Keeping Religious Agenda Alive in India’s Fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic
As the world braces itself against an on-going global pandemic, countries are seen taking unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of their citizens and curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day total lockdown and ordered 1.3 billion people in the country to stay indoors. In one of the most severe preventive measures across the globe, all non-essential activities, including public transport across cities and states, were halted. This announcement came weeks after the country reported its first case of the disease on January 30, 2020 and implemented other measures such as testing incoming travellers and closing off borders. As the disease spread across the country, various states took individual measures to impose partial and complete lockdowns and provide relief to those affected.
Experts have warned that the country could become the next hotspot for the Coronavirus. In such a scenario, the country’s inadequate healthcare system can prove to be a major problem. However, it isn’t the only hindrance when it comes to curbing the spread of the disease. Religious fanaticism and blind faith has proved to be equally, if not more, problematic. It must be noted that in the times before the pandemic struck, India has also been undergoing another major crisis: incidences of communal violence and police brutality set against the backdrop of anti-CAA protests. And the religious propaganda hasn’t gone unseen even as the government addresses the COVID-19 crisis.
As I watched his speech in my kitchen in Denmark, I couldn’t help but mull over his chosen words. In his nationwide address to announce the lockdown on March 24, the Prime Minister said that for the next 21 days, Indians would be bound to their homes by a “Lakshman Rekha”. Not only did many citizens not understand what that meant, many had to look it up online. Modi was alluding to the epic of Ramayana, a highly revered text in Hindu mythology. “Lakshman Rekha” is the magical boundary drawn by Ram’s brother Lakshman outside the hut in which he stayed along with Ram and Sita to protect Sita while the brothers were away. However, Ravana tricks Sita into stepping out of the boundary, thus abducting her. The reference failed to hit home with over 20% of the Indian population who do not practise Hinduism, at a time where the country is faced with a crisis that affects people regardless of their religious background.
In another video address on March 26, Modi asked citizens of the country to take care of nine families for the 21-day lockdown period, calling the pledge a “true Navratri”. He was speaking on the first day of the 9-day Hindu festival of Navratri, wherein Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil and worship the goddess Durga. While encouraging citizens to help the less fortunate in these difficult times, Modi risks bypassing communities that do not understand the significance of the festival, or celebrate it. It’s important to note that these speeches don’t only hold national, but also international significance. Since this is a global pandemic, countries are looking at each other to take some big steps to curb the spread of the disease. Using Hindu-centric terminology in these speeches is also an attempt to promote the idea of India being the land of Hinduism internationally.
This comes after the cancellation of public festivities to celebrate the Hindu festival of Ram Navami (the birth of Ram) in Ayodhya, said to be his birthplace. Initially, BJP’s Yogi Adityanath-led state government was adamant on celebrating the occasion despite worries that the event, that draws thousands of devotees from across the country, would turn into a hotbed for the virus to spread. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) blind focus on religion was also called into question as Yogi Adityanath violated the lockdown, hours after it was announced, to take part in a ceremony to inaugurate the Ram Navami event in Ayodhya, an event that was supposed to have been cancelled.
By indulging in religious messaging even in dealing with a global pandemic, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are attempting to continue the imposition of a religious agenda that has seemingly been put on the back burner amid the current crisis. Even as anti-CAA protest sites are cleared off and the National Population Register exercise that many warn is a weapon of the CAA is delayed indefinitely, the Indian government is sticking by its policy of creating a subtle divide across religious lines when there are clearly bigger issues at hand. If India has to successfully fight the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the government must abandon its current modus operandi and adopt a singular focus towards preventing and curing the disease.