Covid-19 pandemic and cultural politics of Hindutva
Two public events stand out in India’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. The first event happened on 22nd March, while the second happened on 5th April i.e. in the space of two weeks. While the purpose of the first event was to ‘show gratitude’ to healthcare workers, that of the second was to ‘express solidarity’ with each other in this fight against the pandemic. However both these events - albeit massively successful - turned out to be completely different from what they were supposed to be. There was an overt element of celebration and jubilation in both of them. Both these events violated the very practice which they were supposed to follow, uphold, and encourage i.e. quarantining and physical distancing; people came out of their houses and mingled with one another to show their solidarity and gratitude.
The entire 5 pm event of 22nd March, which was meant to be a show of solidarity with healthcare workers, was instead turned into a kind of mass exorcism of Coronavirus, as people came out onto the streets beatings drums, blowing conches, banging household utensils, and thrashing dish antennas while shouting ‘Go Corona Go’, a slogan made famous by Union Minister Ramdas Athavale. The 5th April event was turned into a kind of mini-Diwali with people lighting candles and lamps in their houses, blowing conches, taking out processions, and bursting firecrackers!
How should we understand both these events? Can they be explained away in the name of over-enthusiasm, spontaneity, or irrationality of an anxious public which finds a role for itself through these events, or is there a broader logic operating behind both the events separated by two weeks?
Both these events, the appeal of making a sound (22nd March) and lighting lamps/candles (5th April), might seem to be secular and neutral in nature from the outset, but they are actually embedded in the cultural politics of Hindutva. Be it ringing bells or blowing conches or lighting lamps and candles, all these actions perfectly coincide with everyday ritual practices of any practising Hindu family. Moreover, there was a sustained campaign by the social media eco-system of the ruling party which presented the ‘actions’ (making sound and light) of both these events as a way to fight against the pandemic. These actions were propagated and were accepted by a large mass of people as a legitimate religious-scientific method of fighting the pandemic.
Immediately after the Prime Minister made an appeal to show solidarity to healthcare workers by clapping for them, banging utensils, or ringing bells on 22nd March, social media was buzzing with explainers and videos about the capacity of ‘sacred sound’ to kill the virus. Exactly the same thing happened after the PM’s 3rd April appeal when he asked the people of the country to light lamps and candles at 9 pm for 9 minutes on the 5th of April. After the PM’s address to the nation, social media was hit by a tsunami of ‘scientific explainers’ on how lighting candles was going to kill or dampen the virus. From theories couched in scientific terminologies (energy produced by burning candles) to astrological explainers (numerology of date and timings of the event) social media was abuzz with pseudo-scientific theories.
In fact, from the very beginning, the threat and fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was interpreted and projected through the lens of Hindutva’s cultural politics. Ever since COVID-19 started to make news, several Hindutva organizations responded promptly with their novel yet old solution to fight the virus i.e. cow urine. A few of them even organized cow urine parties and broadcasted it live on social media. Next, several videos, memes, and explainers started making the rounds after WHO issued guidelines for prevention and precaution, which included ‘not shaking hands’, claiming the scientific basis and thereby the superiority of the traditional Indian practise of greeting, of washing hands and feet, eating vegetarian food, etc. We also saw effigy burning of the ‘Coronasur’ in Mumbai on the eve of Holi!
These pseudo-scientific theories and explainers doing the rounds on socials media in the context of the pandemic should not be seen in isolation; they are actually a part of a long history of politics of Hindu cultural assertion which began in 19th century colonial India when Indian intellectuals and reformers started to counter the aggressive propaganda of Christian Missionaries and colonial establishment against Hindu society in general. Religious reformers like Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda, among others, interpreted Hinduism in the light of science and reason, two hegemonic concepts since European Enlightenment. Indian intellectuals countered the aggressive Christian propaganda by claiming the scientific origin and nature of Hindu religious beliefs, practices, and philosophy, and thereby claiming its superiority over all other religions and cultures. What we are seeing today is just a continuation of that project which began in the 19th century.
This project under the present regime has only become official with several leaders of the ruling party, including the Prime Minister, making repeated and regular claims about the existence of plastic surgery, aircraft, nuclear weapons, Internet, the theory of gravitation, Pythagoras theorem etc. in ancient India. Science has become a turf on which the Hindutva project claims the superiority of Hinduism vis-à-vis other religions and cultures.
Through the sacred sound theory, the light energy theory, the mass consciousness theory, the astrological theory, cow urine theory and Indian way of greeting and eating habits etc. floating in virtual space in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, the Hindutva eco-system has turned what essentially is a socio-economic-medico fight against the pandemic into a site of cultural politics. The COVID-19 crisis has become an opportunity for claiming scientific nature and thereby the superiority of Hinduism in totality.
The other example of how the fight against COVID-19 has been turned into a site of cultural politics can be grasped from the government’s decision to rebroadcast two popular TV serials from the late ’80s, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata again on National Television, allegedly in a response to ‘public demand’. The role played by these two popular serials in the rise of Hindutva politics has been documented by several academicians and public intellectuals.
Not surprisingly, the event of lightning candles or lamps was projected as Vijay Parv (Victory Festival) against the Coronavirus - a trope directly borrowed from the Ramayana.
(The author is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)