Fantasies Of Control
The Caravan|July 2020
The colonial character of the Modi government’s actions during the pandemic / History
Dwaipayan Banerjee

At the turn of the twentieth century, India experienced the worst of a global plague pandemic, recording 95 percent of the world’s mortality and eventually a loss of over 12 million lives. The years immediately preceding the plague had seen localised experiments in native self-governance. In 1896, as the outbreak peaked, the colonial administration seized the pandemic as evidence of an Indian incapacity for self-rule. It instituted the Epidemic Diseases Act— an emergency measure that further extended its already authoritarian power in the colony. Cities were put under martial rule and military patrols conducted house searches, forcibly evacuating the infected to quarantined hospitals. Driven by public-health beliefs that the disease was a product of native “filth” and “darkness”—rather than zoonotic bacterial origin—they hosed down neighbourhoods with disinfectants, confiscated possessions, and tore apart walls and roofs to literally bring light into the huts of the diseased poor. Sometimes, they razed entire huts to the ground.

In 2020, the Indian government has invoked precisely this same Epidemic Diseases Act in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Following a hasty national lockdown that left millions of migrant workers stranded, the Modi government enforced this act through an ordinance in April. It amended the EDA to protect frontline health workers who, suspected of carrying the virus, have become targets of violence. Dressed in this guise, the ordinance has earned the government widespread praise.

Yet, the same government turned down far more careful legislation introduced last year directed to protect medical workers. Instead, it used the fears around COVID-19 to take the EDA’s already draconian measures into uncharted legal territory. The new ordinance directs courts to “presume the guilt”—until proven innocent—of those charged with inflicting grievous harm. The act has re-authorised forcible searches, seizures and imprisonments by the Indian police.

For the Modi government, the pandemic could not have come at a more opportune moment. Since December last year, protests had broken out across the country against the divisive and exclusionary Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the proposed nationwide implementation of a National Register of Citizens. Things came to a head, in February, when the capital witnessed the targeted killing of Muslims while the police allegedly stood by in complicit accord. About a month later, as the country went into lockdown and as some members of the crime branch started working from home, the home ministry insisted during a meeting that law enforcement keep up their rate of arrests.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the government has used the EDA, along with a range of other legislations such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Disaster Management Act and the wide-ranging powers already present in the Indian Penal Code, to charge or arrest anyone critical of its recent Islamophobic policies. These include the general secretary of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, Dr Ashish Mittal; the student activists Umar Khalid, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal; and the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan—all vocal critics of the CAA and NRC. According to one report, between 25 March and 31 May, at least 55 journalists have been threatened with arrests, registration of FIRs, summons or show cause notices and physical violence.

For several years, legal scholars, public-health experts and human-rights activists have called for the EDA’s repeal. They have done so on the grounds that its provisions have nothing to do with the management of disease. Drafted by the British to discipline a restless native population, its provisions only seek to extend the state’s ability to criminalise and suspend civil liberties. To limit the arbitrary use of these powers, prior governments and medical practitioners have drafted comprehensive legislation on how to deal with a situation like COVID-19, such as the Model Public Health Act, 1987 and The Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism and Disasters) Bill, 2017. Yet, such legislation has never been enacted.

Enforcing legislations such as the EDA is only one of the government’s many tactics to exploit fears and suspicions that often cohere around the threat of contagion. An instance of a Muslim gathering in Delhi that contributed in small part to the virus’ spread was blown out of proportion by the media, fuelling conspiracy theories of a vast “corona jihad” by Indian Muslims. This is not an aberration. Top leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who have used the words “infiltrators” and “termites” for those they deem to be foreigners have been aided by the contemporary news and social-media apparatus in turning the threat of a “foreign” virus into a metaphor suggesting that Muslims and other minorities are outsiders infecting the Indian body politic. These measures, too, echo colonial history—the British administration described with disgust how Hindu religious gatherings contributed to the spread of the epidemic, while European powers took measures to guard against diseased “Asiatic hordes” arriving at their ports for pilgrimage.

For a particular tradition of scholarly work, this slippage between biological and national immunity is familiar territory. Philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben propose that epidemic crises are no different from other kinds of political crises: both offer governments unprecedented legitimacy to intervene into social life and consolidate power.

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