Lockdown

This is the second of two letters we received from our friends in Kolkata, India. The first one, which explores the historical rise of the BJP and the significance of the uprising at Shaheen Bagh, can be read here. In the following letter, our friends examine the government’s lockdown (supported by the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act), reflect on the role of the media as a key element of the regime’s political power, and offer some thoughts on the insurrectionary memory of Shaheen Bagh.

Dear  Liaisons,

In our last letter, we wanted to communicate the experience of Shaheen Bagh, but did not have the time to elaborate on what came next, in the form of a lockdown. Much after India detected its first COVID-19 case on January 30th, 2020, the Modi government showed little recognition of the issue. From January to March, the BJP was preoccupied with countering the anti-CAA protests, horse-trading legislators to rout elected state governments, organizing a pogrom in Delhi, and welcoming Donald Trump. States were left to come up with their own plans for handling confirmed infections through the last week of March. Then, on March 24th, 2020, a nationwide lockdown was declared by Prime Minister Modi, with a notice period of four hours. Much like the rest of the world, the lockdown suspended the most basic rights of movement offered under bourgeois democracy, exacerbated existing social tensions, intensified political borders (both in terms of geography and daily life), and gave the state carte blanche to launch a punitive assault on its population.

In April, through an ordinance, the Modi government enforced the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act. Ostensibly designed to protect frontline healthcare workers, the ordinance – as well as the lockdown itself – earned the government praise from well-meaning activists and the left-liberal intelligentsia, who saw these as necessary steps.

The enforcement of the Epidemic Diseases Act allowed the state to unleash an inoculatory regime that increasingly blurred the line between national and biological immunity, between the threat posed to the human body by the virus and the threat posed to the social body by the government’s critics and political dissidents. To be guilty until proven innocent – so said the new ordinance with respect to those seen as “causing grievous injury.” It also authorized the police to conduct forcible searches, seizures, and imprisonments.

In a sense, the invocation of the Epidemic Diseases Act was a strategic response on the part of the Indian state, one that used the pandemic as a pretext to stamp out all dissent – a strategy pulled right out of the colonial playbook. The act itself dates back to 1897, when the bubonic plague was ripping through the population and there was widespread flight from cities that were concerned commercial hubs, like Bombay (now Mumbai). One of the reasons the colonial administration treated the bubonic plague as a singular crisis, compared to malaria or the ensuing influenza epidemic, for example, was the large-scale flight of capital and labor that threatened its interests. But another significant factor was that, prior to the plague, Bombay and Pune had become hubs of anti-colonial activity and had seen experiments in local self-governance. The plague itself was seen by the colonial officials as evidence of failure on the part of Indians to rule themselves. Viewed through the racial discourse of colonial medicine, the plague was understood as a result of the moral degeneracy of Indian religious practices, of native “filth” and “darkness,” allowing the colonial administration to set up a punitive legal and police regime around fears of “contagion.” It is precisely here that modern humanitarianism – speaking the language of “protection” and “public health” while intensifying its attacks on an insurgent population – finds its point of origin. The bubonic plague became a pretext for the colonial administration to not so much attack the virus as the potential “contagion” of ungovernable attitudes and bodies in revolt.

Martial rule was imposed in cities, forcible house searches were conducted, the infected were sent to be “quarantined” in hospitals (which was often seen as equivalent to a death sentence, absent public health infrastructure), the neighborhoods of the poor were hosed down with disinfectants, their possessions confiscated, and the roofs and walls of their huts were torn down to bring in light. In some cases, in this drive for purification, entire huts were razed to the ground. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested for his writings on the colonial administration’s plague measures after Pune’s Special Plague Officer, W.C. Rand, was assassinated. Elsewhere, armed confrontations broke out between the poor and the army and police. Even after it became clear that the spread of the plague was not dependent on localities, the poor remained the privileged target of the act, as their houses continued to be demolished and their possessions consecrated. As more armed confrontations followed and the threat of a united Hindu-Muslim front emerged – conjuring the specter of the 1857 insurrection, which had almost overthrown colonial rule – the colonial administration changed its tactics. By the late 1890s, it adopted a much less punitively interventionist outlook. This accounts for the laissez-faire approach taken to the influenza epidemic in 1918, which was simply allowed to ravage the population.

In Modi’s handling of the pandemic, the echoes of colonial governance are many. Just as the bubonic plague had arrived at an opportune time for the colonial government, so did COVID-19 for Modi and the BJP. Even after repeated attempts – from widespread media slander and the threats of politicians to a programmed killing of Muslims in Delhi with the complicity of the police – the government failed to kill the “contagious” spirit of Shaheen Bagh. Just as the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act had allowed the colonial administration to attack insurgent sections of the population, so did the pandemic in 2020 allow the government to assume extraordinary punitive powers to go on an unprecedented carceral assault against potential dissidents on trumped up charges. As the protest sites and blockades were cleared, through its police, the state was able to re-establish its sovereignty over public space. Just as the colonial government had blamed the spread of the plague on the moral degeneracy of Indian religious practices, so too did Modi’s government blame the spread of the virus on a religious gathering of Muslims that caused a minor spike. This was blown out of proportion by Modi’s media lapdogs, who helped metamorphose the virus into a “Muslim virus” by relishing in conspiracy theories about a vast “Corona Jihad.” Just as the brunt of the colonial government’s punitive policies were borne out by the poor, whose huts were hosed down with disinfectants and razed to the ground, today’s migrant laborers endured the worst of the lockdown, hosed down with chemical disinfectants in broad daylight. As pointed out by Dwaipayan Banerjee,1 in the government’s handling of the pandemic, one finds an interplay of the two colonial approaches to epidemics: on one hand, the use of punitive powers granted by a state of emergency to stamp out all dissent; on the other, a laissez-faire approach that protects the “economic interests” (of the wealthy) while India’s already-moribund public health infrastructure inches towards total obliteration.

The Hindu nationalism and orthodox jingoism of the BJP do not undermine the “true spirit” of the state, as the left-liberal view would have it, but are instead the face currently adopted by it. The atrocities and disastrous policies being enacted are not an aberration brought by Modi, but fit into a greater constellation of the state’s own historical actions. Once we examine the dialogue that took place within the Modi administration during the months of January to March, an image of the state’s rationality emerges in sharp relief.

After the first case of COVID-19 on Indian soil was confirmed, several expert and advisory groups were formed with the mandate of guiding the government response to the pandemic, along with the Indian Council on Medical Research (ICMR), the apex body on clinical research in India, and the NITI Aayog, a policy think tank under the Government of India. Article14, a news outlet run by a collective of investigative journalists, accessed presentations, meeting minutes, and other documents that weren’t made public, and pieced together a series of developments that occurred with these groups in the lead up to the lockdown. These revelations have largely been ignored in the mainstream media, but are crucial to understanding the government’s actions.

Their research cautioned the government against a coercive, China-style lockdown, emphasizing instead the need for stockpiling PPEs, training an auxiliary and supportive healthcare workforce, enhancing ward and ICU capacity across the country, and procuring ventilators, etc. It warned that “generalized large-scale transmission is inevitable with devastating numbers spaced by time and location,” and further noted any lockdown would have little impact. The second paper mapped the possible spread of the infection in India’s four mega-cities – Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Bengaluru – and presented action plans around community-based testing and quarantining as a means to curb the worst of the pandemic: “a national lockdown is not quarantine or isolation. In Indian conditions such a lockdown provides social isolation for only the rich who live in less dense and high-floor space areas. To some degree it can protect them from the spread… But, for the poor, without high levels of door-to-door screening and the fastest possible quarantining of those found positive, a lockdown will only help the virus spread intra-community.”

The recommendations made by the ICMR were ignored by the government. Though none of the expert bodies had officially recommended a lockdown, the government still went ahead with it. All businesses and factories were closed, except those dealing with pharmaceuticals, food supply, news media, and utilities. All public transport, schools, and daycare centers were shut down. When a panel of members from across the multiple expert groups met with the government at the end of March, they were bewildered and frustrated by its lack of preparedness.

The enforcement of the lockdown wasn’t a disastrous or poorly planned policy with the intention of protecting public health, but an opportunistic projection of state power over social and economic life that would in any other context be difficult for even Modi to pull off. In terms of optics, it gave the government an easy out from its inaction throughout the crisis, and at the same time allowed it to assume unprecedented powers. Under the cover of the pandemic, the government thus sought to upend labor and welfare laws, expand police powers, push for further privatization, and wipe out the fledgling popular resistance movements emerging across the country in the wake of Shaheen Bagh.

Alongside the brutal enforcement of the lockdown, the total absence of action on public health measures continued for a long time. Large businesses took to massive layoffs, with no program from the government to avert or curb them, and there was also no national moratorium on rent or utility bills. The worst affected, however, were migrant laborers, beggars, and sex workers, who have minimal to zero savings and live on daily wages often in cities far away from the barebones familial and social support available in their home villages.

It is important to point out that the significant increase in the population of migrant laborers is a direct result of two decades of neoliberal policies devastating rural livelihoods – the responsibility of all governments, regardless of whichever party has been in power. For years, farmer suicides have been growing at an alarming rate. It finally took the virus to expose the reality of migrants and initiate a political conversation about their lives.

Across the country, millions of migrant laborers became homeless as landlords kicked them out, seeing them as a liability in case the lockdown dragged on. The government’s decision to refuse support to even the poorest in terms of housing, income, and food relief – alongside the blanket ban on public transport, which made it impossible for them to return to their native villages –shocked even the imagination of the Indian mainstream, usually committed to an extraordinary degree of apathy when it comes to social violence.

Faced with such devastation, millions of migrant laborers took to walking back to their villages – a journey often hundreds to nearly a thousand kilometers, and many times even further away. Images of swelling masses on national highways, walking under the Indian summer’s scorching sun – among them the elderly, the young, the pregnant, and the sick – flooded television screens by the first week of April and fanned the outrage. Jamlo, a 12-year-old girl from Chattisgarh, who was working in Telangana, journeyed 140 kilometers by foot before falling dead from exhaustion 60 kilometers from her home. In Maharashtra, 15 migrant laborers fell asleep from exhaustion on rail tracks and were crushed by a train. The fact that humans weren’t allowed to use transportation while the transportation of goods continued uninterrupted reveals the antagonism of the economy – the circulation of goods – to life itself.

Modi trotted out public addresses to try and manage the criticism and anger. With deflections and by appeals to charity and a sense of national duty, the government has tried to construct the narrative that it is up to the people to help each other. At the same time, Modi also made many emotional displays, asserting that he was hurt the worst by what befell the public, but was forced to do it for the greater good.

Though opposition politicians attacked the BJP for the unplanned lockdown, state governments across party lines largely followed the same pattern of neglecting public health measures, enacting the brutal enforcement of lockdowns, offering nearly zero economic and social aid, and hindering the movement of migrant laborers. One major reason for forcing laborers to stay in cities was to ensure that the labor market remained whenever the lockdown was lifted.

Millions of migrants continued to defy the movement ban by walking on highways, spontaneous and scattered protests broke out among thousands in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, and public shock and outrage increased as stories of tragedies on the highways kept coming: in May, the government eventually relented and allowed special trains to carry people stranded in cities back to their home states. The arrangement, however, remained meager and chaotic for weeks, managing to carry relatively few people, against the millions stranded. By July 1st, according to the government’s own estimate, more than 10 million people had walked from cities to their home states and villages.

After arriving back at their villages, the suffering only grew. The migrants faced forced quarantining into hellish quarantine centers, with little in the way of food and basic hygiene, let alone medical treatment, as healthcare facilities are virtually non-existent in rural India. Already harmed from their long journeys, many died in centers that became sites of superspreading and whose horrific conditions made their health even worse. The only response of local administrations was to let people die, either from the virus or other conditions, as the infection burned through, only concerned with minimizing the spread into villages.

Once out of quarantine, people faced starvation and unemployment. Millions fell back into poverty, as youths who had managed to get relatively better paying jobs in cities as technicians, programmers, engineers, and nurses, came back empty-handed. With 122 million jobs lost in April alone, three-fourths of those in the informal sector, and a further 11 million white collar jobs lost by September, the poorest families have been the worst affected, bearing the majority of the lockdown’s economic devastation.

Socially, there has been a resurgence of horrific practices like female infanticide, child marriage, child labor, and human trafficking. While economic conditions are a major cause of this, the situation is further compounded by the intensification of caste oppression. A large majority of migrant workers are from lower caste backgrounds. As they returned, arriving from cities that were focal points of contagion, they were branded with the stigma of being potential carriers of COVID-19. Isolation and ostracization have pushed innumerable families to the brink, making them vulnerable to increased victimization from within and without.

Apparatus of Glory

“We do not lack communication, on the contrary we have too much of it,” wrote Deleuze and Guattari. We are inclined to agree with them that what we lack is “resistance to the present”: the present panorama of suffering, state repression, and widespread devastation would not be possible to such an extent without the government’s dominance of the media apparatus. With all protests now confined to the digital sphere, over the past six months, the state and its police have launched an unprecedented assault on the population. Students, journalists, activists, lawyers, teachers, artists – none of us are sure to escape prison today. Aiding the state’s carceral operations are news channels which have given up any pretense of having anything to do with the truth. Opponents of the regime have long denounced the terror of “fake news” carried out in joint collaboration by the media apparatus and the BJP’s IT Cell, but – like the democratic theorists of communicative action before them – they reduce the media to an instrument of political power rather than something constitutive of political power itself. “Speaking truth to power” – countering propaganda with the neutrality of facts – profoundly misunderstands the stakes of the media’s political offensive.

In his book Laudes Regiae, Ernst Kantorowicz notes how political acclamations have been indispensable “for the emotionalism of fascist regimes,” and Carl Schmitt saw the immediate presence of the acclaiming people as a more legitimate expression of popular will than parliamentary democratic institutions. Acclamation, or the apparatus of glory, plays a fundamental role in the legitimation of sovereignty. While it is true that acclamation today no longer manifests itself in the form of theological rituals or the immediate presence of the people, it would be a mistake to think that our modern secular democracies have done away with it. If it is the “People” – that representative fiction in whose name one can always butcher living beings – who are sovereign, then acclamation resides in the process of forming “public opinion.” It is precisely here that the counter-revolutionary role of the media is revealed: it is the instrument par excellence involved in the shaping and constitution of “public opinion,” and it is in this light that the collusion between the Indian state and the media should be understood.

Since the BJP came to power, the media has increasingly come under the state’s stranglehold.  Dissenting journalists have been attacked and even murdered by Hindu nationalists. Government spending for advertisements – a major source of revenue for print media – has been frozen for papers taking a line critical of the government. Media One, a channel in Kerala, had its satellite link disrupted for criticizing the government. Another paper, The Hindustan Times, was working on a hate tracker chronicling the various hate crimes under the Modi regime. The government, clearly not pleased with the development, forced then-editor Bobby Ghosh to resign and pulled the tracker down. TV licenses have been handed out to those who take a pro-establishment stance or are funded by businessmen with sympathies for the BJP. They earn revenues through state-sponsored ads and content, while the state gets good press.

Even with all this, however, we are inclined to disagree with the democratic theorists of good communication when they say that this consists of an assault on the media; on the contrary, we see an absolute strategic investment being made in the media apparatus – the purging of dissident individuals is a part of this operation – so that it may be reconstituted, without any illusions, as an apparatus of glory.

It would be mistaken to think that the shaping of public opinion is a purely cognitive process wherein mere information is relayed; on the contrary, public opinion is shaped through affects. Just shortly before enforcing the lockdown, Modi asked people to engage in the vulgar spectacle of gathering on balconies and clapping and banging utensils as a show of support to health workers. In recent years, we have seen the cow take political center-stage, thanks to its sacred status in Hindu religious mythology, and BJP supporters organized cow-urine drinking parties as a means to cure themselves of the virus. It is all too easy to dismiss these acts as “ignorant” – mere capriciousness on the part of an out-of-touch despot – yet beneath the spectacular stupidity, what this really entailed was a powerful reorientation and management of affects. Egged on by media channels, such rituals were a massive PR exercise designed to reaffirm faith in the government and in the figure of Modi himself, after his legitimacy had been threatened by months of popular protests and disaffection.

This is exactly where the ritualistic nature of spectacular news plays such an important role. Through this affective, pre-cognitive, and psychological assault aimed at hearts and minds – one whose hold the neutrality of facts simply cannot dispel – the media helps constitute the very people who buy the regime’s lies, who are willing to kill and even die for it in the name of the nation’s, as well as their own, salvation. Communication has never been neutral, but is synonymous with the intensification of apparatuses of control.

Everything Will Be Remembered

“There’s a real battle taking place. And what’s at stake? It’s what might broadly be called popular memory… if you are in charge of the memory of the people, you are in charge of their vitality.” – Michel Foucault

“Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it “the way it really was.” It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” – Walter Benjamin

The rhythm of the clock resumes, it takes hold of our bodies, it plunges us into the despondent and dark waters of normality. Pulled down by the weight of linear time, we fall, and forget. We forget that not so long ago, our bodies were animated by a different kind of rhythm – the rhythm of revolt.

“Everything is normal, there is no problem,” said a resident, recently, of Shaheen Bagh. Except for a mural, no trace remains of what took place. The tents where people shared food, poetry, and songs have been cleared to make way for traffic. The shops lining the stretch that had closed down due to the protests have resumed business. It is as if nothing ever happened.

In this operation, memory itself emerges as a site of struggle. The imposition of collective amnesia is the means through which “the blood that has dried on the codes” remains obscured and governmental apparatuses resume their functions. Recuperating the past is essential for the linear temporality of our social order. As “peace” resumes, we forget the bodies of the oppressed, buried in the debris of history.

A re-encoding of popular memory is at work with respect to Shaheen Bagh. In recent months, the media has intensified its war on popular memory by spinning heady conspiracy theories about secret Bollywood drug rings. But in this war, the state has also found an ally in the pandemic. As upholding “social distancing” became a prerequisite for being a moral and upstanding citizen, the lines between public space and the “unruly ghettoes,” between us and the Other, were re-entrenched. Policing also has a spatial aspect, operating through the psychogeography of our surroundings. One vital aspect of the policing of space, among others, is to relinquish the possibility of other space-times from our imaginations.

If Shaheen Bagh was not merely a protest but a gesture, a practice whose affective intensities traversed bodies in collective affinity and opened up a horizon for ungovernable becomings, then the question for us is whether the gestures that animated those present in Shaheen Bagh can be so easily forgotten.

Walter Benjamin reminds us that the specters of the past are always here in the present, but their image is fleeting, appearing in moments of danger. In recognizing that image, everything is at stake – lest the calls of our dead for vengeance be drowned by the march of history.

It is in recognizing this image of the past that the potential for redemption exists. And only through this redemption can we answer the cries of the dead. We must not forget the hundreds who were slaughtered during the anti-CAA protests; nor those who were lynched by Hindutva mobs, their deaths mocked by the criminal “justice” system. We must not forget the migrant laborers who lost their lives due to the lockdown, nor the daily brutality of caste, nor all the rapes and the murders. We must not forget the daily grind of shit and misery.

The past still appears in the anger of migrants, in the unexpected riots that erupted in Bangalore, in the protest of farmers in Punjab who blocked the railways. It would be mistaken, we would argue, to judge these events in terms of linear causality, for that is precisely the logic through which such events are recuperated. Our task instead is to uncover in them the threads of continuity that are present. This is not to impose some “unity” onto disparate struggles, but to recover an insurrectionary memory, one that would obliterate liberalism’s stranglehold.

We are hopeful, in spite of everything, that the desires and gestures that were present at Shaheen Bagh still manage to find their expression in fugitive spaces, biding their time. In the coming days, our task is to foster such zones of opacity and spaces of fugitivity, to find each other within them. For now, we pay heed to the words uttered by the young poet, Aamir Aziz, who came of age during the anti-CAA protests: “Everything will be remembered.”