India’s Battle against COVID-19
From the Series: Ecologies of War
In April and May 2021, local and international media reported heartbreaking scenes from India’s major cities. The world witnessed plumes of smoke emanating from crematoriums filled to the brim with dead bodies as riots took place outside hospitals with people desperate for beds and oxygen. Hundreds of bodies, unburnt and simply dumped, surfaced along the banks of the Ganges River, revealing the devastation wrought on India’s underresourced rural hinterland.
News reports targeted their ire and outrage at the state, saying a dangerous notion of “triumphalism” emanated from the government and trickled down to ordinary people. Yet this triumphalism could only occur within a discursive context that had already been shot through with a militaristic ideology, where the government, the media, and ordinary citizens made “meaning” of a health crisis through a communicative ecology of war. Although the metadiscursive frame of war as a political signifier for national life—or the life of the citizen in Indian democracy—is not new (Roy 2016), many would argue that it has become accelerated under the right wing, nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Even before the pandemic, the Modi-led government sought to characterize citizen response to government directives as akin to fighting a war. In November 2016, when the central government overnight demonetized over 86 percent of the circulating currency—which created runs on banks—citizens who stood for hours in line to access cash machines were compared to “army officers at the border.” Later, after ordering an airstrike in neighboring Pakistan in the lead-up to the 2019 general election, the prime minister exhorted voters in a campaign speech to “dedicate votes for the ‘air strike’ men.”
When a nationwide lockdown was announced for the sprawling country of over 1.3 billion people, it was no surprise that the same rhetoric was used. The prime minister, speaking in Hindi, referred to the impending public health crisis as a battle (muqabla); with single-minded dedication (sankalp), citizens would achieve total victory (vijay) over the virus. Frontline workers were referred to as corona warriors, and citizens were characterized as anushasit sipahi (disciplined soldiers) patiently and eagerly waiting to carry out the government’s orders to stay at home and patiently suffer the hardships of lockdown.
In the initial speech announcing the lockdown, Modi exhorted citizens to bang pots and pans outside their homes at 5 p.m. to show solidarity with the “corona warriors,” along the lines of what was previously done in Italy. However, for many Indians, living in dense neighborhoods and small multifamily dwellings, battles are not fought in cramped quarters but out on the streets. The prime minister’s call resulted in scenes of people leaving their homes and flooding the streets to bang pots, pans, or even thick metal construction sheets with aggressive messages like “Go Corona Go!” At the same time, messages inundated WhatsApp, noting that the prime minister chose to wage the war against the virus on the day of Amavasya (New Moon) when “evil forces” are at their maximum potency. The sacred vibrations created by clapping and the banging of pots and pans, the message suggested, would be able to destroy the virus at its peak.
The media also creatively reinterpreted the frame of a war of “good versus evil,” responding to and creating several feedback effects (Singh 2020). When the lockdown was announced, India’s national broadcaster decided to rescreen the televised renditions of the Sanskrit war epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. These shows had earlier laid the groundwork for the consolidation of Hindu nationalist politics in the 1990s (Rajagopal 2001). In the series, the characters use a highly Sanskritized Hindi that was often difficult to understand, popularizing a dharmic linguistic register of righteous—but inscrutable—action, a register that was later adopted by the government in announcing lockdown extensions during the pandemic, to the chagrin of many.
While the government explicitly made connections between the war against the virus and the Mahabharata, sections of the media spun an alternative narrative of “righteous” war when it was found that many international participants at a conference of the Islamic missionary organization Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi in early March tested positive for COVID-19. Instead of waging a war against the virus, Muslims were considered as waging a religious war for the virus, encapsulated in the term “corona jihad” resulting in targeted attacks against India’s largest minority community.
When the second wave hit in 2021 with even more ferocity, the government had retreated, despite the fact it had earlier declared “victory” against the virus. In its place, ordinary citizens took the initiative to arrange oxygen and hospital beds for those in need and the courts began to intervene regularly to urge the government to action. The interpretation of these actions, even in the absence of government intervention, continued to be discursively framed through the ecology of war. For example, citizen groups who were organizing on social media applications (such as Telegram) referred to themselves as “COVID Soldiers.” Courts also used militaristic metaphors to criticize the state.
The ecology of war as a discursive frame for politics in India did not start with the pandemic, although the pandemic allowed for its expansion, becoming entrenched in the media, judiciary, and citizen action. Such cases were not restricted to India: Giorgio Agamben points out a similar phenomenon across Europe. He remarks that a war against an “invisible enemy that can occupy any one of us” is the “most absurd of wars,” perpetuating the state of exception that has become a feature of late democracy (2021, 19). India’s case, though spectacular, may be part of the “new normal,” charting a new and dangerous course for democratic polities in the years to come.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2021. Where Are We Now: Epidemic as Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Rajagopal, Arvind. 2001. Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Roy, Arundhati. 2016. The End of Imagination. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Singh, Bhupen. 2020. “Media in the Time of COVID-19.” Economic and Political Weekly 55(16).