By N Chandra Mohan
NEW DELHI, Mar 27 2020 – The exigencies of combatting the coronavirus pandemic on a war-footing — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a nationwide stay-at-home lockdown for 21 days to break the chain of transmission — has certainly deflected attention from equally pressing challenges confronting India. The nation’s capital witnessed horrific communal violence when the US President was visiting India, triggering international outrage, including from the South. The economy also deserves attention as growth has been decelerating since 2016-17. With the virus shock, the pace of expansion will contract as the economy shuts down and slides into recession.
This trinity of a public health problem, social disharmony and economic slowdown “may not only rupture the soul of India but also diminish our global standing as an economic and democratic power”, wrote former PM Dr Manmohan Singh in The Hindu. Many countries in the South looked up to India as a vibrant democracy with its unique diversity of peoples and cultures. Not any more as many voiced criticism over the riots, which left over 53 dead, mostly Muslims, hundreds of shops, businesses and livelihoods destroyed. Around 1,300 displaced Muslims sought refuge in a prayer ground located in north-east Delhi.
After winning a historic second term in May 2019, the NDA regime has prioritised policies that appeal to its majoritarian support base. The special status of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped last August, followed by the detention of political leaders and a communications blockade. Farooq and Omar Abdullah were recently released. There are hopes that others will be let out soon. The Delhi violence was a culmination of nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in Parliament in December. This legislation seeks to provide citizenship to persecuted religious minorities, barring Muslims, from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The CAA sparked off misgivings among the 200 million Muslims who comprise 14% of the population together with the combination of the intended National Population Register and National Citizens Register, where documents are needed to prove citizenship. This made them uneasy that they would be disenfranchised. Faced with a backlash — that includes resolutions by many states that they will not implement NPR and NCR — the government has shown signs of relenting, even stating that NCR hasn’t been brought up in the union cabinet! Even as it tackles the virus pandemic, it is however unyielding on CAA.
The reemerging religious and sectarian fault lines in India’s polity not surprisingly occasioned scathing reactions from its allies in the South. For instance, Iran has been a steadfast partner, especially since the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s. But after the Delhi riots, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif condemned the
“wave of organized violence against Indian Muslims”. Shortly thereafter, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strongly stated that “The government of India should confront extremist Hindus and stop the massacre of Muslims in order to prevent India’s isolation from the world of Islam.”
Elsewhere in the South, there were protests in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, especially in Medan and Jakarta. The CAA has also left Bangladesh and Afghanistan somewhat concerned over its implication that they persecute minorities in their countries! Matters have also not improved with one of the top NDA leaders referring to the immigrant influx from Bangladesh as “termites”! India sought to allay such concerns stating that CAA is only an internal matter. PM Modi was to visit Dhaka on March 17 but that trip was just as well cancelled due to the virus problem. If it had taken place, there would have been demonstrations.
But every crisis is also an opportunity. India’s heft in the South may have diminished, but dealing with the viral contagion provided PM Modi an opening to reach out to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation after a gap of several years. Due to problems with Pakistan, this grouping receded from his priorities in favour of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. PM Modi’s video conference with SAARC leaders “is a courageous step as it brings this regional institution back into reckoning at a time of calamity” stated Professor Amita Batra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University to IPS.
Dealing with the virus outbreak is also a chance to tackle social disharmony to salvage the growth story. PM Modi must address the sense of alienation among Muslims, assuring them that NPR and NCR will be junked. As Dr Singh noted, every act of sectarian violence is a blemish on Mahatma Gandhi’s India; that social unrest only exacerbates the economic slowdown and complicates efforts to revive growth. So while the country is locked down for 21 days, the rediscovery of a sense of national resolve in fighting the virus must include all sections of the population to address the trinity of challenges. At stake is the idea of India.
(The writer is an economics and business commentator based in New Delhi)