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Faith tested as India goes into 'nationalistic' lockdown

R. Krishnakumar
Filed on March 25, 2020 | Last updated on March 25, 2020 at 09.56 pm

The government in the state of Uttar Pradesh had already called off the Ram Navami festival in Ayodhya.

What does religious faith mean to a country in lockdown? Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an unprecedented 21-day shutdown in India, in what he called the most viable response to the COVID-19 outbreak. All places of worship have been closed and religious congregations banned, without exception. The announcement came on Tuesday but the restrictions had started earlier.

The government in the state of Uttar Pradesh had already called off the Ram Navami festival in Ayodhya. The state of Kerala had banned religious festivals. Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra are among states that took strong positions to discourage mass gatherings.

The shift in positions was not smooth. Government advisories and messages issued in public interest, requesting people to avoid community celebration of religious festivals, had failed to deliver what the more stringent measures have. Cases were registered against authorities in places of worship, across religions, for violating official directions. The pandemic has forced institutions of organised religion to customise ritualistic traditions and the faithful to adopt unfamiliar ways to practice their faith. The numbers validate the restrictions.

Till Wednesday, 11 people have died in the country which has reported 519 COVID-19 cases, as fears rise over the next stages of the outbreak and the pressure on its healthcare systems.

During the initial stages of the outbreak, the defence for religious congregations came with stock insouciance - God knows, and he'll take care of it. Governments were forced to look away because strong policy decisions on matters of faith have invariably set off controversy.

This is also the time to figure out what social distancing means in a country of 1.3 billion people; a country where congregations and community festivals are integral to religious practice. It's hard to miss reports on how this new way of distant living has helped us appreciate the quiet and the simple. For the faithful, however, this is also a time to adapt, to reconcile with the reality of customised practice.

With the ban on religious congregations, some sections of India in quarantine appear drawn toward a new sense of community and a symbolism that is in line with the nationalism of new India. They could be trying new ways to keep the faith.

Late on Sunday, with at least three hours left for the janta curfew (a 14-hour people's shutdown called to check spreading of the virus) to end, a few hundreds were out on the streets to "celebrate". There were songs and selfies, the national flag, blowing of conch shells, ululations, clanging of plates and dancing children. The scenes were straight out of a festival. It was a strange sight, even for those of us who are familiar with the assertion of Indian-ness which now characterises our response to almost everything.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first address to the nation regarding the crisis, in which he announced the curfew, did not detail strategies the union government was adopting to handle the outbreak or its social and economic impact. It was, in some ways, an invocation of this new Indian-ness.The public celebrations during the curfew on Sunday make you ask - how do these men and women suspend fears about a pandemic and assemble in big groups? Is it a lack of awareness or misplaced conviction? Is this a statement of faith in something inexplicable? It could be all that and it could just be the standard response to a crisis, impulsive, raw and emotional.
It's tough explaining a man in this crowd, as you see reports about more deaths and a rise in the number of cases. This could all be traced to a sense of invincibility; a comforting belief that he is away from the outbreak even when he is there, right in the middle of it. Reality strikes only when the threat shows up at his door.

The prime minister had only requested people to applaud from their doorways, windows and balconies the efforts of healthcare workers and personnel who are providing essential services, in a gesture of gratitude. There was no call for these public gatherings that soon morphed into boisterous victory laps.

The celebrations on the streets were in conflict with the idea of the curfew and the prime minister's call for self-quarantine. They did not reflect the restraint in a society that is preparing for the worst from this outbreak. The celebrations were also used as a political statement by many; a show of faith in the system and a symbolic, unifying counter-narrative against the cynicism regarding preparedness and strategy.

The prime minister's call for salutations was reworked on, with a generous supply of religion and pseudo-science, for WhatsApp forwards. Now, this is standard practice adopted by some of the pro-government social media users and it invariably leads to polarised debates, before the fact-checkers step in.

That the forwards were dressed up with claims to scientific footing and that some of India's biggest superstars chose to send out public messages endorsing these claims show that the nation's response to the crisis has come with all the markers of its complex diversities.

The collective fight against a pandemic could be an ideal platform for India to fight its own discord. The on-cue applause from our homes, however, should not make us complacent in this new faith. This is also a country where this collective show of indebtedness was followed by harassment of doctors, paramedics and airline staff, over fears that they could be carriers.

- R Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru


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