of the problem, the Centre and the States woke up to facilitate the return journeys of the migrants. This too was poorly managed. In hindsight, it is evident that the strategies employed to control the spread of the disease have achieved little success — India today has the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases. As industrialist Rajiv Bajaj wryly quipped, the wrong curve — the GDP curve instead of the pandemic one — has been flattened.

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The issue of spread of infection impacted communal harmony. The Tablighi Jamaat was mercilessly flogged, especially by certain people and sections of the electronic media, in order to profile Muslims adversely. The fact that Tablighi Jamaat is an orthodox sect of Muslims and does not represent the community was ignored. So was the fact that the venue of the March congregation was about 50 metres from the Nizamuddin police station. Further, why no action has still been taken against the head of the Jamaat remains a mystery.

It is not implausible that the focus on the Jamaat was engineered to shift the focus away from the plight of the migrant labourers, who were suffering and even dying. Certain TV channels were so irresponsible that they went to the extent of presenting the murder of two sadhus in Maharashtra as a communal incident even though this wasn’t the case.

Unfortunately, even prior to the lockdown, with an ongoing agitation, the atmosphere was fraught with tension. Muslims were aggrieved by the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, that discriminated against Muslim refugees with regard to grant of citizenship, as well as by the plan to prepare a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was soon followed by the announcement to prepare the National Population Register (NPR). While the protests against the CAA, NRC and NPR were snowballing, the pandemic hit us and was soon followed by the lockdown. The protests had tested both the people’s and the administration’s patience, particularly because of the inconvenience caused by blocked roads. Even some of those who believed that the CAA, NRC and NPR were iniquitous were beginning to lose patience. The failure to initiate dialogue with the protesters and the heavy-handedness of the police could well have been a tipping point. If the lockdown had not been imposed, protests on the scale in the U.S. could have happened in India.

While the fight against the pandemic was an opportunity to unite us, sadly, the Tablighi Jamaat issue was used to profile Muslims. This became so overt that it attracted international opprobrium with some West Asian countries and Canada taking action against overseas Indians engaging in Islamophobia. In a TV interview, historian Yuval Noah Harari said it was dangerous to pin the blame for the spread of the virus on Muslim minorities and stressed the need to make the fight against the pandemic a united endeavour.

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India’s brand of secularism

Profiling any community is alien to India’s secular tradition. The long history of heterodoxy in India has contributed to democracy and the brand of secularism and tolerance that is unique to India. Through centuries people have come to India and made it their home. To quote Firaq: “Sar zamiin-e Hind par Aqwaam-e Aalam ke Firaq qaafile baste gaye, Hindostan banta gayaa (Caravans from all over the world settled in this land and shaped India)”.

The emergence of Vedic religion (Hinduism) dates back to second millennium BCE. Buddhism and Jainism emerged in sixth century BCE. Jews came after the fall of Jerusalem. Early Christians came and settled in the south. They were followed by Parsis and Baha’is, persecuted in their homelands. Muslim Arab traders came and settled soon after the rise of Islam. Then came Muslim conquerors. Emperors like Ashoka and Akbar were exemplars in promoting religious harmony. Inter-religious tolerance, embedded in our life and culture, is reflected throughout our history in the writings of Bulleh Shah, Nanak, Kabir, Rahim, Amir Khusrau, Ravi Das and others. Sufi dargahs are visited by lakhs of non-Muslims. Secularism is based on the pluralist and syncretic character of the society with Sarva Dharma Sambhava being the guiding principle. That is the backdrop in which independent India’s chosen destiny was to be a non-theocratic state.

Today, we stand at the crossroads with the fundamental values of the Constitution under challenge. Our best universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Jadavpur University and Aligarh Muslim University are pilloried, and their student leaders harassed. Instances of the police being partisan are seen, for instance, in the slanted nature of the investigations pertaining to the riots in north-east Delhi.

The scourge of COVID-19 is haunting us, the economy is in free fall, our borders are under siege. India has a glorious history of complete unity during crises. If ever there was a time to stand together and be counted as one, this is it. To ensure this, the country must provide even-handed and mature treatment to Dalits, Muslims, Christians and all minorities. This is not appeasement but an accepted form of progressive thought, so that all citizens get an opportunity to progress as equal partners. This is never easy in societies where the size of the cake is not adequate. It takes a large heart and a lot of education for people to appreciate this.

Najeeb Jung is a former Vice-Chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia and former Lt. Governor of Delhi and Prateep K. Lahiri is a former Revenue Secretary to the Government of India and former Executive Director of the Asian Development Bank, Manila

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Printable version | Aug 12, 2020 6:06:09 PM |

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