The pandemic prompted the use of words like “reset” and phrases like “the new normal”. But while everything felt like it was either in suspension or about to undergo a massive transformation, one thing remained firmly rooted—injustice. Covid-19 could not shake its foundations. In fact, in many ways, it may have strengthened them.
In a year that began with carnage in the Capital, the pandemic laid bare the fault lines within society and the might of the state. Amidst the shadow of precautionary restrictions and limited access to an already slow judicial system, political prisoners continued to fill jails on terror charges, Kashmir saw a severe crackdown and heightened violence, caste atrocities and discrimination in various forms continued as before, environmental projects were implemented despite resistance and personal data was taken without accountability.
As the virus began to make its presence felt, right at the outset disparities became conspicuous as migrant workers were forced onto the streets and Islamophobia saw an entire community being blamed for its spread. Between suicide and misogyny, laws steamrolled without stakeholders and pyres burning without grievers, the year seemed like an extension of the years preceding it, unhindered by covid-19.
Far from being a great equaliser, the pandemic was a reminder of the inequalities that have long festered beneath the surface.
Lounge speaks to experts and civil society members about the year when nothing really changed.
ISLAMOPHOBIA AS USUAL
Hussain Haidry, poet, writer and lyricist
What began in 2019—India’s own set of exclusionary laws against Muslims—ensured that 2020 seemed but a continuation of the previous year.
Attacks on protesting students in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, followed by those in other places across the country, culminated in the ugly violence in north-east Delhi. It was not a life-altering revelation to watch the state and the law enforcement machinery play a partisan role: All of this has happened before. Perhaps the only difference was the operating mechanics of it being out in the open, thanks to mobile phones and social media.
The pandemic that followed meant two swords hanging over the heads of Indian Muslims: one of mass infection, as the rest, and one of demonisation of the entire community, as was clear from what happened after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation (blamed for the spread of covid-19), even before the lockdown.
The arrests of Muslim activists and students under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa) as “terrorists” during the lockdown was an oft-repeated tale to gratify the latent Islamophobia of radicalised sections of society.
Perhaps the one refuge minorities can turn to in a democracy—the judiciary—was a disappointment too, with its decision on the Ram Mandir issue. And what could have been more insult to injury than to celebrate its foundation on the day Article 370 (of the Constitution, relating to Kashmir) had been revoked a year ago?
The call for laws on “love jihad” was yet again the age-old tactic of ghar mein ghus kar maarna—sometimes for beef in the kitchen, sometimes for one’s partner in the bedroom, and sometimes just for existing.
Amidst all this, the voice of the self-proclaimed centrist-progressives has also remained unchanged—and at times, even excruciatingly tone-deaf. With the ever-cautionary advice of “being too Muslim” or false equivalences being popularised, the disappointment that comes with conditional support, unstated ostracisation, and silent withdrawal from the movement has failed to surprise. It only reiterated that to stand with the Constitution is one thing, and to stand with a socially and politically excluded community, another.
As a Muslim in this country, to see this year as “life turned upside down” would perhaps only be to the extent that the community came together to protest on the streets and assert itself. But the grave personal, professional, and political consequences of asserting oneself as a Muslim in India—well, all of that has happened before, and all of that shall happen again.
THE HARSH REALITY OF ‘SOCIAL DISTANCING’
Manjula Pradeep, director of campaigns, DHRDNet, and founder, WAYVE Foundation
The year 2020 brought with it realisations and experiences that made me wonder whether there was an actual lockdown in the country. The kinds of atrocities that happened during the pandemic prove that the reality of this country is “social distancing”, and not “physical distancing”. Untouchability in a variety of ways and forms remained visible and prominent. There were cases of atrocities that we covered, where the police not only refused to take action against perpetrators of injustice, but also beat survivors of caste abuse. There was the case of rape and serious injuries on a minor Dalit girl in Gujarat, where she has survived with a broken back and legs, during the lockdown. This incident never got attention from the mainstream media.
On the other hand was the widely covered case of the gang rape of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, but certain aspects related to the case were twisted and the family members were made to appear almost as though they were the accused. The village, Bul Garhi, where the gang rape and subsequent murder took place, is like a microcosm of the everyday realities of Dalit communities in India, pandemic or not.
There is a high degree of untouchability and discrimination there, as I learnt during my visit. The Hathras Dalit family has lost their livelihood and now live in fear and uncertainty about whether they can live in peace after this traumatic incident. The state of lawlessness prevails across the country, which was quite visible with the way the body of the Hathras victim was burnt by the police and administration. Ultimately, social justice and dignity for the most marginalised communities in India seems a distant dream, as it did long before covid-19.
LOCKDOWN WITHIN CRACKDOWN IN KASHMIR
Misbah Reshi, independent researcher and Rhodes scholar-elect, 2021
While the world battled the novel coronavirus in 2020, there was no novelty in the violence witnessed by Kashmiris. Kashmir remained within the confines of state repression, which entered the valley while the people were forced into a communication and movement lockdown.
Freedom of speech continued to be suppressed. Journalists were summoned and questioned for stories they did, as were Kashmiri Twitter users for their posts. Greater Kashmir, a leading newspaper, saw its office being raided by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Offices of civil society organisations like the JKCCS, APDP and Athrout, which have been doing pertinent human rights work, were also raided by the NIA —further restricting the little space that existed for civil society. In August, the JKCCS released a report which documented the cost of the internet shutdown in the valley—a shutdown which continues as the state has allowed access only to 2G services.
Human rights organisations reported that the number of killings in the first six months of 2020 surpassed those of the past five years. Between August 2019-2020, at least 346 killings took place, out of which 73 were civilians. Ceasefire violations were recorded at the borders, at least 107 cordon and search operations were carried out by security forces and 48 residential houses were destroyed in the first six months of 2020. Extrajudicial killings continued in the valley, with a major case occurring on the intervening night of 17-18 July 2020, when three young men from Rajouri were killed in Shopian and dubbed militants. Hundreds of Kashmiri political prisoners languished in jails as the state continued to use the Public Safety Act. The Uapa was also used excessively to curb any form of dissent—including against the organisers and participants of a cricket match.
Basic freedoms continued to be denied to the people of Kashmir and redressal systems remained inaccessible and complicit, as before, in the normalisation of violence in the valley.
MORE DATA, STILL NO DATA PRIVACY
Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation
When the Supreme Court reaffirmed the fundamental right to privacy, it linked it to the concepts of autonomy, dignity and liberty. All three of them being central to a democratic, digital society. The past year made us realise that this aspirational vision is fragile. It shatters easily against our lived reality. One did not have to look far, for these occurred within the context of data privacy itself.
As migrants walked hundreds of kilometres, a database was proposed for them without a data protection law. Meanwhile, India became the only democratic country mandating its official contact tracing application, the Aarogya Setu. State programmes often using sensitive personal information went against the advice of experts. Lists of persons infected with covid-19 were circulated by district officials on WhatsApp. Done despite warning that it would create a taboo against self-reporting. Meanwhile, reports of (use of) drones by police departments, facial recognition systems and indiscriminate collection of call data records surfaced. While there was some spirited defence of privacy, covid-19 made surrender easy, even comforting for many. In the time of a public health emergency, as people faced what may have been a necessary, but poorly executed lockdown, their dignity and liberty were jettisoned for survival. Privacy stood little chance .
What is this “new normal”? It comes with greater levels of control, enforced through digital technologies. In this bleak outlook, where can we find hope? A growing number of internet users, less urban and younger. They carry the burden of building their lives, and a privacy doctrine. One that provides them rights, and a tangible power to exercise in a digital democracy.
NO PANDEMIC FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director, Human Rights Watch
An unprecedented crisis like this tests people, with fear of disease, the pressures of being confined at home, and the economic impact of lockdown. Millions responded with inherent decency.
In many places, governments showed leadership with information and transparency. Some leaders, however, failed the test utterly, using even the pandemic to promote their bigotry, which led, for instance, to the racial targeting of many Asian-Americans in the US after repeated talk of a “Chinese virus”, or attacks upon several Muslims in India because of irresponsible claims of a “corona jihad”.
Many leaders used the excuse of covid-19 to push their abusive policies. Despite knowing that a lockdown was key to containing the spread of the virus, Indian leaders chose not to plan ahead, forcing a crisis with an abrupt shutdown, leading to shortages and the desperate flight of migrant workers. In a display of political bias and double standards that appears to have become the norm these days, the threat of covid-19 was used to stop protests by critics, but government supporters often gathered at will. The worst was the cruelty of keeping activists, academics, student leaders and others in detention, facing harsh and trumped-up allegations of conspiracies or sedition simply for criticising government policies, even as some contracted the deadly virus while others remained at risk.
Dissent is key to democracy. But just as they had the right to peaceful association and speech, so does every other Indian. Criticism is crucial for protection of human rights because it informs and leads to better policy. It is unfortunate that disagreement with the government should be deemed worthy of violent attack, arrest, vicious name-calling on social media or by pro-government networks, or an immediate allegation that critics of the state are unpatriotic.
—As told to Asmita Bakshi