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How Modi 'unfolded' political theatre of regression, reppression, utter confusion

By Bhargavi S Rao*
On Sunday, March 22, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon people of India to observe a country-wide curfew towards tackling the COVID pandemic. People were asked to step out on their ‘balconies’ that evening and bang vessels (thali bajao) in gratitude for frontline workers straining day and night to keep us all safe.
A couple of days later, at 8 pm on Tuesday 24th March, he announced a 21-day lockdown, and from that very midnight. He argued it was critically essential to win the ‘war’ with COVID-19. Lockdown is a term very unfamiliar for people. Besides, there was no clarity on what would follow. Very few were aware of its devastating consequences and were caught unawares by the sudden shut down of the entire country.
Chaos reigned as people thronged grocery stores to hoard food, medicines and other consumables, or to simply get home. For those without moneyespecially informal workers and daily wagers, the consequences were brutal. They didn’t know where they would get their next meal, how to get back home, or access critical health care.
A climate of fear was employed to shut down an entire country, warning serious jail terms for those not complying with the lockdown conditions. As days under lockdown turned into weeks, several versions of the lockdown followed each with its own distinctive sets of conditions. Confused, scared, hungry and desperate to get home, crores who lived on the margins, mainly migrant workers, decided to walk home braving harsh summer conditions.
The Government of India announced a variety of economic measures to deal with lockdown, mostly on protecting business and promoting e-commerce! There was little, very little offered, to address the crisis of the poor and the marginalized. Resource rich middle classes benefitted from this, staying home and working from home. Crores slept hungry, tired and without shelter. With inter-state and public transport services brought to a grinding halt, the entire nation was stranded.
The promise was that this will rescue from being infected by the deadly corona virus. Given that cure was far and still unknown, people complied. But soon it became evident that the strategy was not succeeding. Crores across India who slipped through these widening cracks, stripped off their dignity –children, pregnant women, senior citizens, disabled included, continued walking hundreds of kilometres to be back with their families.
If one was destined to die of Covid, they preferred to die in their homes, with their loved ones. Many migrants were thrashed by police, sprayed with chemical disinfectants, humiliated, and forced to quarantine on trees even, and that after reaching their destinations -- tired to their bones. Dozens did not make it: some were killed in brutal accidents, many others simply collapsed in exhaustion and died.
A political theatre of regression, repression, oppression and utter confusion had unfolded, leaving most clueless; the collapse of governance across India was evident. To deal with this depressing situation, civil society networks and trade unions stepped out extending relief in cities and villages to those who were without food and shelter.
The Centre took advantage of the pandemic to relegate to the background massive resistances growing nation-wide against abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and to the Citizen Amendment Act/ National Register of Citizens. The attacks that followed on students who were part of this resistance at Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities, were serious matters of enquiry, which were ignored. The disastrous consequences of the carnage in Delhi, associated with elections, was off focus. Many who suffered in these horrific situations were quite simply forgotten.
The Modi administration instead had been busying itself with Namaste Trump event and the organizing the collapse of an elected government in Madhya Pradesh. With the lockdown in place, even before many reached their homes the Modi government went on to make massive policy changes by amending crucial laws of the country such as the Electricity Act, the Environment Impact Assessment Notification and Labour laws.
The amendments were mostly in favour of the industry to facilitate the ease of business and attract greater foreign investment to restart the economic engine with little care towards the emerging public health crisis. During these precious weeks, World Health Organization’s serious warnings to India to take effective steps to tackle the pandemic, also fell by the wayside.
In such an abysmal state of affairs, rather than feel despondent, civil society networks, trade unions and people’s movements came together to organize a series of webinars entitled: “Solidarity Series: Conversations during Lockdown and Beyond”. This was a coming together of multiple solidarities, and in the best way possible during lockdown. In all 17 webinars were organized between March 31 and  April 17, 2020 drawing participation of hundreds from across India and abroad. Video recordings of these critical conversations are accessible here.
These conversations drew people from multiple sectors, with diverse perspectives on a range of themes, all of which independently and collectively interrogated implications of the lockdown and critically analyzed its repercussions. Speakers in this series were a rich and rigorous mix of scholarship, activism and experience from diverse backgrounds.
Gautam Mody discusses how the capitalist system takes advantage of such a global crisis, and increases existent disparities. Leo Saldanha emphasized how during the pandemic, efforts are underway to centralise power claiming this efficient delivery of public services.
The report is a compilation of diverse perspectives on a range of themes, independent and collective analysis of the implications of the lockdown and its repercussions
Kiruba Muniswamy explains how the lockdown has been brutal on the working classes and especially frontline workers. Soumya Dutta deepens our understanding of how climate crisis and COVID 19 pandemic are similar leaving one pondering on the nature of preparedness required. T. Sundararaman argues health systems needed 10-15 years back are not available even now, and thus makes a case for a robust role for the State in financing and building up such systems without relegating the role to profit-making private sector.
Shalmali Guttal debates that governments are employing the Covid crisis to consolidate state power. And she raises serious concerns over erosion of privacy. Chandan Kumar raises concerns that a large part of the country’s work force is informal, and yet there is no comprehensive effort to address their needs and demands.
Madhu Bhushan underlines the crisis is developing into a situation where the socio-political fabric of society is being disrupted. ‘Lakshman Rekha’ employed by Prime Minister Modi, she argues, is deeply patriarchal. Meera Sanghamitra focuses on how the Trans community has become more vulnerable due to lockdown policies, such as ‘stay home stay safe’ and ‘social distancing’; which she emphasizes are oxymorons.
Manjula Pradeep highlights the critical importance of developing intersectional perspectives and narrates how multiple forms of discriminations operate, and are exacerbated by the lockdown. Avinash Kumar stresses the COVID pandemic has made the state’s obligations to protecting Human Rights even more relevant, especially given expansion of structural inequalities and discrimination. He highlights UN Charter on Human Rights and various other international standards are all the more relevant today to secure vulnerable groups and populations.
Thomas Franco analyses that while the banking sector has been in crisis for a while now, the lockdown has made it worse, and calls for real remedial action. Punit Minj discusses how disruption of access to food and livelihoods has been forced millions to leave home, and calls for a revisit of ‘Jal Jungle Jameen’ natural resourced dependent communities.
Paul Divakar addresses issues of Adivasi and Dalit exclusion in Covid relief efforts and discusses their varying impacts, highlighting how it has worsened vulnerabilities. He dreams of an India with Social justice as its foundation, followed by economic and developmental justice. Prakash Kashwan discusses how the it is critical to look beyond conventional approaches in tackling environmental emergencies and the pandemic, and calls for inter-disciplinary responses.
These vignettes weave together an inter-sectoral solidarity, and a commitment to struggle together. Each webinar was followed by rich discussions. Such enthusiasm, especially the overwhelming response, inspired us to transcribe these webinars into a readable volume accessible to a wider audience. Several student volunteers have helped transcribe these conversations, followed by editing by speakers.
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Click here to read the 169 page transcript. Source: Centre for Financial Accountability

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