Covid and Civil Solidarity

Civil solidarity, a necessary precondition for democratic systems, remains a governing mode for political formations seeking a hegemonic position within democracies. Civil solidarity is marked by claims to an inclusive, normative-universal idea of “we-ness.” As cultural sociologist Jeffrey C. Alexander argues, “Civil society should be conceptualized as a realm of solidarity, a ‘we-ness’ that simultaneously affirms the sanctity of the individual and these individuals’ obligations to the collectivity. The solidary sphere, in principle and in practice, can be differentiated not only from markets and states but from such other noncivil spheres as religion, family and science. Yet differentiation does not preclude tension and conflict over boundaries. Civil solidarity is ‘compromised’ and ‘distorted’ by these boundary relations, and also by competing, more primordial definitions of community, such as race, language, nation, territory, and ethnicity” (115). The competing tensions and conflicts between universalist claims and particularist-primordial mobilization became visible in the way the ruling party has approached and managed the pandemic. Even as they lay claims to a unified and authentic Hindu identity, vulnerable social groups, including the urban poor, migrants, and farmers have been left at the margins to fend for themselves. The universalist address of Hindutva was a trope to justify particularistic sectarianism rather than a commitment to create a sense of “we-ness” cutting across caste, class, and religious identities.

Contemporary India’s Hindutva politics, essentially majoritarian in the espousal of the idea of an “authentic” population, nevertheless claims to be inclusive and universal. The BJP-RSS combine began their political sojourn in 2014 with inclusive slogans such as “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (“together for everyone’s growth”); they followed this up with the slogan “desh chalana hai, sarkar nahi” (“govern the nation, not just a government”), moved into intangible realms of intention and growth that sounded exclusionary and ominous in 2019 with the slogan “Saaf niyat, Sahi vikas” (“clean intent, inclusive true growth”). The pitches for the normative-universal and inclusivity were always already fraught with sectarian mobilization, polarized differences, and notions of hierarchical solidarity, and claims to “clean intent” were an oblique justification for everyday violence. The underlying objective was to secure consensus via a narrative that the regime’s attempts to achieve universal development were being sabotaged by particularistic identities that had remained in a time warp and that needed to be “cleansed” to push India forward. The attempts to innovate and advance India were packaged in campaigns of “Swach Bharat” (“clean India”) and “New India.”

Thoughts and narratives generated for political campaigning were subsequently institutionalized in a model of governance that aimed for a combination of “high intensity growth and low intensity communalism.” BJP-RSS came to power in 2014 with a promise of a high intensity spectacle of growth and development, often referred to as the “Gujarat model,” combined with an unstated low intensity spectacle of simmering communal tensions that kept up the heat without overt and visible organized violence and provided the psychological succor of inclusion and empowerment as a Hindu was part of BJP`s campaign in 2014. It signified high growth, development of infrastructure and sophisticated urbanization. In unsaid ways, “Gujarat model” also referred to the pogrom against Muslims in 2002 under the watch of Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat. However, in reality, what the projected model translated into was tax relief to corporations and poor performance on social indicators, such as health and education. Such a combination was considered sustainable and also laid a pitch for a “party with difference”: a party that is efficient and can govern without the sort of sectarian violence that took place during the previous congress’s regime and during all other non-BJP regimes in the states. Hindutva politics was also an attempt to push the blame for violent eruptions onto the religious minorities and the so-called appeasement politics of “secular” parties. It was simultaneously an attempt to re-signify the universal as represented and constituted by the “Hindus.” The social hegemony of the BJP-RSS combine was dependent on a symbolic communication of including and empowering the Hindus as the new normative-universal. It was an attempt to invent the universal itself as the authentic Hindu population as against the minorities who constitute the “outsiders” and therefore outside the normative-universal. Cultural majoritarianism was a way of resignifying the universal and erasing the “outsider.”

Such a resignification of the universal was made possible by tapping the underlying cultural codes, including memories, symbols, and values. For instance, the way the memory of the partition was reinscribed when the prime minister announced that August 14 (Pakistan’s official independence day) would be commemorated as the “partition horrors remembrance day.” Symbols were mobilized during electoral campaigns, as when the prime minister draped in saffron clothes took a holy dip in the Ganges and performed puja at Kashi, ceremonially announcing the inauguration of the Kashi-Vishwanath temple corridor. As religion was combined with development, the Nehruvian imagination of “dams as the temples of modern India” was turned upside down. Development (of roads and other modern infrastructure) was now centered around temple towns; Hindu religious shrines were linked up to mark a Hindu universe as the locus of development. As this new normative-universal was being realized, there were also attempts to erase the outsider by eradicating Muslim mosques and obstructing public offering of prayers (namaz); Muslim public participation was blocked by withholding election tickets from Muslim candidates and designing electoral strategies to ensure that the votes of religious minorities would not impact the electoral outcome. The current regime continues to pitch for social hegemony around this reinvented normative-universal to lay a claim for a third term in 2024.

As the new modes of mobilization were being consolidated, the pandemic struck unexpectedly and opened up cracks in a seemingly homogenous majority. The pandemic offered a fresh gaze through the cracks of what seemed to be a seamless process. The pandemic was in itself a spectacle in the way it was narrativized and mediatized. It countered the high intensity spectacle of development at one end and the low intensity spectacle of polarization at the other. The pandemic and the growing number of deaths occupied the prime time on all news channels. It raised serious doubts (perhaps for the first time since the current regime took over in 2014) about the new normative-universal: not so much about its exclusion of religious minorities (which was already broadly understood and accepted), but about its presumed compassionate dispensations for the majority. Exclusion of Muslims did not necessarily mean compassionate inclusion or empowerment of Hindus. As the universalizing discourses of cultural nationalism and neoliberal development unraveled, various social segments—the migrants, the urban poor, and even the middle classes—started to fall through the cracks. The catastrophic late-night announcement of a lockdown in March 2020 led to social panic among the urban poor and daily wage workers, eventually resulting in the widespread reverse migration of migrant laborers back to their respective villages. In spite of public outrage, the government was caught unaware and underprepared to face the unprecedented situation. In the absence of public transportation, most migrant workers began a long walk of hundreds of miles only to be denied entry into their villages for fear of viral contamination. Migrant workers were caught in a liminal space—in a no man`s land—along the emergent rural-urban divide that was once famously referred to as “Bharat versus India.” Unwelcome at their places of origin and unable to continue living in their new urban habitations, many people were stranded, resulting in loss of dignity and even life. Such internal displacement bore an uncanny parallel to the designed displacement sought through the ruling bloc’s new anti-minority laws, such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The NRC ascertains one’s place of residence in India and keeps an official list of all the legal citizens of India. The CAA in effect decides whether or not someone is a citizen based on what documents they have and thus decides who is an illegal immigrant. (For more refer to this post by Gary Hausman). The discourses and politics that branded “outsiders” as “termites” encroaching national-sovereign space found echoes in this pandemic-era schism and internal mass migration, inducing grim reminders of an earlier “two-nation theory” and the partition of 1947.

A majority of the migrants, including Dalits, members of indigenous groups (“tribals”), and those categorized as “OBCs,” belonged to the lower echelons of society, and did not count as members of the new Hindu normative-universal. Development and high growth discourse did not seem to have the social gestation to provide for basic amenities and subsistence living during the crisis of the pandemic. The gaze from the vantage point of being excluded, as a Dalit or a migrant, opened up new avenues to differentiate between hatred against the Muslims as a Hindu and being at the receiving end of the same kind of exclusion and discrimination as a Dalit or a migrant.

The travesty of the symbolism of Hindu ascendance was on display with mass graves on the banks of the Ganges. While the BJP was ostensibly speaking for Hindus, those buried on the banks of the River Ganges were also Hindus. Further, in response to the growing criticism of abject neglect and indifference in managing the pandemic, spokespersons of the BJP argued that it was an age-old tradition to bury the dead on the banks of the holy River Ganges. Even as the Indian state blamed the Islamic organization Tablighi Jamaat for spreading the virus at its Delhi conference in March 2020, it allowed for mass congregation of Hindus for the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. The Kumbh Mela resulted in close to 1700 new cases of COVID-19 (by official counts), highlighting the nihilism and necropolitics ingrained in majoritarian modes of governance. In the following months, images of even well-to-do urban middle classes running from pillar to post in search of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders became a part of the daily news spectacle. The only response from the center was to blame the states, especially those under opposing political parties, for poor infrastructure. Ideals of “co-operative federalism,” which the current dispensation showcased as its flagship program, gave way to a competitive blame-game. The bio-political crisis induced by the pandemic elicited a techno-nationalist response, what came to be known as “vaccine nationalism”: vaccines were provided free of cost to all citizens, irrespective of class, caste, and religion. This was techno-nationalism combined with the spirit of seva (community service), a vestige from an earlier era of cultural nationalism.

While revealing the limits of state intervention, the pandemic also provided a seemingly expedient rationale for individual and voluntary responsibility. Spectacles of citizens’ voluntary service—helping each other by carrying stretchers, providing for oxygen, informing the emergency services, even burying the dead—stood as a reminder of mutual obligations, of being self-reliant in the absence of official relief. It was during such a time that Prime Minister Modi announced through his inimitable radio talk show Mann Ki Baat that “New India” will be atma nirbhar, or self-reliant. The phrase atma nirbhar articulates a range of meanings: voluntary service, innovative culture of start-ups, bottom-up efforts replacing traditional elite-patron-client relations, as well as the expansion of private capital in tune with the original promise of the Modi regime of “maximum governance and minimum government.” Accordingly, the original slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” (“together for everyone’s growth”) was fine tuned to read as “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayas” “together for everyone’s growth, everyone’s efforts). The gaze of accountability was turned away from state and political leadership to individual responsibility and collective accountability. While the prime minister ran abrasive electoral campaigns with mass gatherings in Bihar and Bengal, flouting the rules of safe public assembly even after the calamitous second wave, driving without a mask, even if one were traveling alone in their own private vehicle, remained punishable.


Cover image: Navjot Singh, During the Pandemic, Farmers Coming Back Home after Protests. Courtesy of the artist. 

Ajay Gudavarthy

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and an associate member of the Institute for Humanities, Simon Fraser University. His recent published work includes India after Modi: Populism and the Right (Bloomsbury, 2018), Politics, Ethics and Emotions in "New India" (Routledge, 2022), and the edited volume Secular Sectarianism: Limits of Subaltern Politics (Sage, 2019).