Markaz to ill-timed Diwali rapture, irrationality rules in times of corona
The cult following of Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not prevent people from congregating and rapturously bursting crackers on the streets on Sunday night, days after the delusional belief that angels protected the faithful in the congregation made Tablighi Jamat markaz a hot spot of the spread of coronavirus in India.
Sunday night was unique at a time when India is battling the coronavirus pandemic and hoping it is contained before it overwhelms our already stressed health infrastructure.
It marked the second moment of “inspiration” – accompanied by a seemingly innocuous command performance – handed down to us by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and transformed into a mass ritual by our conditioned “free will” as a society.
It was a spectacle of obedience to the leader as also a transgression of it by millions of people.
Modi had, on the day of the Janata curfew two weeks back, asked people to clap and clang vessels – an imitation of similar, spontaneous, performances of people in Italy and Spain, coordinated through the social media – as a gesture of solidarity with health workers.
The response of people at 5 pm on that day was a testimony to the immense power of the Prime Minister to make people obey him.
This Sunday brought further proof of this.
In cities across India, people celebrated something like a Diwali at 9 pm because the Prime Minister had in his recent Mann Ki Baat asked them to switch off their lights, and light candles or diyas or shine torches for exactly nine minutes at their doors and in their balconies, as an expression of national solidarity.
The appeal of Modi cut through geographical and cultural diversities on both occasions. Even Chennai, which has no presence of the BJP worth the name, saw stray dogs bark in bewilderment as people came out and burst crackers throughout the city at exactly 9 pm, going on not till 9.09 pm but about 9.25 pm.
How does one make sense of these celebrations in the time of corona?
While attesting the power of the word of the Prime Minister -- who becomes something akin not to a democratic leader but a religious guru or cult figure -- it also registers the limits of it.
And these limits have nothing to do with Modi himself, but are part of the way in which festivals are celebrated in India. If Diwali is about Lakshmi Pooja in north India, the lighting of lamps and bursting of crackers, it goes far beyond just this. It also becomes an occasion for gambling, heavy drinking, and drunk driving. There are accidents and fires, as Lakshmi Pooja is overshadowed by the rapturous excesses.
Similarly, if Holi is about Holika Dahan and playing with colours, it sees accidents as people drink heavily. It sees massive consumption of bhang, a heady intoxicant, and some people doze off for even a day. It also witnesses fights, as the notion of consent collapses and people even smear the faces of unknown people with mud or throw colour balloons at them.
Similarly, two public festivals in 14 days – conjured by Modi as a means to teach people how they should not let themselves be overwhelmed by isolation in these tough times – became occasions for excesses that were against the rule book of social behavior during a coronavirus outbreak.
The vessel clanging performance had seen congregations and processions on the streets, throwing social distancing to the winds. And the contrived Diwali also saw instances of people congregating and bursting crackers on the streets and taking out processions, including one by BJP MLA Raja Singh.
The transgressions show a new challenge that India faces in trying times. The people will in millions follow the time schedule and the form of performance laid down by the Prime Minister but not social distancing. In other words, the spectacles are more in the nature of a cult following than anything that can inspire people to go on and whether the lockdown in the interests of their family, society, and country.
They suggest a society that takes rituals more seriously than reasoned behavior and is adamant about not seeing the threats of the pandemic for what they are.
There are those who mount a strangely post-modernist defence. They see this as people’s agency that a liberal elite accustomed to proving its intellectual superiority cannot countenance. But these flights of interpretation are unknown to the pandemic. And if it spreads further because of these mass indiscretions, the alleged free will of the masses – which seems more like the command performance of esoteric cults – won’t help the country one bit.
The failure of scientific temper
These spectacles also show that India has not just a medical but an acute social challenge to face as it tries to fight the pandemic.
One is the challenge of inculcating a scientific temper even in the educated. You needn’t have a degree in engineering to have a scientific temper. You can have it even with a degree in philosophy and not have it even after securing a rank in the top 100 in JEE Advanced.
Scientific temper is not about fixing a machine or creating an app. Those are skills. Rather, it is about the ability to uncloud your mind and guard it against copious amounts of superstitious drivel floating around on social media. It is about knowing what set of information is reliable and what is unlikely to help.
An engineer glued to astrology to find when the pandemic will leave India is skilled in technology but resistant to science as an organized body of knowledge. Any educated person who believes that Gau Mootr – which has sold in copious amounts in Gujarat – Ayurveda, sound or light can destroy the virus is living in delusion.
It can be combated only by social distancing, aggressive testing and having requisite numbers of isolation centres, hospital, and ICU beds and ventilators.
There is nothing else that will help.
Those at Tablighi Jamat markaz in Delhi who had enough resources to travel the world but not enough reason to know that no angels would protect them from the virus needed scientific temper but unfortunately chose not to cultivate it.
Those who shared messages that vessel clanging sounds, the light of a Diya, or a particular inane performance at an appointed hour for a particular number of minutes would somehow destroy the virus as per numerology sail in the same, sinking, boat.
And such delusion does not even have universalistic pretensions. For many Hindus who violated social distancing and shared misleading messages on social media, the Tablighi Jamat is regressive, foolish, bigoted and dangerous. Yes, it is deserving of severe criticism for its decision to congregate, but not exclusively so. Those who took out mock Diwali processions or clanged vessels in congregations on the streets are the kin of the Jamat in terms of delusion.
And many Muslims, while defending the Jamat, have exclusively attacked Hindu congregations performed in line with the desire of the Prime Minister. Rather, overperformed to make a mockery of social distancing by publicly bursting crackers – and thus “celebrating” – at a time of deaths in India and virtual mourning in the worst affected nations like Italy, Spain or even the United States.
The enthusiasts of the two sets of irrationality are quick to notice where the other erred but turn a blind eye towards their own violations.
India has a tough battle to fight against this health emergency. It has also to rebuild from scratch an economy the pandemic seems set to damage deeply. And it has to stay united in this time of crisis.
But for each, there needs to be a scientific temper, the ability to think and act responsibly and a steadfast resolve to not socially divide a nation that is on the brink of crisis.