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Issue 12

An extract from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

Chapter 1: page 16-18

“The postmodernists would like us to believe that Indian history is what we make it or are the narratives that we choose to tell ourselves and believe. I beg to differ. History is like a map, an imperfect reflection of a larger objective reality that, over time and with improvements in the historian’s art, becomes clearer and more representative of an objective reality that did exist and certainly seemed to exist to earlier generations in history. That map is important to us in looking at India’s foreign and security policies because we choose, decide, and act on the basis of the map of our own experience, or the history, that we carry in our heads. Perception matters. And when perception does not match objective reality, policy errs or fails.

The problem is that several generations in India have been taught a version of history that ignores that India has for much of its past been well connected to the world and its prosperity and security have waxed and waned in direct proportion to that link. That may be because the regions that undertook these contacts with the rest of the world, what historians call coherent core areas, that is, areas characterized by stable, long-term political and cultural institutions, such as Bengal and Gujarat and the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, have been ignored or downplayed in these historical narratives in favor of the relatively insular Indo-Gangetic plain and the region around Delhi, partly because a version of Indian history written by those loyal to the British empire dominated the field. It is only in the last few years that younger scholars have begun to study these less recognized regions seriously.

The simplistic history written by historians loyal to the British empire legitimized British rule by making Indian history a continuous sequence of alien empires and conquerors. This saga of empires was periodized by religion, and caste was emphasized, disregarding the fact that the ruling elite was always of mixed religious persuasion and origins, and that assimilation and social mobility were both possible and practiced.

It amazes me that some Indians—despite having been shown alternative and more cogent lines of enquiry—persist in this religious characterization and accept the simplified history foisted on us. Certain historians and writers in India still contribute to the misrepresentation of India in history as an autonomous world apart, driven by religion and its own logic, and different from the rest of the world. One has only to look at the practice and the linkages with the world of the Mauryas, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, and Moghuls to see how misleading this representation is. And these entities were carrying on a tradition of engagement stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, the Roman empire and the Mediterranean Sea, central Asia, China, and southeast Asia inherited from the Indus valley civilization in the third and second millennium BCE. India was not “a world apart,” but a complex civilization involved in myriad exchanges—of goods, ideas, and peoples—with the surrounding world.

But this is only one part of India’s true geopolitical inheritance. Kalidasa described the ideal rulers of the Raghukula as asamudra kshitiesanam, or those whose territories extended to the sea shore. The Satavahanas used the title Trisamudrapati, or Lords of the Three Seas. Including the history of the other regions in our consideration gives us a very different historical legacy that forms an increasingly important element of our strategic culture and driver of our policy choices. If you see Indian history as Delhi-centered, you will make the mistake that many of us make, of believing, as K. M. Panikkar said, that “India has, throughout history, had trouble arousing much interest in the world beyond its borders,” which he contrasted to British attentiveness to developments around the Raj. The coastal tradition in India, on the other hand, has seen outward projections of power, influence, and culture throughout its history.

Once you include southern and western India and Bengal and Orissa, the strength of India’s links with the rest of the world, going back to 2600 BCE, become clear. Ptolemy attests to this in the second century CE, while Pliny in mid-first century CE grumbles about gold and silver draining away to India from the Roman empire for luxury goods, a problem that the British also had in the early days of trading with India, until they discovered the uses of opium.

The reach and extent of the soft and hard power of non-Gangetic regions of India in both mainland and archipelagic southeast Asia are visible to this day in the great ruins of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, on the walls of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchipuram and in Hampi, and in the living culture of our countries. The Cholas’ activist external policies and willing militarism enabled them to last from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE, longer than any dynasty in the Gangetic valley. Their example was actively followed by the Pandyan (sixth century BCE to twelfth century CE) and Pallava (third to ninth century CE) dynasties. The same is also true of the reach and influence of some Gangetic or Indus valley-based political entities like the Mauryas or Kushanas as the spread of Buddhism overland to the Pacific and the Mediterranean attests. Vijayanagara flourished and grew prosperous on its trade with central, west, and southeast Asia. The Mughals, for their part, played an active role in central Asian politics, too. This is a strong, continuous, and abiding legacy of engagement beyond the subcontinent. As long as the Indian Ocean was an open, competitive space, peninsular India was relatively secure. The Mughals punished the Portuguese for piracy by limiting their activity on land, advantaging their competitors, the English, French, Dutch, and Danes. When Britain managed a relative monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean following the Carnatic Wars with the French, it became possible for Britain to translate maritime control into predominance on land.”

Shivshankar Menon is an Indian diplomat, who has served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He has previously served as the Foreign Secretary of India (2006-09), High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), and Pakistan (2003-06) as well as Ambassador of India to Israel (1995-97), and China (2000-2003). He is the author of “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy” (2016), and “India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present” (2021). He is currently a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 12

Armed with Phones and Spreadsheets, How These Teenagers Took on the Second Wave

It’s 5 am and the DMs in Dasnoor Anand’s inbox are overflowing — requests for ICU beds in Pune, an enquiry about Remdesivir in Mumbai, search for oxygen cylinders in Lucknow, and many more such please for help. Anand tries her best to reply to everyone. She has only three hours to sleep before it’s time to wake up for online lectures.

This is what April and May 2021 looked like for several teenagers part of student organisation ‘Silence The Violence (STV)’.

With the second wave of COVID-19 slamming into India with an unexpected ferocity, the members of STV have been saving lives while simultaneously attending lectures and preparing for exams. The group consists of girls from all over India, ranging from those in Class 11 to those in first year of university.

In their bid to help out, STV (@stvorg) amplified the availability of resources like hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, and even tiffin services on its Instagram account. The team gathered information through Twitter handles, personal contacts and other youth organisations, and grouped resources by city or state. They called each hospital and oxygen supplier personally to verify details before posting it. On a backup account (@stvorg_backup), a colour-coded list of resources was regularly updated – green for hospital beds, grey for ambulance services, yellow for food and blue for oxygen.

The motivation behind this venture? Nandini Nimodiya, 17, a member of the Crisis Team answered, “We are all students stuck at home. Social media is the only power we have.”

The team started with two-hour shifts but had to dial it up to five-eight hours due to the number of requests. Each day, STV got approximately 100 leads for different resources from all over the country. Out of these, half got exhausted by the time they called to verify. But of the remaining 50, STV was passing on 15-20 resources to people messaging for help.

“Even if we’re able to save one life at the end of the day, it makes everything worth it,” said Anand, 19, founder of STV, adding that they managed to help roughly 15 people daily.

The group made use of the latest ‘guide’ feature on Instagram, creating city-wise guides for all essential services. A guide is a collection of posts from various accounts that have information about a particular city’s resources. Followers of STV found this specific and timely. Shreya Joshi, 22, a resident of Pune says, “I wanted to find an oxygen concentrator for my father.  All the contacts I had were busy or switched off. That’s when I found  STV’s ‘Pune Guide’ on Instagram. It directed me to verified suppliers, and I got what I needed.”

STV started making city-wise guides when they realised that residents of small towns did not know whom to contact for resources. They started with major cities like Pune and Delhi but have compiled 12-city guides so far. They have even expanded to state level guides, with over 15 state guides in place, including Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.

STV’s expansive list of resources has helped make it a fast-growing account on Instagram. Over the course of five days, the number of followers shot up from 1,200 to 10,000. Currently, they’re reaching 11,100 people via social media.

Since the number of SOS calls has decreased, STV is now devoting time to spreading awareness about COVID-19. This is a major part of its threefold mission statement ‘Action-Advocacy-Awareness’. The volunteers are making informative posts on topics like ‘Covid and pregnancy’ or ‘mental health in Covid’. STV held its first online mental health event ‘Horizon’, where it partnered with certified psychologists to provide three days of free counselling sessions, seminars and workshops. This was followed by an online concert where young artists came together to unwind.

The team consists of 45 members between the ages of 16 and 20. Of the 45, 20 members have been completely devoted to the Covid crisis. Fifty additional volunteers were also roped in to help. Most of the members are from Mumbai and Pune, followed by a few in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast. Over the past few weeks, STV has also managed to recruit volunteers from Karnataka and Kerala too.

Around 85% of the team is made up of women, with an all-girls core team. A point of grievance for these young girls is that they are often misgendered by people who contact them. They are addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘bhaiyya’. “We tell them we are women led, and that they can call us ‘ma’am’ or ‘didi‘,” says Nimodiya.

Project S.A.F.E (@project_s.a.f.e) is another all-girls organisation that has been amplifying Covid resources, specifically in Pune. This team consists of five girls from the Pimpri-Chinchwad College of Engineering. The girls spent all day finding resources – except from 3 pm-5 pm, as that’s when they were writing their exams! These engineering students collaborated with their friends interning at medical colleges to provide people with accurate information about availability of beds and medicine.

With 20 requests daily, at least 15 patients were guided to the required resources. Devika Chopdar, 20, founder of Project S.A.F.E says, “I didn’t know social media could have such a huge impact. So far, my profile has only been about myself. Seeing people receive life-saving facilities through it is a new experience.”

These local Covid helpers received a request for a ventilator bed at 1 am one night. None of the hospitals were answering their phones. Project S.A.F.E then circulated the request on social media. Within the next one hour, the Pune online community procured a ventilator and passed this information on to the critical patient.

Student communities across the country stepped up to fight the second wave. Delhi University’s Miranda House created a Covid helpline to assist residents of Delhi with quick updates on resources. A group of 22 student artists and poets from all over India came together for a night of music and poetry titled, ‘In The Dark Times There Will be Singing’, and raised Rs 1,47,000. All funds were donated to communities hardest hit by the second wave of COVID-19. Generating finances, even from outside the country. US-based Princeton alumnus Shreyas Lakhtakia and Julu Beth Katticaran, offered career counselling sessions to raise money for Covid charities in India.

The Indian student community that aided the country in its hour of need is here to stay and is only growing stronger. Even the girls of STV are planning more posts, events, and community building in the months to come. All while preparing for the upcoming Class 12 board exams, of course!

Featured image credit: antiopabg/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Aditi Dindorkar is a second-year student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Media Studies. This report is written as part of her course, Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 12

Censorship in India and the Abolition of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal.

On April 4th, the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) was abolished by the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Services) Ordinance, 2021. This Ordinance abolishes several tribunals and hands over their functioning to the High Courts (why anyone would add to the High Courts’ already burgeoning burdens is a discussion for another time). The Ordinance was earlier a Bill introduced in the Budget session of the Parliament this year, but since it wasn’t considered and therefore not passed, the Centre brought it into instant force in this way.

The FCAT, set up under the Cinematograph Act, 1952, was the last stop for filmmakers who did not agree with the decisions of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Often colloquially dubbed the “Censor Board”, the CBFC’s guidelines and suggestions for cuts have occasionally been met with distaste from filmmakers. If the CBFC’s Examining Committee did not pass a  film, it went to the Revising Committee. And if the filmmaker was dissatisfied with the recommendations or decisions of both bodies, they could approach the FCAT. Generally, it was found, the FCAT ruled quickly and in the filmmakers’ favour.

The ostensible reason for the abolition? To create a smoother process, to save resources spent on infrastructure that wasn’t able to sustain itself. It is true that many tribunals have been suffering from indifferent members and numerous vacancies. But the FCAT’s committee/jury, though headed by a retired judge, consisted of professionals from the film industry as well. This meant that the filmmakers who took their grievances there could be hopeful of being heard by people who knew exactly where they were coming from and had an understanding of film. Sharmila Tagore, who headed the CBFC from 2004 to 2011, had even made suggestions to strengthen the FCAT, hoping that it could also entertain the various film-related PILs that are filed in the courts. But instead, it has been abolished.

The blow, as always, will be felt by the smallest filmmakers with the least resources. The FCAT charged an affordable fee to view the film and to hear both sides of the dispute. Filing a case in the High Court is far more expensive. Additionally, with the number of cases the High Court deals with, it is entirely possible that arriving at a decision will take much longer. While large production houses might be able to afford the delay, it will be death for small films that depend on a quick release to recover their costs.

It is also important to remember that, unlike with the strictly legal High Courts, the FCAT could view the film as a work of art as well. That meant that the jury would also consider how the CBFC’s recommended cuts would affect the film as a whole. It is tough to imagine that in the High Courts such considerations would be made at all. Judgements will naturally be arrived at based solely on legal grounds.

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In truth, the abolition of the FCAT is being seen as part of a series of efforts on the part of the establishment to restrict filmmakers’ free artistic expression. Since the beginning of the year, two big cases have confirmed this belief.

In January, the release of Amazon Prime Video’s web series Tandav was met with an uproar from several members of the BJP. MP Ram Kadam claimed scenes featuring actors dressed as Hindu gods hurt (his) religious sentiments. Another member of the BJP, Kapil Mishra, angrily said Tandav was “spreading massive hate”; it is useful to point out here that Mishra himself made several hate speeches last year during the Delhi riots. Tandav’s makers and stars were subjected to at least two police complaints, and given increased police security.

In March, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) sent a notice to Netflix asking it to stop streaming the series Bombay Begums because of a scene in which a teen is shown taking drugs and then losing consciousness. This move followed two tweets by viewers of the show who claimed the series did not portray children correctly. In their notice, the NCPCR referred to “the inappropriate portrayal of children in the series” as grounds for removing the show from Netflix.

Neither Netflix nor Prime Video took their series down, although promises were made to make cuts to Tandav. For these events to be followed by the dissolution of the FCAT – it becomes clear why it seems like more than a simple coincidence. 

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Film censorship has long been a contentious issue in India. The current charged political climate has only brought it into greater relief. Most supporters of free speech agree that censorship cannot exist in a true democracy. In January 2016, the government instituted the Shyam Benegal Committee to inquire into the functioning of the CBFC. The Committee’s report recommended a more progressive view on the certification-versus-censorship debate and upheld artistic freedom. However, the report has since been entirely forgotten.

What is worrying is that what were earlier fringe outbursts are now becoming mainstream. In 2016, the CBFC demanded over ninety cuts in Udta Punjab, which it claimed portrayed Punjab and its drug problem negatively. This caused a brouhaha that died down once the Bombay High Court cleared the film with one cut.

In 2015, the CBFC denied certification to MSG: Messenger of God, directed by Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, a religious leader since convicted of rape and involvement in murder. Singh went to the FCAT and the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, both of which cleared the film.

In 2017, Lipstick Under My Burkha (directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, who also made Bombay Begums) was refused certification by the CBFC. In a badly written statement, the CBFC – then headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, an open supporter of the BJP – described the film as “lady-oriented” and condemned it for displaying the sexual fantasies of women. Shrivastava took the film to the FCAT, which cleared it with a few recommended cuts. Shrivastava said, “Of course I would have loved no cuts, but the FCAT has been very fair and clear. I feel that we will be able to release the film without hampering the narrative or diluting its essence.”

Shrivastava’s words are clear: the FCAT was a filmmaker’s last resort against the restrictive recommendations of the CBFC. Obviously, the CBFC itself needs to be re-evaluated and have its existence questioned for many reasons (as Varun Grover, who was “absolutely delighted to know about the scrapping of FCAT”, tweeted, “Next logical step, scrap CBFC”). In the meantime, though, it is crucial to note the importance of the FCAT, whose sudden dissolution is both upsetting and dispiriting.

Photo Courtesy: Prime Video

Sahir has a BA in English from St. Xavier’s College, lives in Mumbai and writes about the movies. 

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Issue 11

Examining India’s Falling Rank on the World Happiness Index

Sydney J. Harris rightly said, “Happiness is a direction, not a place” and today all economies in the world are struggling to walk in this direction. A step to achieve this was taken in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in 2012 when they adopted resolution 65/309: Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development. This was done to invite the 149 member countries to measure the level of happiness among their population and use these numbers to guide public policy. Although the World Happiness Reports have been based on a wide variety of data, the most important source has always been the Gallup World Poll, which is unique in the range and comparability of its global series of annual surveys.

Finland has been ranked number 1, being the happiest country in the world for the past few years. India has always been very low on the happiness index, averaging around 125th. In fact, in 2021, India was ranked 139 out of 149 countries. The results of the happiness index are correlated with a lot of factors including GDP, social security, personal freedom, life expectancy and opinions of residents among others. 

As former President, Dr Pranab Mukherjee commented, “Despite our country’s economic progress, India is constantly going downwards in the happiness index. This indicates a lack of a holistic approach towards development.” According to him, the best step that the policymakers of the country should take is to adopt the ‘triple bottom line’ accounting framework. It focuses on all essential aspects of holistic development of individuals including social, ecological and financial development. This also implies that happiness is weakly correlated with wealth and the economic growth of a country. 

According to the economist and author Jayshree Sengupta, India has been ranked poorly on the happiness index due to various reasons. Some of these are rapid urbanization and congestion in cities, concerns about food security and water safety, rising costs of healthcare, women’s safety, and environmental pollution, which itself is linked to poor mental wellbeing. These conditions have worsened over time and were amplified due to the Covid-19 crisis. 

The ever-growing inequality between the rich and poor of the country is another crucial reason for the chronic unhappiness. During the Covid crisis,  India reportedly added 40 new billionaires to the global list while about 57% of the working class in the country were on the verge of losing their jobs. This growing pay gap in the population has worsened the mental wellbeing and hence the happiness of the population. 

A statistical exercise using variables like GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption and dystopia was done to understand the relationship of these indices with the happiness index. It found that all these variables are statistically significant and thus have  significant explanatory power. They  illustrate that on average richer countries fare better on subjective evaluations of life circumstances, as do nations with more social support, lower levels of corruption etc. 

Why India, despite its high level of economic growth ranks so low is because it ranks very low on some of these indices. For social support, India is ranked 142nd out of 149 countries. However, if we consider Pakistan’s ranking on all of these individual indicators, it is very similar to India and worse in some cases. According to this, India should be ranked one spot above Pakistan but that is not the case. Pakistan is ranked 105 while India is ranked at 139. This points out to predictive anomalies that this model has. 

One reasonable explanation for this could be that people in India have higher expectations and thus also have greater disappointment. This is one of the very crucial reasons for the low happiness ranking in India in addition to the increasing income inequality and feelings of injustice and unfairness because of the structure of the society and its history. Thus, better political leadership and public policy framework in India are essential for improving the happiness index of people in India. 

Picture Credits: Visual Capitalist

Aanya Poddar is a third year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a BSc. (Honors) in Economics and Finance. She is the President of the Ashoka Economics Society.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

Menstrual Health in Rural India

The nationwide lockdown that was declared in March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, had a number of social and economic consequences. India faced a massive crisis of reverse migration of labour from urban to rural areas, rise in unemployment and a massive economic slowdown. Amidst this, another setback that became visible only much later was the rapid deterioration of menstrual hygiene, especially in rural and peri-urban regions of the country. Articles published in the first few months of 2021 highlight  how the pandemic has influenced menstrual hygiene, particularly with regards to reduced accessibility and affordability of hygiene products and hence an increase in health problems associated with it. 

The main issue that these articles describe is lack of access to sanitary pads. Government schemes that provide sanitary pads were disrupted at different points along the supply chain, ranging from the unavailability of pads to the closure of schools, which earlier acted as distribution points for these products . Other sources of sanitary pads, namely ASHA and Anganwadi workers, also faced similar shortages  and hence were unable to distribute them as they usually did. Finally, the loss of employment especially in the informal sector left many families with very limited, if any, income to make ends meet , which resulted in sanitary pads becoming a “luxury item” that were abandoned in favour of “essentials”

The  mainstream discourse in India, claims that the main hindrance to menstrual hygiene in India is either the unavailability or the unaffordability of sanitary products by  women in rural areas. This assumption is based on a study conducted by Plan India in 2010 which states that only 12% of all women in India use sanitary pads and the remaining 88% use unsanitary means of managing menstruation. However, not only are these numbers highly contested by multiple studies that have followed, but the assumption that any method apart from the use of sanitary pads is unhygienic is also deeply flawed. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data finds that 58% of women use hygienic means of managing menstruation, and a large proportion of these depend on the use of cloth. 

While the need to improve affordability and availability definitely does exist, this is far from being the main barrier to menstrual hygiene in the country. Rather, there are multiple pressing challenges that are far more prevalent and damaging. To begin with, most women do not have access to clean toilets and changing spaces, which is one of the most common reasons for infections to fester. In addition to the lack of infrastructure, social taboos also indirectly contribute to the spread of infection. For cloth to be a hygienic method of managing menstruation, it requires frequent washing and drying in sunlight. However, due to the taboo associated with these clothes being visible to others, many women are either not allowed to or are themselves ashamed to dry them in the open. Instead, they resort to drying them in small hidden spaces that tend to be damp and dark, which rapidly increases the chances of infection due to bacteria build up. 

Government schemes too are based on the assumption that menstrual hygiene can only be ensured through the provision of sanitary pads. Central government schemes such as a the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme and the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK), while in theory aim to promote menstrual hygiene as a whole, in practice only promote interventions that “increase awareness of access to sanitary pads”. State government schemes also follow the same trajectory, either by distributing pads or providing funds to buy pads. However, these programs are quite inadequate as data shows that women only receive 5 or 6 pads every month, which is simply not enough as 12 to 20 pads are required to manage a single menstrual cycle. 

The state’s emphasis on sanitary pads above all other forms of menstrual hygiene, without the ability to provide enough, is not only economically expensive and environmentally unsustainable but also weans women away from traditional methods such as cloth without providing a viable alternative. Further, the solution is also ineffective as it does not address larger issues such as lack of infrastructure or restrictive social stigmas, both of which are systemic problems in ensuring menstrual hygiene in India. Any solution that hopes to be effective must take into account and attempt to combat these issues in order to improve menstrual hygiene as a whole should be made. 

While acknowledging the flaws in the social system that we operate within, namely the taboos and stigmas that drive people, it is also equally imperative that one acknowledges and leverages the strengths of the same social system to improve the existing conditions. This could be done in a number of ways. For instance, there are festivals in multiple different cultures across the country that celebrate the start of menstruation for a girl child, such as Mithuna Sankranti in Orissa or Ritushuddhi in Karnataka. Instead of depending solely on logic or scientific rationale to combat existing taboos that view menstruation as shameful or unimportant, drawing on existing cultural traditions that celebrate the process would be an effective method as it is rooted in people’s sentiments and beliefs. 

This process of addressing wider issues of physical infrastructure as well as cultural mindsets rather than limiting the scope of menstrual hygiene to simply promoting the use of sanitary pads can also be extremely beneficial to the environment. If women are provided with clean and private changing spaces and the acceptance to wash and dry their menstrual products, cloth pads can become a safe, hygienic, inexpensive and sustainable method of managing menstruation. 

Further, to make its implementation more successful, environmentally sustainable solutions can be propagated without framing it as such. Cloth pads, for instance, are preferred by women in rural areas due to their low cost, comfort, and familiarity. Studies show that concern for the environment is not a major reason for women preferring cloth. Therefore, if it is propagated as a method of sanitary hygiene in a way that appeals to the users, without necessarily presenting it merely as a sustainable solution, the chances of its uptake increase significantly. 

It must be recognized that both the hindrance as well as the solution to improving menstrual health in India is not limited to access to and affordability of sanitary pads. The problem is a far more systemic one that calls for seeing menstrual health not as a women’s issue but as a public health issue. A solution that employs a multi-pronged approach involving financial, infrastructural, and cultural interventions that are mindful of current social structures can be economically and environmentally sustainable as well as produce better health outcomes. 

Ananya Rao is a fourth year student at Ashoka University studying anthropology, environment studies, and political science. In her free time you’ll find her either painting, writing, or exploring the outdoors

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 9

WhatsApp With India’s Travel Plan?


Share the pain

April 1 2020. Within days of India’s first national lockdown, my WhatsApp pinged an ‘RT Action Group’ invite. 

Soity Banerjee, travel journalist and long term lead at Outlook India’s Responsible Tourism Initiative, quickly brought together a pan-India group of hundred members on Whatsapp.  Most were tour operators, running or selling a multi-terrain niche travel business in India, with some attention to responsible travel. A few other invitees were from sectors travel people work with such as craft, heritage, artist collectives, social media influencers, conservation specialists and rural NGOs. Many were e-meeting each other for the first time. The Whatsapp group call was to, “please share any good ideas being tested to help small travel businesses and individuals: for the protection of communities & for the future (when the travellers come back and they will!).”

 After a pandemic announcement that made human touch life-threateningly infectious, this call tried to put a human touch back into this community – one that was not new to handling delays or crises with a smile. This time though, the travel vehicle had braked the hardest, with an all India STOP sign staring it in the face. 

Posts across April on the group tried to reverse that car in spirit, in two ways. All useful media links that eased our uncertainty were shared immediately. I tuned in, perhaps for the first time, to the immediacy of the business side of travel – stranded visitors were trying to head home through cancelled flights, inter-state borders, airports and trains were shutting overnight, varying quarantine and international travel advisories were being meted out. Whether you were a hotel in a mountain valley or a rural retreat, expenses had been hit hard and a hibernation mode had only just begun.

The group shared information from as far as Costa Rica, on how a particular Responsible Tourism initiative put out timely FAQs, using prepaid reservations to pay staff salaries in the short term and let the travellers who had paid know about it. Without displaying any panic, posts on the group also conveyed the stark scale of human and material resource crunch in their own region, both rural and urban.

Secondly, the group displayed an ‘all hands on deck’ energy to aid the people that travellers and tourists meet, but often forget. Singers, artists, camp hands, drivers, cooks, front desk managers, tour escorts were all people currently out of work. The response of the group was specifically to laud and encourage field effort and support them in their time of financial need. 

In the national capital, alongside several initiatives, the team running the popular Café Lota New Delhi ran a free community kitchen for migrants trying to leave Delhi and Gurgaon. On her Instagram, travel influencers like Lakshmi Sharath forefronted ten calls of help, every day. These initiatives were both spontaneous and coordinated, often which ordinary citizens could contribute to.

Building on the NGO Anahad Foundation’s idea to pay 300 statewide rural folk artists for daily live performances on YouTube, the Rajasthan state government started a similar scheme for artistes to upload phone performances from home and earn a one-time Rs 2500 grant.

Within days, Soity led her team in circulating an RT Covid 19 Action Plan document with immediate relief measures, travel-related initiatives and future plans, including perspectives on what post-Corona travel might look like. By now, hotel chains too had begun sharing CoVid 19 protocols and practices.

India’s Ministry of Tourism, in a reply to a Lok Sabha question, confirmed only in December 2020 that foreign tourist arrivals were down 97% from April to December 2020, compared to 2019. But within the first few days of April, the Responsible Tourism community grasped the toll this absence would take and stepped up to support the vulnerable through April itself. 

Adapt and act?

Could a scramble for survival lay the ground for another model of tourism to thrive?

 By May 1, posts began wondering aloud.  Would a tourist now fearful of human contact choose to detour to uncongested spaces? The viral success of Facebook groups like View from my window was reflecting a worldwide human longing to turn to an uncongested view, if not towards nature itself. Webinar meetups with community members from Ladakh to Lakshadweep spoke honestly of rethinking resilience. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum Forecast was beeping, ‘it could take 10 months for the industry to recover’.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, primed with promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, circulated a document Supporting jobs and economies through Covid 19. A World Bank blog post pointed indirectly to the outer circle of managed nature tourism when it suggested, ‘Restoring degraded forestlands and landscapes could create many jobs over the short term while also generating net benefits worth hundreds of billions of dollars from watershed protection, better crop yields, and forest products. In Ethiopia, for instance, the Humbo Assisted Natural Regeneration Project increased local incomes and helped restore 2,700 hectares of biodiverse native forest, boosting carbon sequestration benefits. More tree cover also reduced local drought vulnerability.’

Despite no ‘industry package’ by the Central Government for the travel sector, by mid-September, this RT Action Group had completed a feedback loop and submitted a recommendation to the Ministry of Tourism on its draft National Tourism Policy 2020. By New Year 2020, there was an uptick in self-driven holiday numbers, and for the first time the all India Stop signal was perhaps now on yellow. But was there any evidence that an Indian tourist, fresh from worry and work from home, had hit pause on older ways of travel?

P.S. It will be a year soon since this WhatsApp group came to be. I now habitually check its notification pings. As a media academic, I marvel at how fake-news-free a WhatsApp group can be. When I think of this year I think of the time when nature’s breathing space for species other than humans became too visible, the ongoing loss of human life became too acute, and the claustrophobia of the home-stuck too real. In these times one is reminded not of luxury travel, but of the fact that travel itself has been an unexamined luxury. And now to travel responsibly – luxury or not?

Tisha Srivastav teaches media studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 9

Personal Lives and Private Bodies: The State’s Vested Interest in Heteronormativity

According to the Indian government, there is a uniform model of what a marriage is allowed to look like, and any deviance from this standard is not to be permitted. On the 25th of February, 2021, India’s Central government argued in the Delhi High Court that granting same sex marriage the same rights as heterosexual marriages would be against the Indian ethos, and disturb the “delicate balance of personal laws in the country”. The argument went on to describe the Indian family unit as one consisting  of the biologically born man as “husband”, the biologically born woman as “wife” and the children born out of the union between the two. 

In a poignant scene in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, Amy is seen telling Laurie that marriage is an economic proposition for women; classical sociologists like E. E. Evans-Pritchard would agree. In the Nuer communities that Evans-Pritchard studied, marriage was a means to consolidate power across families, clans and tribes. Women were exchanged for cattle and other pre-decided gifts which could be returned in the event of a divorce (1951:128). The Central government isn’t wrong when they say that love isn’t part of the equation when it comes to marriage. But the petition is not about classical sociology or kinship structures, it is instead the less-than-radical claim that if heterosexual couples can have their relationships recognized in a court of law, all couples should be accorded the same legality, if they so choose. 

It is unsurprising that Nation-States feel obliged to regulate interpersonal relationships. A State needs citizens over whom to exert power in order to legitimize its own authority. The “Indian family unit” invoked by the government is a necessary model by which social reproduction can take place (Federici 2019). The biological production of children through the union of a husband and a wife will lead to them being raised into systems of citizenry where they unquestioningly abide by the rules of the State. Rules which dictate what kinds of authority cannot be challenged. 

In patriarchal societies, this tends to be the hierarchical power of men. The man performs his role within the structure of marriage in a position of authority over the woman. Titles such as “Head of the family” are easier to attribute when there is a singular man in power. Having more than one man or woman in an affinal relationship destabilizes simplistic divisions of labour and influence. If one’s role and position within a family cannot be determined simply by virtue of the gender they were assigned at birth, patriarchy quickly begins to lose its sheen. When this family structure is undermined, the Indian State, which is deep-rooted in ideas of patriarchy, can also be challenged. 

Another concern put forward by the government was that same-sex marriage was a Western idea that could not be feasibly translated into the Indian context. Apart from being factually incorrect (Advocate Awasthi, who represents the petitioners, was quoted saying that Hindu religious texts contain numerous references to non-binary figures and their conjugal rights), this is not a novel response to LGBTQ+ rights and their representation in the media. In response to Deepa Mehta’s 1996 movie, “Fire”, the then Minister of Culture described lesbianism as a “pseudo‐feminist trend from the West and no part of Indian womanhood”. The RSS added that the “ultra‐westernized elite resort to “explicit lesbianism and perversities to disintegrate the family à la western society,” all while failing to accept “male superiority as a natural course of things” (Dave 2011).

In 1998, peaceful protesters gathered in New Delhi to oppose the RSS’ violence in theatres that screened “Fire”. One particular poster caught the imagination of the nation. A woman confidently held up a sign that said “Indian and Lesbian”. The contention was not with the words Indian nor lesbian, but rather, the little “and” in between the two. It defied the binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of ‘Indian’ and ‘Western’, it presented an opportunity to be equally, and fully both. It put members of the community in a position of incommensurability, enabling the question of “What is now possible?”

Image source: AnthroSource- American Anthropological Association

In pursuit of their goal of a Hindu Rashtra, majoritarian organizations such as the RSS have long relied on “queering the other” to further their claims. This is done in order to harbour sentiments of fear and animosity towards these communities. “Muslims, Christians, and Westerners are oversexed; the Congress Party and secularists are eunuchs” (Bacchetta 1999:155). Playing on feelings of safety in familiarity and conformity, labelling your opposition as sexual deviants results in distrust and suspicion of them. These are sentiments that prove invaluable for groups trying to consolidate a vote bank on the basis of a hitherto marginal belief system. The State draws a distinction between the “docile citizen” (typically male bodies, through which traditional masculinity can be performed) and “victims of modern culture” (Alter 1993:57). By codifying which bodies are allowed to interact, and how—the body of the citizen, itself, becomes a theatre of political ideology. 


Rithika Abraham is an alumnus of Ashoka University’s class of 2020, with an Undergraduate degree in Sociology and Anthropology. She is interested in questions of migration, and how people interact with economic institutions around them. In her spare time, she enjoys watching bad romantic comedies, five minute crafts, and has recently taken to baking her own bread, and naturally dyeing fabric.

The author would like to thank her classmates, Mimi Healy and Tarini Monga, for access to the readings and archival sources required for this article.

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Issue 9

Evaluating the Implications of Privatization in India’s COVID-19 Inoculation Drive

Though India’s vaccination drive began in mid-January, the distribution of vaccines among target populations has effectively been slower than anticipated. Contemplating the introduction of the private sector in vaccination distributions turned into concrete action in late February, with a formal announcement that private hospitals would be allowed to administer the vaccines at the price of Rs. 250. The introduction of private players in the mammoth task of inoculating the Indian population has gathered advocates as well as critics. How will privatizing vaccine distribution affect the healthcare sector – and what precedent does this move set for the future of medical programs in the country?

Privatization of vaccine distribution provides several solutions to the government’s woes at the surface. The production and distribution of vaccines can scale up monumentally faster in the presence of privatising channels. This move also brings about immense benefits by its way of immediately reducing the sole burden of vaccine distribution on governmental bodies as well as the healthcare sector. This can compensate for shortages faced in public healthcare and provide a relatively lower overall cost of vaccination to citizens since the vaccine is now being mass produced. 

However, it is important to evaluate how privatization can adversely affect the long term growth and function of the public healthcare sector in India. Firstly, opening up private channels for vaccine distribution creates an opportunity for frivolous vaccine candidates to gain entry into the market, partake in false advertisement and compromise public trust in vaccine science. This can lead to the persistence of the burden of risk and pressure in the healthcare sector, completely negating the positive effects of vaccination drives. Secondly, it is crucial to note that with the private sector involved, the market is essentially what is determining the production and distribution of vaccines. For instance, Adar Poonawala had stated last year that the Serum Institute of India will be shifting resources from the production of other vaccines to free up capacity for the production of a COVID-19 vaccine. This can lead to a coexistence of shortages of high demand essential vaccines and a glut of low demand new vaccines in circulation. In essence, by large scale privatisation of vaccine distribution, the government will be surrendering a crucial public health responsibility to a capitalist market where companies are competing for larger market shares and higher profits possibly at the expense of public health priorities. 

Though the government has pushed for ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance to enable Indian firms to become major global players, there should also be a more careful consideration of self reliance in the public sector. India must begin addressing the shortages that plague the country’s public healthcare system and revitalise the capabilities of the public sector in vaccine production and vaccine technology. 80% of the Indian government’s vaccination needs are met by private firms in India and abroad. This has increased the prices by up to 250% as compared to the public sector, pushing India’s vaccination budget up 7 times in just 5 years. Moreover, the government also must be cognizant of the notion that the privatization of vaccines propagates.

While larger accessibility and reach has been cited as a popular reason to support private vaccine distribution, ideally public health systems should be meeting these standards themselves. Though the vaccine is being offered at a relatively low price, it must be questioned as to why it is not being administered by the government at a nominal rate that suits the interests of all sections of society. These questions call for a critique of public health systems in India, and demand an evaluation pertaining to how they can be improved. 


Moreover, the push for privatizing vaccine distribution must be carefully analyzed in terms of how it fits into the larger picture of vaccine development and distribution. Given that the coronavirus has mutated repeatedly already,  R&D units and vaccine production and distribution agencies are critically attached to one another. R&D facilities must continuously identify new strains and develop updated vaccines for them, and vaccine production and distribution must follow through. In a situation where private players are allowed to develop vaccines, as well as produce and distribute them, several questionable effects can emerge. 

Firstly, private sector activities are also often dictated by the aims of conserving patents and intellectual property rights along with profit making. This could affect how private firms choose to invest in R&D, as well as cherry picking between vaccine candidates. Secondly, in a situation where there is a possibility that established vaccines may become ineffective due to mutating strains, the incentives for private distributions cannot be predicted. The cause of private interest in vaccine production and distribution is profit-driven. How these firms react in response to mutating strains will depend on the value of the product in question – the vaccine. While the government can pay these firms for their services in case of any losses, it will represent a government expenditure that could have been avoided.

Moreover, since the vaccine would become a product under a private distribution set-up, it is also important to consider how private companies will react to any misinformation about viable vaccine candidates – and whether such events would affect their distribution among the masses. Instances of widespread misinformation pertaining to vaccine candidates’ safety in the face of reliable scientific evidence could provide private firms with enough reason to reduce or cease their distribution in the face of public mistrust. Navigating such situations will be complicated – with public health interests bearing the brunt of it all. Such gaps will be less likely to emerge in a system where the government will be involved at each step. 

While privatisation of vaccine production and distribution might help curb the spread of the virus, increase reach of vaccination drives and lessen the heavy burden on the healthcare system in the short run, it is crucial in the long run to empower the public sector for it to become cost effective and dependable. The bid for privatizing vaccinations needs to be approached with care – by the government, as well as the private companies involved in the same, for any misstep could have grave consequences for the future of medical treatments and private interventions in India.

Anjana Ramesh is an Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

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Issue 9

Caste (In)Justice: Inadequacies in Addressing Gender and Caste Violence

On February 17, three minor Dalit girls were found lying unconscious in their family farm in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. Two of them died by the time they were taken to the local hospital while the third girl luckily survived the ordeal. The family alleged that the girls were found tied up in the fields; the forensic report revealed traces of poisoning and the police claimed that the motive behind the crime was revenge by the accused for facing rejection of his unwarranted advances towards one of the girls. Several activists and journalists foregrounded the Dalit identity of the girls as being crucial to understanding the nature of the crime as was the case with the Hathras rape incident and the Unnao rape incident previously. This narrative of caste-based violence received immense backlash from the state. On the face of it, the February 17th incident did seem like one of plain vengeance. However, the shame of rejection stemming from the difference in the caste identities should not be ruled out as an integral cause of this crime.

Law, as a tool of governance, has attempted to legislate against the patriarchal and caste structure that has existed since thousands of years. However, the law and its machinery do not exist in a vacuum.  The law is brought to life by the human hand that upholds and implements it. If the human hand continues to be governed and conditioned by these structures of patriarchy and caste, then it is impossible for the law to be effectively applied in letter and spirit. How can such a law ever be just and fair?

From police authorities who investigate caste and gender crimes to the state governments that sanction such investigations and the judiciary responsible for adjudication – the positions of power and authority in all of these systems are over-represented by the upper caste heterosexual men. As the direct beneficiaries of a patriarchal, casteist polity, men in such positions of power operate with deep rooted biases that tend to maintain the status-quo of their privilege and dominance. Legal authorities deliberately refuse to label crimes like the Unnao incident as caste violence and instead look to other explanations that are blind to the intersection of gender, sexuality and caste. As a result, violence against marginalized genders and caste is not simply afflicted through crimes in the society but also through the passivity of the legal mechanism. 

While we have dedicated legislations like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 for protection of Dalits and Constitutionally mandated reservations for representation of Dalits, we cannot mitigate systemic caste and gender violence without proper implementation of such laws. It is imperative that there is space created for marginalized voices to appear in local panchayats, police, judiciary and state governments. It is only when Dalits are adequately represented in the public sphere, the role of the caste identities in gender crimes will find space in public discourse of justice.

It is no secret that crimes against women in the country have been rising consistently over the years, especially towards scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) (Crime in India Volume I, NCRB 2019). The burden of honour and shame placed upon women’s bodies and sexualities becomes the very reason for the violence against them. In this, the Dalit woman, who is the most vulnerable and silenced member of the society, is further condemned to an inevitable fate of violence by the upper caste men. From crimes of kidnapping, murder to sexual abuse and rape – dominant castes, with the aid of state impunity, exert their caste hegemony over Dalits in the society. 

In cases like the Unnao poisoning incident, we dwell upon the particularities of facts to recreate timelines, motives and scene of crime to ensure that the accused is proven guilty without a doubt. The State and the society make unequivocal calls to clear the collective conscience of the society and speed up the process of justice. Yet, there is never a discussion on the collective guilt of asserting the dominant caste privilege. The intent of the accused is broken down to its finest point while the audacity of the accused is never questioned. As the patriarchal and caste structure stands unwaveringly strong, no Dalit woman ever gets to live or die in a just manner. 

The question of the hour then is what we, as privileged individuals who condemn the inadequacy of the legal mechanism, make out of such horrendous incidents. For decades and especially after the Nirbhaya rape incident, we have been amplifying the need for more inclusive laws instead of stricter punishments against sexual violence. We demand for gender neutral laws, inclusion of marital rape and acknowledgment of rape in communal violence. We also point out the paternalistic and moralistic views of such laws and the lawmakers. We even recognize the intersection of gendered violence with caste. But we don’t go as far as to acknowledge that caste encompasses gender in the Indian context. One’s caste is assigned even before their birth with no possibility of deviation from the norm. Whereas, genders that deviate from the heteronormative impositions have managed to create some space for themselves through their ongoing struggles. The apathy towards such caste and gender complexities necessitate that Dalit woman and Dalit queer folx be at the forefront of our conversations on legal reforms. For inclusive justice to initiate, our fight against the violent structure of patriarchy cannot be won without speaking of the violent caste structure in the same breath.  

Shreyashi works as an Assistant Manager at CSGS. She is trained as a lawyer with litigation experience on issues of gender violence. Prior to joining the Centre, she studied as a Young India Fellow. She continues to volunteer with Just Justice, a Teach for India initiative to increase legal literacy among the underprivileged communities. Alongside other things at the CSGS, she is enthusiastic to focus on the questions raised by the entanglements of law with gender and sexuality. Most of her free time is spent running after her mischievous pup, Orwell.

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Issue 9

India’s Fight Against a Pandemic Leads to an ‘Infodemic’ Targeting Minorities and the Poor

The tackling of the Coronavirus pandemic in India — book-ended by the announcement of a stringent lockdown in March 2020, and now an ambitious nationwide vaccination plan in January 2021 — has laid bare social, economic, religious, and cultural fault-lines across the country. Fears and restrictions compounded pre-existing challenges in a country where an estimated 70 million people live in congested slums with little access to water, sanitation, and healthcare. For half of India’s population, ‘social distancing’ was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. As a result, rumors and misinformation around their hygiene levels swirled in both real and virtual communities, feeding the vast Indian middle class’s apparent need for an enemy in the ‘war’ against COVID-19. Structural inequalities and institutional, inherent class biases fueled fear and stigma in India’s middle class against an ‘underclass.’

The number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million people to unofficial figures of over 50 million, most of whom are women and girls. Largely illiterate, uneducated, and unskilled, domestic workers are completely dependent upon their employers and have no legal protections as workers under India’s labor laws. The National Domestic Workers Trust estimated that approximately 24 percent of Mumbai’s domestic workers lost their jobs permanently due to middle class India’s paranoia around their congested living conditions and assumptions around both hygiene standards and the rate of infection in their neighborhoods.   

Under quarantine, as fears of COVID-19 skyrocketed, Mumbai’s sky-high apartment complexes and Delhi’s bungalowed neighborhoods shut their gates. Messages circulated in such wealthier communities on WhatsApp groups, questioning hygiene levels of domestic workers living in such slums – many of which were declared ‘containment zones’ and COVID-19 hotspots. Even kitchen appliance manufacturers added to the fear mongering. One such firm advertised a dough kneading machine on Instagram, suggesting that it could replace domestic workers who typically do this manually since their hands ‘may be infected.’ Public pressure forced the manufacturer to pull down the advertisement and apologize.

In the first serological surveys conducted to assess the spread of the Coronavirus in India, two facts emerged. First, even though COVID-19 arrived in India by airplane via wealthier Indians who could travel abroad, those who worked for them suffered the most. The second was that nearly 60% of slum populations had developed antibodies, and that most of the infected were younger, had little or no symptoms, and suffered significantly fewer fatalities than their wealthier employers. This actually brought down overall death rates from COVID-19 in cities like Mumbai.

The worst effects of COVID-19 were suffered by three specific layers of the population. Urban migrant workers were forced out of the city with the imposition of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns, sprayed with disinfectant as they tried to return home. Domestic workers – cleaners, cooks, and drivers living in congested urban slums who form the backbone of the informal employment sector – fell victim to community paranoia. Worst of all, deliberately crafted disinformation campaigns targeted India’s Muslim minorities, an already vulnerable group targeted by bigoted discourse on many levels in the state and community. Predominantly Hindu, upper caste, and upper class groups were largely insulated from these dynamics and able to take the necessary pandemic precautions without the same kinds of damage.

Referring to the residents of an upper middle class South Delhi neighborhood, Guddi, a domestic worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj district, says “They are being careless themselves. They are going out, traveling around the country; they are calling guests home.” Taking in the capital city’s warm winter sun after a morning of cooking and cleaning, she says, “That’s how the disease is spreading.” Lifelong victims of class and caste-based oppression in Indian society, street cleaners hired by the local government, who are also considered essential workers, were made to stand outside the gates during the summer’s blazing heat, even though the government began easing the March 2020 lockdown in stages. Rinku, who sweeps the streets for a daily wage, says things have improved slowly since 2020’s harsh summer, but the discrimination still continues. “They say they will get the disease [COVID-19] because of us. Everyone in the neighborhood said this.” Several Residents Associations banned all ‘outsiders’ – e-commerce delivery agents, vendors, and domestic workers – from entering their communities. Yet, these restrictions did not apply to those driving through the gates in a car, a ubiquitous symbol of wealth and upward mobility. In spite of eased restrictions that allowed people to return to work in the first phase of India’s re-opening, such associations formalized their own layer of controls. Private security guards, usually empowered to record visitor details, unleashed their newfound authority upon a host of workers coming to earn a day’s wages. “The guards told me I am not allowed to walk down the streets here because I may spread disease. I pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen. Finally, I was forced to call my employer from her home to come and talk to them, and allow me to go back to work,” says Anita, another domestic worker from Karimganj in Uttar Pradesh who works in Delhi.

The worst hit, however, have been those who lie at the intersection of caste, class, and creed – the Indian Muslim community. While insidious caste and class divides dominated rumors and restrictions, there was an ‘infodemic’ accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading a ‘corona jihad’. The Delhi government’s decision to segregate COVID-19 cases in the general public from ones directly linked to a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat (a proselytizing Muslim religious group) in Delhi in early March 2020 fueled biased media coverage. It emerged that foreign participants from South East Asia were coronavirus carriers, and several other Indian delegates became infected and returned to their hometowns as carriers, unknowingly. Defying data, logic, and empathy all at once, right wing social media rhetoric and reportage around the so-called ‘super spreader’ event amplified the bigotry. Although the meeting had taken place with the knowledge of government and local law enforcement, Islamophobia fed generalizations blaming a single community for the spread of COVID-19.

Yasmin, from Uttar Pradesh’s Badayun district who cleans homes in Delhi, says even though her employers agreed to keep her on, her landlord protested when her poorer relatives came to live with her as the lockdown began. “He said there was no need for them to return. That they were spreading disease,” she says, lowering her voice. Similarly, Mohammed Shamim, a vegetable vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, was forced to return money to his customers and flee after a group of men threatened him and accused him of deliberately spreading COVID-19 through the goods on his vegetable cart. In Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state governed by one of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s most strident leaders, the pandemic exacerbated everyday bigotry against Muslims. 

Police officers who tackle everyday misinformation have limited tools at their disposal. Senior Indian Police Services (IPS) officer Rema Rajeswhari in her district of Mahbubnagar in the southern state of Telangana has made a name for herself by actively conducting ‘awareness’ campaigns through ‘town criers’ who debunk myths and rumors, digital literacy workshops to help citizens question what they receive and share on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, and enabling her team of officers to intervene where they feel it will make a difference. People like her, as well as journalists who run fact checking websites, did their best to address misinformation from unrelated or manipulated videos about Muslim vendors spitting on their wares, which spread quickly on social media. Prominent news networks, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘IT Cell’ – which has often been accused of designing coordinated disinformation campaigns to target its critics – and many social media users were all complicit in the spread of such misinformation. Rajeshwari says her officers had no choice but to make their own videos to create awareness. Fuzail Ayubi, the Tablighi Jamaat’s lawyer, says things have improved since the summer, but the damage inflicted upon a community already under pressure to prove their patriotism and secularism is irreparable. Cases against hateful media reporting are being heard in India’s Supreme Court.

It would be easy to argue that much of the discrimination was a result of rumors and misinformation that exacerbated the existing wedges within Indian society. Yet, if there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it is this: the prevalence and virality of misinformation is not just about the algorithm that may amplify it, but also the fear and division within society. Addressing the technology that fuels misinformation, without actively improving inter-communal relations and public messaging on the pandemic, is not even half a battle won.

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Maya Mirchandani

This piece was republished from The Soufan Center with permission of the author. 

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