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“Any creature that comes out of there, shoot it”: Hindu Nationalism, Viral Bodies, and the Political Imaginaries of COVID-19

Rachel A. Rothenberg

Abstract

In this paper, I draw on digital ethnographic analysis of social media posting around the crisis. I argue that anxieties about the disorder of urban space co-exist alongside caste-based discourses of cleanliness and bodily regulation in Hindu nationalist social media users’ repudiation of COVID-19 as a disease of the urban poor. Alongside discourses of caste, their invocation of the alleged role of the Islamic proselytization group Tablighi Jama’at in the spread of the disease in urban North India, and discourses around the intimate life and spatial organization of poor urban Muslims, demonstrates how the Hindu nationalist response to the COVID-19 crisis focuses on the site of the Muslim male body as an invasive “viral” force. I then trace how the Hindu nationalist response to COVID-19 is integrated into existing concepts of unruly bodies, legitimizing a state-based response of repression and violence.

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1Not long after a hotspot of COVID-19 infection emerged out of a single gathering of the Muslim proselytization group Tablighi Jamāt in the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Nizamuddin West in central Delhi, the virus appeared in two clusters in the city of Jaipur, where I conducted fieldwork in Hindu nationalist households from 2018-2020. While the first cases of viral infection were identified amongst a group of Italian tourists in the upscale neighborhood of Vaishali Nagar, COVID-19 in the city quickly became associated with a secondary hotspot in the crowded, working-class Muslim-majority neighborhood of Ramganj Bazaar, located inside the 18th-century Walled City. The first case in the neighborhood, occurring in a 45-year-old man who had recently returned from working in Oman, was registered in March, and the virus had quickly spread through the crowded blocks of flats and one-room chawls that make up Ramganj Bazaar’s housing stock. As soon as his positive test was confirmed, Jaipur Police instituted an “indefinite curfew” at a one-kilometer radius around the neighborhood, which was enforced strictly through the country’s national 21-day lockdown (Bohra 2020).

  • 1 @BDUTT Twitter account, accessed 17 April 2020, https://twitter.com/bdutt/status/125110938190039040 (...)

2During the national lockdown, when people were not permitted to leave their homes for any reason if they lived near a confirmed COVID-19 case, Jaipur Police quickly erected barricades in the lanes of Ramganj Bazaar, designed to prevent people from leaving their homes and mixing freely with each other. This lockdown was enforced by the Jaipur police, who made it clear that anyone caught violating the rules was subject to a thrashing or worse. Like many cities in India, the police in Jaipur filmed themselves castigating and slapping locals who were caught wandering around or riding motorbikes for no reason, and the threat of more serious violence always existed. A news story by the journalist Barkha Dutt showed police huddled together under makeshift lean-tos, protecting themselves from the brutally hot May weather of Rajasthan. As Dutt praised the officers for their professionalism and sacrifice in spending so much time in the heat, images flashed on screen depicting police armed with lathi (sticks) to prevent entry into or out of the neighborhood.1

  • 2 @jaipurdiariez Instagram page, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B-98c_wlMsH/

3Riding out the virus at home in the United States, I spoke with interlocutors and friends in India about the ways in which pandemic life had altered our daily movements (no malls, no cinemas, no dinners out) and swiped through the social media accounts that are followed by many of my young interlocutors, to get a sense of how the pandemic was being discussed in Jaipur. Because of the intense focus of the national media on the infection clusters in Jaipur, which were among India’s largest, many of the accounts were posting frequently about the virus. News that Muslim proselytizers and migrant workers, who were suspected of entering the country from the Middle East, Pakistan, and Central Asia (in the case of the Tablighi members) or Bangladesh (in the case of migrant workers), could have brought the illness into the city was met with intense communal agitation. I was particularly affected by a conversation occurring on the Instagram page @jaipurdiariez.2 This is a local account focusing primarily on local news, reviews and photographs of restaurants and nightclubs, memes about local youth culture, and other topics appealing to the city’s teenagers and young adults. The account had posted pictures of the Ramganj police barricades, inviting users to discuss their thoughts on the pandemic and the government’s mitigation attempts in the comments section below. The comments quickly turned contentious. Hindu and Muslim users, including users from Ramganj itself, argued with each other over the cause of the virus’ spread and the culpability of Ramganj denizens. Some self-identified Hindu users conflated the outbreak in Muslim-majority Ramganj to the outbreak in Nizamuddin West. A user identified as Akshay Saraswat, arguing with a Muslim user, wrote “Tabligi Jamaat se corona 10x speed se spread hua hai … hum bhi hamāri ram navmi celebrate kar sakte the par nahin kare … thīk hai?” (“Because of the Tablighi Jama’at coronavirus has spread at ten times the speed … we too could have celebrated our Ram Navami but we didn’t… ok?”) In fact, Ram Navami, the Hindu festival commemorating the birth of Lord Rama, had been celebrated all over India, with much national controversy; nevertheless, the images of infected Tablighi Jama’at workers became viral (in both senses) images in the mind of many social media users, reproducing themselves in infinite numbers to spread the disease across India.

4Given that imagery, it is not surprising that many users, when talking about the denizens of Ramganj Bazaar and other Muslim bastis (neighborhoods), used phrases associated with contagion, horror, and extermination when discussing how to stop the spread of the virus. Many users suggested that mass killing was the only way to defeat the virus; not the killing of the virus itself, but of the marginal bodies that might carry it. Muslims were systematically dehumanized, and users advocated for the complete destruction of Muslim urban spaces in Jaipur, often using chilling imagery of religious killing. One user, identified as Arjun Dubey, commented “Jalā do pūre Ramganj ko” (“Burn down all of Ramganj”) while another user espoused a similar sentiment in English: “Any creature that comes out of there, shoot it.” The denizens of Ramganj and the virus that was killing their relatives, friends, and neighbors had become one and the same in the eyes of these virulent Instagram users, reflecting a Hindu nationalist imaginary that stretched back to its origins, with V. Sarvarkar’s characterization of Muslims as foreign invaders by nature, a virus which slowly sapped the Hindu rashtra of its health and strength (Sarvarkar 1923).

5What do these online exchanges tell us about the ways in which Hindu nationalist rhetoric played out in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis? While COVID is novel, the tensions and conflicts that have played themselves out in the Indian public sphere during the pandemic have much older and deeper-set roots. The intense anxiety that social media users who espoused Hindu nationalist beliefs felt over the practices of Muslims, and the potential for the spread of COVID-19, reflects the long history of concern that Hindu nationalists have had over the domestic and civil lives of Indian Muslims, beginning from racially-tinged colonial concerns over sexual habits and household hygiene to the evolution of what Amita Baviskar (2020) has termed “bourgeois environmentalism,” which absolves middle- and upper-class caste Hindus for any role in environmental destruction or, by extension, the spread of zoonotic disease, instead displacing blame on urban Muslims and lower castes. In the following paper, I analyze the deployment of a Hindu nationalist imaginary by social media users in response to the COVID-19 crisis in India, particularly Hindu nationalist discourses around Muslim sociality, the role of hygiene and dietary practices in combatting the virus, and in their characterization of Muslims as an invasive “viral” force weakening the national health of the Hindu state. In this way, the battle against COVID-19 becomes, in the Hindu nationalist political imaginary, a metaphorical battle against the encroachment of Muslims into urban social life. This political imaginary has the potential to reify and deploy violence against Muslims and the urban poor as well as form the basis for a state-based response of repression and violence.

6My research focuses primarily on what I would term the “rank-and-file” of Hindu nationalists—the upper-caste, middle-class managers and merchants who form the backbone and broad popular consensus of authoritarian politics in contemporary India. In this paper, I draw on conversations with my interlocutors in Jaipur over WhatsApp and Instagram as well as Twitter postings, memes and news stories circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as Instagram postings. Many of my interlocutors are practitioners of what Shakuntala Rao (2018) has termed “selfie nationalism”—deeply interested in technologies of self-making, economic and technological innovation, and advocacy of brutally authoritarian right-wing politics. Most are not members of specific Hindu nationalist organizations; in fact, my interlocutors almost universally describe themselves as apolitical or uninterested in politics. Nevertheless, they articulate and reify Hindu nationalist imaginings of the nation and its people, spurred on by the circulation of misinformation and right-wing propaganda on social media platforms. As Christophe Jaffrelot (2021) has documented, the boundaries between organized Hindu nationalist groups and the middle-class Indian public more generally have become increasingly blurred in the “Modi era” of Hindutva; the consolidation of populist anxieties in the contemporary BJP have made Hindu nationalism a “hegemonic discourse” that circumscribes other forms of political expression (Jaffrelot 2021:311). Thus, I refer to my interlocutors and the social media users I analyze as “Hindu nationalist” in the sense that they exercise and deploy Hindu nationalist rhetoric as part of their self-presentation as apolitical persons, drawing attention to the hegemonic presence of Hindu nationalism in everyday life.

7My research interests focus on the broad swathe of otherwise “apolitical” people who form the social consensus for the deployment of Hindu nationalist violence in India, and how they function in the largely unregulated public sphere of the Internet. I do not see digital space as any less a site of contention than the open spaces of the traditional public sphere; drawing on Jodi Dean’s (2001) conception of the digital cybersalon, I argue that social media, while unmediated, is deeply politically significant. The massive BJP IT cell, which organizes and deploys armies of professional social media users to manipulate discourse online, demonstrates the significance of these technological forms for the development of political and social orientations in India, even as lines between “professional troll” and average user are increasingly blurred. This creates what Ravi Sundaram (2020) has termed the “crisis machine,” in which users are drawn into political action through the circulation of images, which compound upon each other and take on new meanings as they circulate; the “digital universe” of the contemporary Hindu right encompasses a multiplicity of identities, from upper-caste elites to quotidian wage workers to housewives (Sundaram 2020:738). The ephemeral digital archives that emerge from this heady political mix form much of the public sphere of COVID-19, particularly in the midst of India’s strict lockdown. It is to this record of the Hindu nationalist political imaginary, expressed by legions of anxious social media users, that I turn in this paper.

COVID-19 as a Communalized Disease

  • 3 See, for example, the rash of anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim lynchings and beatings that occurred in Ra (...)

8When the first cases of COVID-19 reached India in March of 2020, the country was already embroiled in intense national debates and agitation over the state of Muslim citizenship. Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens, along with the ongoing political organization of Jammu and Kashmir, had brought the Modi government’s systematic stripping of Muslim civil rights to the forefront. It is out of this milieu that the public discourses on COVID-19, and who was to “blame” for the community transmission of the illness, emerged. In the wake of the pandemic, Hindu majoritarian anxieties over the health and hygiene of the state took on new dimensions. Even before the pandemic, the Modi government had put special emphasis on cleanliness and proper hygiene as paramount to the construction of the contemporary vision of the Hindu state; programs like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign) had made clear connections between public health, technological and social advancement, and morality.3 These hygiene campaigns invoked the specter of the anti-rational “pissing man” (Mazzarella 2013) who chooses to urinate against a wall in a deliberate display of ignorant uncleanliness; the image of such people, and their supposed status as anathema to progressive society, has lingered in the Hindu nationalist imaginary around public health in the latter part of the Modi era.

  • 4 The mass celebration of Ram Navami at the newly-designated temple land in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, (...)

9Discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic echoed this earlier language, with a dichotomy between rational and irrational actors. Despite their violent language, Hindu social media users used COVID-19 to reframe themselves as helpless against the irrational, disease-spreading movements of the Muslims who they blamed for the prevalence of urban disease. It was presumed that rational actors stayed at home, looked after their health and the health of others, and maintained proper social distance, out of a sense of civic duty. That some Hindus had in fact, celebrated Ram Navami in mass gatherings,4 and that prominent Hindu figures like the playback singer Kanika Kapoor had been caught flouting social distancing guidelines, did not figure into this self-perception. Alongside calls for denizens of Ramganj Bazaar to be shot and burned, users on the @jaipur_diariez page expressed frustration that “because of these Ramganj madarchod log” (“motherfucking people”) corona has come to Jaipur.” The sole blame placed on Muslims for the spread of disease and the prolonged nature of the pandemic, regardless of the actual facts of the matter, frames caste Hindus as obedient to the will of the state and obedient to public health strictures of mutual care, whereas Muslims, presumably slaves to their baser urges for sociality, continue to gather in small houses, consume meat, conduct unhygienic bathing practices, and otherwise engage in behaviors that are presumed to spread the disease.

  • 5 Ramganj Bazaar is one of the most segregated neighborhoods in one of the most segregated cities in (...)

10Multiple factors slowed the COVID-19 response in and around Ramganj. Ghettoization in Jaipur, which had been a result of housing segregation following the Babri Masjid riots in the 1990s, had relegated the majority of Jaipur’s Muslims to cramped bastis where poor housing stock and congested homes and thoroughfares made it difficult, if not impossible, to socially distance (Mayaram 1992:2525; Rathore 2012).5 Data collected by Tabeenah Anjum writing for Caravan further demonstrated how fear of retaliation for participating in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens had led many people in Ramganj to refuse to undergo COVID-19 screening. Many residents felt that the door-to-door screening instituted by the state government and NGOs were merely a coverup for determining the names and locations of people who had participated in civil disobedience earlier in the year, and they were therefore reluctant to be screened for infection risk or sign up for contact tracing. Ramganj resident Noor Bano, for example, who had participated in anti-CAA protests in February, told Anjum that she had refused to allow her family to be screened for COVID-19 and have their details collected for contact tracing because “in the back of our minds we were suspicious that they are collecting our whereabouts because of our months long participation at the protest site” (Anjum 2020). Structural discrimination against Muslims, along with practices of state suppression that facilitated government mistrust, were therefore key to understanding the spread of COVID-19 in communities like Ramganj Bazaar.

11Despite these realities, the blame was squarely placed on the Tablighi Jama’at, and by extension Muslims of all sects, for bringing COVID-19 into urban North India, and by extension to Jaipur, and by April of 2020, the connection in many minds between Muslim urban social life and the spread of COVID-19 was complete, with the Hindi-language daily newspaper Rajasthan Patrika carrying the headline Corona ki “jamaat” aur badi (“The ‘gathering’ of corona has increased”) and the national Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar carrying the headline Maha curfew tha, Masjidon mein namaz band thi. Shukr hai! Community transmission ruk gaya (“There was a great curfew. There was no prayer in the mosques. Thank goodness! Community transmission was stopped”) (Anjum 2020). The belief that COVID-19 was a disease of Muslims was facilitated by widespread news reports, encouraged by the government, that Muslim foreigners from countries like Afghanistan, Indonesia, and Tanzania continued to bring COVID-19 into the country through the proselytization programs of the Tablighi Jama’at. The hashtag #TablighiVirus trended on Twitter, while FIRs were imposed against thirty-five members of the group who had attended the meeting in Nizamuddin West (Thapar 2020). Although these FIRs went on to be struck down by the Bombay High Court, it is interesting to note that the cases were lodged under Sections 269, 270, and 290 of the Indian Penal Act 1860, which criminalize “acting as a public nuisance” and “negligent and malignant” spread of infectious diseases, and which have similarly been used historically to criminalize unregulated sex work (Goel 2016). The Muslim proselytizer’s body, like the sex worker’s body, became therefore laden with criminality by its very nature—there was no indication that the thirty-five members charged were themselves carriers of COVID-19, but they were presumed by police to be by their nature, or by their group status as prominent figures in the Tablighi Jama’at, to be vectors of disease. The meeting in Nizamuddin West was not even the first infection cluster in India—that had appeared a few weeks before in Kerala—but was the one that became most associated with the spread of COVID-19 in urban areas, and the outbreak that featured most prominently in public discourse about who was “responsible” for the introduction and spread of the illness in India.

12Rhetoric of Islam, and particularly Muslim men, as a viral or invasive force exists at multiple levels of Hindu nationalist politics. COVID-19 arrived in India just as public discourse exploded over the CAA/NRC and over the criminalization of interfaith relationships via love jihad legislation. Both of these topics took up this idea of Islam as inherently foreign, with Muslims in India as interlopers or threats to the stability and health of the Hindu rashtra; the CAA/NRC’s regulation of migration and citizenship circumscribed Muslims as part of the healthy state “body,” while love jihad frames Muslim men and their sexuality as forcing their way into otherwise healthy Hindu families and therefore the Hindu nation, destabilizing them through sexual access and “claim” to the bodies of Hindu women and girls (Gupta 2009). COVID-19 rhetoric came to resemble the rhetoric of love jihad, as people began to claim that the virus, too, was becoming a tool to destabilize the Hindu family. Indeed, almost as soon as reports of an infection cluster stemming from the prayer meeting in Delhi began to circulate, Hindu nationalists began a whisper campaign that the Tablighi Jama’at had intentionally entered India and become infected with and spread COVID-19 in order to decimate the Hindu population. The trending topic #CoronaJihad, echoing the specter of love jihad, trended on Twitter, while Hindu nationalist Twitter users began to refer to Indian Muslims as “thooker” (literally “those who thoo” or spit) to refer to a conspiracy theory that held that Muslims infected with the virus intentionally spat on Hindus to make them ill.6 Other users made quite direct comparisons between COVID-19 as a “chemical weapon” of Muslims and the specter of Islamic terrorism; one image circulated amongst Hindu nationalist Twitter users contrasted two images of a suicide bomber, with one bomber hiding coronaviruses under his jacket rather than explosives.

Figure 1

Figure 1

A cartoon circulated on Twitter in April 2020 of two Muslim suicide bombers, one with explosives, the other with coronaviruses. The first image is captioned “tab” (then) and the second captioned “ab” (now).

  • 7 In general, anti-Chinese rhetoric around COVID-19 closely mimicked anti-Muslim language. Along with (...)
  • 8 Sexuality was not missing from this kind of dialogue around COVID-19; in Ghaziabad, six quarantined (...)

13Framing COVID-19 as an international conflict or deliberate attack also took root in the Hindu nationalist imaginary, drawing on Donald Trump’s characterization of COVID-19 as the “China virus” and on international War on Terror imagery of Islamic terrorist sleeper cells, unleashing their violence in secret. While some Hindu nationalists did utilize anti-China rhetoric, anti-Muslim rhetoric was particularly common; while my Hindu nationalist interlocutors subscribed to the conspiracy theory about the creation of the COVID-19 virus in a Chinese government lab, they were concerned less about the geopolitical implications of the virus than they were about their intense anxiety that COVID-19 could become another form of sociocultural jihad.7 The two anxieties often met in ways that framed the battle for COVID-19 as both a geopolitical battle between India and its enemies and as a cultural battle to be fought in neighborhoods and homes. The longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan has been used by nationalist groups to describe the nationalist “battle” for the Hindu family in the wake of love jihad (Tyagi and Sen 2020:1); in the same way, with the media’s emphasis on the foreign origins of the Tablighi Jama’at members who attended the Nizamuddin meeting and the growing rumor that Muslims were deliberately and secretly attempting to infect Hindus with the virus, COVID-19 became easily folded into this already existent discourse in Indian public life.8

14The rumors about the intentionality of infection were extremely powerful and circulated broadly across North India, as misinformation spread amongst the general public. Displays of solidarity and unity that were designed to bring together disparate groups were in themselves suspect, particularly those which encouraged interreligious solidarity. Muslim doctors in Delhi had organized a drive for Tablighi Jama’at members who recovered from the illness to donate convalescent plasma to hospitals, as a show of community support and unity (Ahmed 2020); nevertheless, one of my interlocutors repeated a story to me about how the Tablighi Jama’at had dictated that their donated plasma be used only for Muslim patients—“Yet the government appeases them,” she said. “Ask yourself—what is the religion of those who have given us COVID-19? You’re lying to yourself if you say you don’t know.” These feelings did not exist merely on the level of the rank-and-file. State actors also made claims about the relationship between Muslims and COVID-19, particularly in Rajasthan, where the Indian right wing has historically enjoyed high levels of support. The president of the Rajasthan state BJP, Satish Poonia, accused Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot of “participating in politics of appeasement” in his handling of the Ramganj hotspot and argued that the Border Security Force should be deployed to the neighborhood (Press Trust of India 2020). Poonia’s particular concern was that, in early April of 2020, Gehlot had ended the practice of publishing the names and home districts of Tablighi Jama’at members; furthermore, Gehlot would not follow in the footsteps of the Congress government in Punjab by registering preliminary cases against Tablighi workers (Pranvendra 2020). It is particularly striking that Poonia made reference to the Border Security Force, which has no authority in Rajasthan over contact tracing or public health schemes, as the legitimate authority in Ramganj. As the body responsible for guarding the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, the BSF’s jurisdiction is to guard national borders and to defend against invaders; yet Tablighi workers who were foreign were legally permitted to be in the country, and Indian Tablighi workers had full citizens’ rights. This again invokes the image of Muslims as viral bodies, foreign to the body of the nation.

15Indian-born Muslims were no less likely to be the target of these rumors than foreign-born Muslims. Muslims on the front lines of caring for COVID-19 patients were also assumed to be secretly infecting their patients and coworkers. Stories of Muslim doctors who worked on the front lines of the disease, of Muslim charity drives to benefit COVID-19 victims, and stories of Muslim migrant workers being harassed were met with similar skepticism and disdain by Hindu nationalist Internet users, who continued to insist that these frontline workers must be secretly conspiring with anti-Hindu Muslim agents. One meme circulated on Twitter alleged that a Muslim doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences who had tested positive for the virus conspired with his wife and her brother, also doctors, to spread the illness to Hindu commuters and patients by continuing to ride the hospital shuttle bus while symptomatic.9 A social media campaign called #TablighiHeroes, designed to show positive images of religious Muslims, was met with suspicion; one user commented on a picture of a Muslim police officer offering namaz by asking “Did Allah instruct [him] to defy lockdown? Spit, flash nudity?” while another user implied that the police officer would engage in public defecation following his prayers, tying together the Swachh Bharat-derived critique of Muslims and others as physically unclean with the uncleanliness associated with COVID-19.10 These rumors and insults reflected a Hindu nationalist belief that Muslims lack daya (lovingkindness or mercy); close-knit, meat-eating, and sexually profligate, Hindu nationalists argue, Muslims are unwilling to show the kind of mercy that is inherent to the vegetarian nonviolence of Hinduism. Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi (2010) has demonstrated how this belief in a Muslim lack of daya absolves Hindu nationalists of the violence that they claim is anathema to Hinduism; calls for Muslims who spread COVID-19 to be shot on sight or left to die in the street, which were common amongst Hindu nationalist Twitter users, can therefore be seen as an attempted justification of provoked Hindu resistance to Muslim violence.

“Modern Problems Require Sanatana Solutions:” Discourses of National Cleanliness

16Several months into the pandemic, in the fall and winter of 2020, I once again began to see images of parties, weddings, baby showers, and large family gatherings appear on the Instagram feeds of my interlocutors. These gatherings, featuring large groups of unmasked people, were being held in defiance of Rajasthan’s strict state-level lockdown rules. I was surprised that this was happening, given the virulence with which many people I knew had initially followed the lockdown rules. My observation of this came to a head when I was invited to attend the lavish wedding of an interlocutor’s daughter in Kota in November of 2020. My own travel restrictions in the US kept me from attending, but pictures of the wedding showed many unmasked guests—far more than the state lockdown rules allowed—in close proximity to one another. Despite the family’s previously-stated concerns over the social distancing practices of Muslims and their anxiety over disease being spread into their neighborhoods from Ramganj Bazaar, there was no sense that the wedding and its associated events, where the attendees were primarily upper-middle-class upper-caste Hindus, could have become a vector for disease transmission.

17In contrast to the belief that Muslims—whether intentionally or unintentionally—spread disease through their social and hygienic practices, this secondary discourse emerged that absolved particularly middle-class, upper-caste Hindus from any role in community transmission of COVID-19. Amidst widely-publicized images of migrant workers being sprayed down with disinfectant in train and bus depots, middle-class Hindus grasped hold of a politics of “Make in India” cleanliness that drew heavily on the kinds of moral values associated with upper-caste hygienic practices. Hindu nationalists were eager to use COVID-19 to promote Ayurveda and other hygienic and medical practices associated with the Hindu nationalist reform movement (Hardiman 2009). Memes and messages circulated around the Hindu nationalist internet about the power of turmeric, yoga, and Ayurvedic medicines to prevent and treat COVID-19; the government’s AYUSH ministry, responsible for traditional medicine policy, released a protocol for strengthening lung capacity through yoga and the preparation of herbal medicines (Ministry of AYUSH 2020). Even Baba Ramdev, the charismatic yogi-turned-businessman whose Patanjali products formed much of the Hindu nationalist key to health, got involved, developing a natural “cure” for COVID-19 known as Coronil, which later had to be demoted to an “immunity booster” after governmental investigation (The Hindu 2020).

18Not only were these practices particularly associated with Hindu religious and health practices, but some rhetoric saw the adoption of these practices as the morally correct option to treat COVID-19 infection. Much of this rhetoric claimed that Ayurvedic preparations and other forms of Indian traditional medicine were being widely taken “in the west;” an interesting rethinking of the historically nationalist preoccupation with the West as a seat of health and scientific advancement (Chatterjee 1988; Chakrabarty 1992). The Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha advised citizens to drink cow urine, claiming that they had never cured disease by taking “English medicine” instead of taking cow-based medicines (Siddiqui 2021). My interlocutors encouraged me to take preparations of turmeric and warm water, eat plenty of garlic, and purify my home by burning camphor in order to ward away the disease, and I received and saw memes circulated on Facebook, on WhatsApp, and in Instagram stories about the ways in which Hindu hygienic practices could be implemented to prevent and treat COVID-19. A widely circulated fake news story that appeared on WhatsApp claimed that a “student from Pondicherry University” had developed a guaranteed cure-all kadha (decoction) made from black pepper, honey, and ginger. It was “for the very first time accepted by WHO,” the story claimed, and “entire world is starting to accept this remedy.” In a sardonic article on this popular forward, the Times of India wrote: “A lot of us have come across fake messages on family groups and received random WhatsApp messages too. Even though a lot of them have been quashed, there’s a new one that’s going around recently about a student finding a COVID-cure. That too with humble Indian spices!” Still, the idea that the Hindu nation and its “humble spices” provided a heretofore unknown cure for a global disease proved extremely powerful for many users, and the meme continued to spread through WhatsApp groups and forwards.

Figure 2

Figure 2

A copy of a WhatsApp forward circulating in the spring and summer of 2020, claiming that an Indian student had invented a homeopathic cure for COVID-19 from Ayurvedic medicines.

19Indeed, many memes encouraged the global community to take up “Hindu” practices to prevent the spread of disease, such as cremation of the dead, the offering of pranam rather than a handshake, and a vegetarian diet. A particular meme that encouraged these practices adapted a popular English-language meme of the American comedian Dave Chappelle uttering the phrase “Modern problems require modern solutions,” taken from a skit from his self-titled comedy show in which he encourages the use of fraudulent Canadian documents by Americans to receive affordable healthcare. When it appeared on the Facebook page of a Hindu nationalist activist I knew in Jaipur, Chappelle’s utterance, in reference to the aforementioned protective practices, had been altered to say “Modern problems require Sanatana solutions,” referring to the name Sanatana dharma (“eternal order”) often used by Hindu nationalists as an alternative name for Hinduism. The term has its roots in the reform movements of the colonial struggle, and became a term for Hinduism closely associated with nationalist movements. The Organiser, the English-language magazine of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), writes approvingly of the term citing Sri Aurobindo: “It is the Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism … this Hindu nation was born with the Sanatan Dharma, with it, moves and with it, it grows” (Pal 2022).

Figure 3

Figure 3

A meme circulated on Facebook in March 2020, advocating for worldwide adoption of Hindu hygienic and dietary practices

20As a result of the assumption that only Muslims were capable of carrying illness, Muslims who were ill suffered from unequal health outcomes. In some cases, this involved flat denial of medical care to Muslim patients, regardless of their complaint or whether they engaged in risk practices for COVID-19; this denial could be particularly deadly. As Joe Wallen (2020) has documented, some hospitals instituted policies that assumed that COVID-19 was solely an illness of Muslims, sometimes banning Muslim patients from hospitals or requiring a negative test before admittancexxx. In the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, both private and government hospitals refused entry to ill Muslim patients, even those who did not display symptoms of COVID-19; in Uttar Pradesh, the owner of a Meerut-based private hospital displayed a sign asking Muslims patients to enter the hospital with a companion, and also required the patient and companion to have both returned a negative COVID-19 test. Such restrictions were not placed on Hindu patients, regardless of actual adherence to COVID-19 public health protocols. In two cases, this practice led to the death of newborn infants—a chilling echo of eugenic practices, particularly amongst ongoing calls by social media users to have Muslims who were ill with COVID-19 shot on sight, forcibly deported, or burned alongside their relatives and neighbors in virus-impacted bastis.

21As in the case of the migrant workers who were violently displaced from their homes at the beginning of the pandemic, and who were kettled and sprayed with disinfectant in mass “cleansing” events (BBC Staff 2020), the state of Muslim citizenship in India in the wake of the pandemic is in crisis. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a profound scholar of the thinness of citizenship in contemporary life, wrote at the beginning of the pandemic, in a critique of the Italian response to COVID-19, that “it is almost as if with terrorism exhausted as a cause for exceptional measures … an epidemic offered the ideal pretext for scaling them up beyond any imagination” (Agamben 2020). While Agamben’s concern may have been overblown in the Italian case, the limitation to the ability of Muslim Indians, the poor, and migrant workers to occupy the category of the fully rights-bearing citizen reflects an existent discourse around which kinds of bodies, with all of their attendant fleshy practices and behaviors, are worthy of recognition beyond the biological reality of living, and which are merely relegated to viral “bare life” (Agamben 1998). Even during the pandemic’s deadly Indian second wave in April and May 2021, when upper castes and the middle class were not spared the deadly terror of COVID-19 and the government’s lackluster response, exemplified what Nikhil Pandhi, after Mbembe, has called “India’s viral necropolitics”—the dead bodies of upper-caste, middle-class COVID victims became the enduring image of the second wave, unable to be attended to with the dignity of all rights-bearing citizens, with the great mass of marginalized low-caste workers, exposed again and again to virulent disease, largely invisible (Pandhi 2021). The nature of bare life is in its certain rejection by society and its concurrent regulation by the state; all ill bodies may be bare life to some degree, but Muslims and the poor, through the assumption of illness regardless of actual health status, exist in a perpetual state of biological danger. The rhetoric of contagion, infection, sneakiness, and intentionality exercised by Hindu nationalists in their description of the role of minorities and the poor in the midst of the pandemic further reduces Muslims and the poor to the level of mere “viral” bodies, defined by their constantly reproducibility and the constant upkeep needed to mitigate their effects upon the healthy host. Such imaginings of Muslims and their role in the pandemic in turn creates a particularly vicious space for violence, both rhetorical violence (in the case of online harassment of Muslim users, threats and calls for violence etc.) and the enactment of physical violence, including actual killing, on the bodies of the marginal.

Conclusion

22In this paper, I have given some insights into how the COVID-19 crisis is being discussed by the rank-and-file of mass Hindu nationalist movement in India—those online users who form the broad social consensus for the agenda of the Modi government and for the systematic state response to COVID-19. What is it that these people want in the state’s COVID-19 policy, and how do they process the experience of the pandemic at the level of everyday online interactions? The Hindu nationalist response to COVID-19, as expressed on social media by users who make use of the viral, hypercirculatory nature of applications like WhatsApp and Twitter to share political disinformation and create memes, folds anxiety over the spread of zoonotic disease into discourses of national health and hygiene and the threat of the Muslim “other” to the health of the Hindu national “body.” Users utilize the threat of the pandemic to call for violence against Muslims and to systematically portray Muslims as utterly foreign “others,” whose viral bodies are not part of the healthy Indian nation but are in themselves always potential vectors of disease.

23Out of this demonization of the “viral” Muslim body, new kinds of violences have emerged, ranging from the criminalization of Muslim sociality and urban organization through the selective restraint of Muslim social life to denial of Muslim charity and care in the midst of the pandemic to neo-eugenic forms of medical discrimination in the systematic denial of just care to Muslim Indians suffering from the ill effects of COVID-19. Equally present in the Hindu nationalist response to COVID-19 is a form of political imaginary that seeks to assign blame for the spread of COVID-19 onto bodies that have already been long associated with uncleanliness and disease, primarily the Dalit and rural poor, and that displaces blame for community transmission to Muslims and the poor, as demonstrated both by the ghettoization of Muslim-majority urban areas and by the state’s treatment of migrant laborers, exemplified in the mass disinfection events that turned laborers and poor others into literal bare life, simply biological units who threatened the citizen’s continent body (Agamben 1998). COVID-19 has laid bare the continuing foundation of the Hindu nationalist political imaginary, which sees Muslims and other unruly bodies not as rights-bearing citizens, but as invasive viral forces, who must be rooted out.

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Notes

1 @BDUTT Twitter account, accessed 17 April 2020, https://twitter.com/bdutt/status/1251109381900390400?lang=en

2 @jaipurdiariez Instagram page, accessed 11 April 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B-98c_wlMsH/

3 See, for example, the rash of anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim lynchings and beatings that occurred in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and other states in North India as a result of Swachh Bharat vigilantism over open defecation and assumed lack of hygiene.

4 The mass celebration of Ram Navami at the newly-designated temple land in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, which was permitted to take place by the Uttar Pradesh government, was imagined by some as a direct rebuke to Islam: Mahant Paramhans, an Ayodhya-based ritual specialist, told The Hindu that the observance of the annual celebration was particularly important in 2020, as “for the first time Lord Rama is free” (Pandey 2020).

5 Ramganj Bazaar is one of the most segregated neighborhoods in one of the most segregated cities in India (Rathore 2012) and is closely tied to the history of communal violence in Jaipur. It saw some of the worst of the Mandal Commission and Babri Masjid riots in the 1980s and 1990s, and the area has been comparatively neglected by the municipal government, especially in contrast to some of the nearby parts of the Walled City that are popular with tourists.

6 For an example of usage, see this tweet by journalist Smita Prakash: https://twitter.com/smitaprakash/status/1248671198268907520 (accessed May 1, 2020).

7 In general, anti-Chinese rhetoric around COVID-19 closely mimicked anti-Muslim language. Along with the standard rumors around the idea that COVID-19 had been engineered by the Chinese in an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, Chinese dietary and hygienic practices were also blamed. An image meme circulated in the summer of 2020 depicted Xi Jinping as the Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor, telling viewers the “recipe” for COVID-19: jungli (savage) eating habits, bats (referencing the “bat soup” that was presumed to be the transmission method of the virus from bats to humans) and “a Communist coverup.” Anti-Chinese rhetoric ramped up during the second wave of COVID-19 in April/May 2021, when the “lab leak” hypothesis circulated globally; again, rhetoric largely focused on the idea that the Chinese had deliberately introduced COVID-19 in order to destabilize democratic powerhouses like India and the United States.

8 Sexuality was not missing from this kind of dialogue around COVID-19; in Ghaziabad, six quarantined members of the Tablighi were booked under an FIR for being dressed indecently and “misbehaving” with ward nurses. Twitter users claimed that these six men also spat at doctors and licked banknotes to spread COVID-19 to Hindu patients; another user wrote, referring to the mosque where the Nizamuddin West cluster originated: “They are showing to the world what they have learned from the Markaz. They should be shot on sight.” Others gleefully fantasized about Yogi Adityanath, the fanatic nationalist Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, “dealing with them in his own way” by shooting or poisoning them.

9 Twitter account of @tintininnoida, https://twitter.com/TintininNoida/status/1248475672726495235, accessed December 6, 2020.

10 Twitter account of @jaz_baatein, https://twitter.com/Jaz_baatein/status/1254614270878183424, accessed May 1, 2020.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption A cartoon circulated on Twitter in April 2020 of two Muslim suicide bombers, one with explosives, the other with coronaviruses. The first image is captioned “tab” (then) and the second captioned “ab” (now).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/8292/img-1.png
File image/png, 585k
Title Figure 2
Caption A copy of a WhatsApp forward circulating in the spring and summer of 2020, claiming that an Indian student had invented a homeopathic cure for COVID-19 from Ayurvedic medicines.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/8292/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 36k
Title Figure 3
Caption A meme circulated on Facebook in March 2020, advocating for worldwide adoption of Hindu hygienic and dietary practices
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/8292/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 93k
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References

Electronic reference

Rachel A. Rothenberg, “Any creature that comes out of there, shoot it”: Hindu Nationalism, Viral Bodies, and the Political Imaginaries of COVID-19South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 29 | 2022, Online since 27 October 2022, connection on 19 April 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/8292; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/samaj.8292

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About the author

Rachel A. Rothenberg

University of Washington, Seattle, USA

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Copyright

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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