The curve of the coronavirus pandemic will likely flatten sooner or later; the upward curve of authoritarianism that has effectively used the pandemic and associated lockdown measures may take much longer to do the same. In India, the government converted a health crisis into a law-and-order issue, and democratic governance slid into a police raj. The pandemic has helped the executive cover up misadventures with economic and foreign policies and gain unchallenged authority under a narrative of protecting citizens.
In the Indian case, the battle against the pandemic cannot be separated from the battle to regain democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and human rights. Indian civil society has intensified its actions and been at the forefront of the struggle; in short, the pandemic has been a game changer for civic activism. A revival of democracy is needed to underpin this resurgence of civic action.
Activists Under Attack
The coronavirus hit India gradually but severely. The country had become a global hot spot for the disease by September 2020, when India was registering close to 100,000 new cases a day with an exponentially rising curve of infections that reached 6 million.1Many factors have contributed to India’s particular struggles with the disease: a large population, high-density urban dwellings that do not allow for physical distancing, and the fact that India’s impoverished majority simply does not have the option of sitting at home to ride out the pandemic.
The Indian government was slow to react. Although the earliest case of the coronavirus in India was detected in late January 2020, there was no stringent government advice of any sort for the public throughout February and well into March. Many mass religious congregations and social gatherings were still allowed, and business went on as usual. International arrivals were not screened or quarantined, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself hosted U.S. President Donald Trump in a large public gathering in the state of Gujarat.2Exactly a month later, on March 24, 2020, Modi announced a countrywide lockdown.3
Having reacted late, the government moved quickly into an authoritarian response mode. It amended the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act to expand the powers of the central government. The police began intervening on the streets with striking brutality. Left with no income, migrant workers started returning to their hometowns en masse; the police were on the highways and roads harassing, abusing, and detaining thousands of these destitute workers.4At the same time, a handful of pro-government media houses ran a campaign blaming the Muslim community and, in particular, a sect called Tablighi Jamaat for spreading “corona jihad” in India.5
The authoritarian drift entailed a direct attack on civil society. The government used the lockdown to clamp down on protests against the controversial, religion-based Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—the so-called anti-CAA protests, which had been raging since November 2019.6 A violent crackdown on Muslim and Dalit leaders engendered widespread criticism of the government. Anti-Muslim violence in February 2020 killed fifty-three people.7 The Delhi Minority Commission reported that the Muslim minority community had suffered extensive damage to property and economic losses.8 Despite leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being directly linked to the incitement of violence, no inquiry was initiated.9 Instead, young Muslims and supporters from women’s groups like Break the Cage were jailed.10
A wider witch hunt began against leading civil rights activists, linking them to violence at a 2018 celebratory gathering in the village of Bhima Koregaon.11 Well-known human rights defenders and public intellectuals like Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, and Hany Babu were arrested. Activists were jailed under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which gives the government and police the absolute authority to declare individuals or organizations to be terrorists and detain them without bail for months or even years.12 The act was amended in 2019 for these purposes by the Indian parliament, in which the ruling coalition enjoys a clear majority.13
More specifically, the government introduced new restrictions on civil society activism related to the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and to rising tensions with Pakistan and China. The national government and many media houses took the threat of war as an opportunity to divert attention away from poor governance and the failure to curb the pandemic. The government used military casualties—like the June 2020 Galwan Valley tragedy, in which twenty Indian soldiers were killed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—and so-called coffin nationalism to promote chest-thumping about a strong ruler and sacrificial armed forces.14
The territory of Jammu and Kashmir was already under a militarized lockdown after India revoked the state’s constitutional autonomy in August 2019.15 Thousands of activists were arrested and jailed under preventive detention clauses of draconian legislation like the Public Safety Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.16 The government used the pandemic to double down on these restrictions and impose a near-total communication ban, despite the requirements of dealing with the coronavirus.
Civil Society Steps In
This creeping authoritarianism did not provide effective pandemic governance. The Indian government put out hundreds of often contradictory notifications in quick succession. The Kerala state government was applauded for its supportive actions to control the pandemic while assisting the people, but it was an exception. A survey of migrant workers found that almost 96 percent had received no government rations and around 90 percent of those had also received no wages in the first month of the lockdown.17 A group study by this author in working-class areas of New Delhi found a pervasive sense from the population that the government had abandoned them and was getting little relief support out to communities.18 The Indo-Global Social Service Society, a nongovernmental organization, noted that government measures were more about exerting control than about offering democratic responses to what citizens needed.19
It was in an effort to fill this gap that Indian civil society began to mobilize. Citizens organized themselves in thousands of small, local clusters to respond to the crisis. Organizations of all shapes and sizes stepped in by arranging for the provision of food, rations, and relief to migrant workers on national highways and in urban centers. A May 2020 media survey pointed out that in two-thirds of India’s mainland states, it was essentially civic initiatives that had helped feed the poor in the early phases of the lockdown.20 An area in which the central and state governments failed and civic actors made a significant impact was arranging the logistics and transportation of stranded migrant workers.21
Civic activism focused primarily on providing food relief, medical assistance, transportation, shelter for the needy in urban centers, help for the elderly, and guidelines and alerts in India’s vernacular languages. Rights-based groups, which have little experience with relief-based services, repurposed themselves and were deeply involved in training and delivering assistance on the ground. The emancipatory role played by religious bodies, faith-based groups, and secular organizations, often working hand in hand, sent an important social message of tolerance.
Another layer of interventions by rights-based civic groups was composed of consistent responses to government orders and actions. These responses focused on the threat to political rights as it became clear that the government was intent on bypassing the parliament and democratic norms. Civil society organizations (CSOs) critically monitored instances in which the government pushed forward legislative and policy changes that had nothing to do with the emergency situation. Enhancing the watchdog role of civil society was no easy task at a time when veteran public intellectuals and CSO leaders were being targeted by the government and even jailed. CSOs stepped up their efforts by filing legal interventions, using traditional and social media to counter communal hate propaganda, and issuing criticisms of the government’s assaults on labor rights and environmental norms.22
This more political focus included campaigns for the release of political prisoners like those accused of involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence, the activists behind the anti-CAA protests, or those implicated in riots in northeast New Delhi. In the early months of the pandemic, the campaigners demanded the activists’ release not only for political reasons but also for fear of them contracting the virus in crowded jails. In July 2020, veteran teacher and poet Varavara Rao tested positive for the coronavirus in the Taloba jail in the state of Maharashtra.23 Under pressure from civil society, the government shifted him to a private hospital for better treatment, although as of this writing, the judiciary has not yet conclusively intervened for his bail and better medical care. Similarly, leaders of the anti-CAA protests in the state of Assam, such as Akhil Gogoi and his colleagues, are at risk of coronavirus infection while in custody.24
As the human race has faced an unprecedented crisis, humanism has reemerged through civic interventions. If it had not been for the collective efforts of people and civic actors, India would have had substantially more deaths from the coronavirus.25 This was recognized by the Policy Commission of the Government of India, which wrote to thousands of organizations across the country to thank them for their significant contributions in organizing relief.
A final feature of CSO action during the lockdown consisted of new initiatives by peace and justice movements. People-to-people relationships and track 2 efforts have increased with respect to Jammu and Kashmir. Civil society ran solidarity gestures—like the social media campaign Counting Days, which describes itself as “dedicated to counting the days of Kashmir under Indian occupation”—led by young scholars and artists.26 Engaging use of social media platforms and messenger services like Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and Twitter became the face of campaigns such as Stand With Kashmir.27 CSOs like the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society produced impactful documentation and conducted research and advocacy with international organizations to counter the military siege and rights violations by the occupying Indian forces in the territory.28
Adapting to the New Normal
After its repurposing in the early stages of the pandemic to help manage the immediate crisis, Indian civil society is now engaged in careful reimagining, realigning, and restrategizing. Civil society has undertaken important roles during the pandemic and gained in prominence. CSOs have been able to talk about other crises, like the climate crisis, alongside the pandemic. Reimagining labor, livelihoods, and people’s relationships with nature and natural resources—while pushing forward alternative visions of education, healthcare, tourism, and the economy—has become the crux of such conversations curated by new alliances of CSOs.29 Organized as online meetings and webinars, several such exercises have enhanced the role of civil society groups as architects for a different, better future and have helped CSOs engage with new actors in society.
Technology has played a pivotal role in these conversations: Zoom and Google meetings, podcasts, YouTube channels, Facebook Live events, and Instagram TV broadcasts have helped these discussions and outreach efforts. Often, this engagement has become a rallying point for groups that have been advocating different futures and developmental alternatives. Such intellectually rich, rejuvenating conversations help keep the battle for democracy going. In this sense, the pandemic has opened up new avenues and ambitions for civic activism as the health crisis has revealed the failings of existing economic, social, and political models.
1 Rhythma Kaul, “India’s Covid-19 Tally Crosses 6 Million,” Hindustan Times, September 28, 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-s-covid-tally-crosses-6mn/story-cY2wlOzpbM1UoDTGJOwgAN.html.
2 Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “‘Namaste Trump’: India Welcomes US President at Modi Rally,” Guardian, February 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/24/namaste-donald-trump-india-welcomes-us-president-narendra-modi-rally.
3 Jeffery Gettleman and Kai Schultz, “Modi Orders 3-Week Total Lockdown for All 1.3 Billion Indians,” New York Times, March 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/24/world/asia/india-coronavirus-lockdown.html.
4 “Coronavirus Lockdown | Police Cane Migrant Workers Near Vijayawada,” Hindu, May 16, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/police-cane-migrant-workers-near-vijayawada/article31602812.ece.
5 Apoorvanand, “How the Coronavirus Outbreak in India Was Blamed on Muslims,” Al Jazeera, April 18, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/4/18/how-the-coronavirus-outbreak-in-india-was-blamed-on-muslims/.
6 Zoya Hasan, “An Anatomy of Anti-CAA Protests,” Hindu, January 1, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-anatomy-of-anti-caa-protests/article30446145.ece.
7 “Delhi Riots Death Toll at 53, Here Are the Names of the Victims,” Wire, March 6, 2020, https://thewire.in/communalism/delhi-riots-identities-deceased-confirmed.
8 “Minority Body Faults Police Role in Anti-Muslim Riots in Delhi,” Al Jazeera, July 17, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/minority-body-faults-police-role-anti-muslim-riots-delhi-200717110600080.html.
9 “‘Delhi Riots Began With Kapil Mishra’s Speech, Yet No Case Against Him’: Minority Commission Report,” Wire, July 16, 2020, https://thewire.in/communalism/delhi-riots-kapil-mishra-minority-commission-report.
10 Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Delhi Police Accused of Filing False Charges Over February Riots,” Guardian, June 23, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/23/delhi-police-accused-after-charging-activists-over-february-riots.
11 “The Bhima Koregaon Case: What Really Happened,” Leaflet, January 2, 2019, https://theleaflet.in/videopodcast/watch-the-bhima-koregaon-case-what-really-happened/.
12 “The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,” India Code, 1967, https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/1470.
13 Nitika Khaitan, “New Act UAPA: Absolute Power to State,” Frontline, October 25, 2019, https://frontline.thehindu.com/cover-story/article29618049.ece.
14 Nirupama Rao, “Galwan: Postscript to a Tragedy,” Hindu, June 19, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/galwan-postscript-to-a-tragedy/article31863515.ece.
15 Yojna Gusai, “Article 370 Scrapped, J&K Loses Its Special Status; State to Be Bifurcated Into 2 UTs,” Asian Age, August 6, 2019, https://www.asianage.com/india/all-india/060819/article-370-scrapped-jk-loses-its-special-status-state-to-be-bifurcated-into-2-uts.html.
16 Devjyot Ghoshal and Alasdair Pal, “Thousands Detained in Indian Kashmir Crackdown, Official Data Reveals,” Reuters, September 12, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-kashmir-detentions/thousands-detained-in-indian-kashmir-crackdown-official-data-reveals-idUSKCN1VX142; Sruthi Radhakrishnan, “Explained: The Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act,” Hindu, September 17, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-the-jammu-kashmir-public-safety-act/article29438694.ece.
17 “Data | 96% of Migrant Workers Did Not Get Rations From the Government, 90% Did Not Receive Wages During Lockdown: Survey,” Hindu, April 27, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-96-migrant-workers-did-not-get-rations-from-the-government-90-did-not-receive-wages-during-lockdown-survey/article31384413.ece.
18 The group study and survey were an extension of the relief efforts conducted by CSOs in New Delhi. The evidence collection was largely to safeguard the interests and incomes of the migrant workers in the National Capital Region of Delhi vis-à-vis contractors and employers, who owed them payments from the pre-lockdown months of December 2019 and January–March 2020.
19 “Seeking Justice for the Informal Sector During the COVID-19 Lockdown,” Indo-Global Social Service Society, May 2020, https://igsss.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Analysis-of-Informal-Sector-Circulars_COVID.pdf.
20 Mukesh Rawat, “Coronavirus in India: In 13 States, NGOs Fed More People Than Govt Did During Lockdown,” India Today, April 9, 2020, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/in-13-states-ngos-fed-more-people-than-govt-during-coronavirus-lockdown-1665111-2020-04-09.
21 “NGOs Deserve All Appreciation for Helping Migrants During COVID 19 Pandemic: SC,” Hindu, June 9, 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ngos-deserves-all-appreciation-for-helping-migrants-during-COVID-19-pandemic-sc/article31786947.ece.
22 Ashima Obhan and Bambi Bhalla, “India: Suspension of Labour Laws Amidst Covid-19,” Mondaq, May 8, 2020, https://www.mondaq.com/india/employment-and-workforce-wellbeing/935398/suspension-of-labour-laws-amidst-COVID-19; Rohit Jain, “Environmental Law: Proposed Norms Dilute the Process Rigours, Experts Say,” Bloomberg, April 8, 2020, https://www.bloombergquint.com/law-and-policy/environment-law-proposed-norms-dilute-the-process-rigours-experts-say.
23 Soutik Biswas, “Varavara Rao: Outrage As Jailed Indian Poet Contracts Covid-19,” BBC, July 17, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-53441846.
24 “Assam: Prisoners Go on Hunger Strike Demanding Akhil Gogoi’s Release,” Wire, June 30, 2020, https://thewire.in/rights/assam-akhil-gogoi-prison-COVID-19-hunger-strike.
25 Annie Banerji, “Nearly 200 Migrant Workers Killed on India’s Roads During Coronavirus Lockdown,” Reuters, June 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-migrants/nearly-200-migrant-workers-killed-on-indias-roads-during-coronavirus-lockdown-idUSKBN2392LG.
27 Stand With Kashmir, https://www.standwithkashmir.org/.
28 Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, www.jkccs.net.
29 “Webinar: Re-Imagining the Future,” Centre for Financial Accountability, September 15, 2020, https://www.cenfa.org/RTF; Vikalp Sangam, www.vikalpsangam.org; “Lockdown Janta Bulletin #18 Vishal, Uttar Pradesh,” Soundcloud, May 23, 2020, https://soundcloud.com/media-collective/lockdown-janta-bulletin-18.