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WhatApp groups: Ignore Covid Crisis. Spread Hate

By MOHAMMAD SAJJAD
June 21, 2021 15:25 IST
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The manner in which a large proportion of common people have mortgaged their rationality and questioning spirit to let hatred, prejudice and bigotry take over their minds, is a cause of worry, observes Mohammad Sajjad.

Caution: Graphic content. Viewer discretion advised.

IMAGE: A man performs the last rites of his mother who died of coronavirus at the Ghaziabad cremation ground, April 19, 2021. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTI Photo
 

Despite multiple reports of a large number of deaths, one can gradually see that there are serious efforts being made towards absolving the regime of its culpability.

One can easily make this out from looking at various WhatsApp groups, comprising mainly semi-literate simpletons from rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, though these groups have essential social and class diversities in varying proportions.

A series of horrid tales reported mainly by the Dainik Bhaskar, a Hindi daily newspaper with wide reach, and many Youtubers video-reporting, did shake up people, although only for a while.

But the regime was shaken even more intensely, and quickly swung into action to do damage-control, image-makeover, media-management, narrative-change and whatnot.

Some of the WhatsApp groups seemed to have become more active in this exercise, much before RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's 'positivity unlimited' speech. Dainik Jagran's cover-up exercise followed (external link) soon.

This could well be a reason why the contents circulating in such WhatsApp groups have the least Covid-related discussions!

This self-chosen amnesia about the deaths is becoming a trend of sorts, particularly in recent weeks, that is, after the expose about the dead bodies buried in sand dunes along the river banks of UP, Bihar and elsewhere.

A Covid related WhatsApp message underlines an utter falsehood that no Indian Muslim has donated to the coronavirus-related relief fund.

The world's third biggest donor, Azim Premji, remains mischievously unacknowledged.

The post hesitates to call it PM-CARES fund, which is kept opaque, out of government audit and out of the RTI Act's ambit too.

For a while there were interventions to dismiss the grim news reports as an international conspiracy to give a bad name to Bharat Mata.

To this effect, one video clip of the anchor of a pro-regime, private Hindi television news channel, owned by a BJP parliamentarian, was shared.

Video clips kept circulating on these WhatsApp groups about the Congress 'toolkit' to destabilise and discredit the regime.

This continued till the days after the expose that the so-called toolkit was in fact the BJP's own creation.

There were a few posts about death, floating dead bodies, crises of oxygen and hospital beds, ambulance, of even common medicines such as paracetamol, and also about the absence of RSS pracharaks and BJP workers from helping out the suffering people.

There were also queries as to why did the prime minister and home minister go into hibernation whereas just days ago they were addressing public rallies in West Bengal, at times without wearing a mask.

There were queries as to why did the PM announce on international forum that India had already triumphed over Covid.

With such queries, there appeared to be some burden of guilt on the more vocal pro-RSS members of some of these WhatsApp groups -- but for not more than a week.

Suddenly, the discourse was sought to be changed.

The UP chief minister became more interested in knowing why there were more fatalities among the serving and retired teaching and non-teaching staff at ,the Aligarh Muslim University in western Uttar Pradesh.

He promptly visited the campus, of course without bothering to find out if there was care deficit, resource constraints, and any other lapse at AMU's Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital that led to these fatalities.

This was understandably an attempt to shift the media attention from the dead bodies floating on the rivers and buried in the sand dunes in eastern Uttar Pradesh, mostly Banaras and Allahabad, closer to the chief minister's home turf and the prime minister's constituency.

This also helped feed the narrative that there was vaccine hesitancy among Muslims, so much so that even their most educated segments (AMU doctors, nurses, other health workers) had not taken the vaccine.

One could get a whiff of this diversionary politics through the contents (and the timing) shared on these rural WhatsApp groups.

Sample this summary of a Hindi post:

'Shabash Modi Ji! You saved a property of Rs one lakh crores through the Enemy Properties Act and didn't let it go to Pakistan; this property belonged to the Raja of Mahmudabad.

IMAGE: People cremate their relatives who died of COVID-19 in Varanasi, April 14, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

Many unsuspecting and saffronised members on these WhatsApp groups of rural north Bihar didn't know anything about the issue.

Any correction to this post became unacceptable. Now aggression became visible.

Questions of treason, terrorism, etc, came to be raised in such a manner that anybody bearing a Muslim name couldn't dare intervening in such posts.

In the same message Sonia Gandhi was referred to as 'Italy Ki Madam'; and it was said that Nehru favoured Muslims by not bringing in the Uniform Civil Code, and disfavoured Hindus through a series of reformist legislations and that these were not possible till Sardar Patel was alive.

In many such posts, except the BJP stalwarts no name would have the honorific 'Ji', commonly used by north Indians.

Now an obvious query on these WhatsApp groups could have been about the timing of sharing these old issues in the midst of massive infections, run for hospital beds, and large scale deaths.

Another debate could have been regarding a mischievous mix of half truth and falsehood in these po

But the atmosphere in these groups had become such that raising such queries could have resulted in outright hostility.

I then made phone calls to some of the members of these WhatsApp groups from my native village and its neighbourhood.

I preferred talking to my acquaintances and well-wishers who have become RSS sympathisers, mostly in recent times, and some of them since long.

In a tacit understanding, for the sake of avoiding mutual hostilities our conversations usually avoid any comment on the incumbent regime.

These conversations informed me about how many people had died in recent weeks in our villages and neighbourhoods.

The detailed cause of some of these deaths, and symptoms manifested by the deceased were also discussed, which were clearly of Covid.

In some cases, a family lost more than one member in quick succession; the local shamshan ghats had begun to see a huge surge in dead bodies being cremated.

However, despite all these grieving discussions, the word 'Covid' was resolutely avoided.

My attempt at asking if at least some of these deaths could be attributed to Covid, was vehemently dismissed, with a patronising remark that only the dense population of urban spaces could be prone and vulnerable to such infections.

We being genuine well-wishers of each other since generations, some of them insisted on me going to my village as AMU had a large number of fatalities.

As I informed them that I was stuck somewhere else and had also got infected, they were kind enough to insist that I must take shelter in my village for better recovery, as they knew well the risk of post-recovery complications.

One could see the contradiction in that these people are considerably aware about Covid, its symptoms, its post-recovery risks, and yet they refuse to blame Covid for the deaths in their own village and neighbourhood, despite the definitive symptoms.

Some of these are graduates and postgraduates, serving and retired government employees who have Facebook accounts also.

I visited their timeline. Since long, a few of them have been posting only anti-Congress remarks, at times in filthy language, and nothing else.

Absolutely nothing on Covid-related unpreparedness and the failure of the regime!

These educated and influential villagers and their semi-literate companions and 'followers' would try to absolve the incumbent regime by claiming that Nehru could make only one AIIMS whereas the current regime has made as many as 11 AIIMS.

Anybody making factual correction to this utter falsehood would be declared deshdrohi (anti-mational) or vaampanthi (leftist).

Someone bearing a Muslim name from those villages cannot dare suggesting any factual corrections even in the WhatsApp groups, not to say anything of the Facebook accounts.

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IMAGE: COVID-19 patients share beds and medical oxygen at the LLR Hospital amid a shortage in supplies due to a surge in coronavirus cases in Kanpur. Photograph: PTI Photo

The series of events such as Bhagwat's 'positivity' speech, PM's oft-tried performance of choking up while speaking on deaths, and news of the meeting between the RSS and BJP on the forthcoming UP elections, preceded by, combined with, or followed by events such as the administration demolishing an old mosque in Barabanki (external link) in violation of a high court order, the slaying of a poor vegetable-selling Muslim boy in Unnao, a young Muslim boy lynched in Mewat, and cow vigilantes injuring a Muslim boy in Moradabad, etc -- all these are clear indicators of the agenda being set by the governing party, in preparation for the forthcoming UP assembly elections.

Some sort of 'Hindu re-conquest' of the island of Lakshadweep, dominated by Muslims, is the new opium for the bigots.

This is, in a way, some sort of compensation or balm for the Indians (read, Hindus) dying of Covid and the wilful misgovernance by the regime.

The regime didn't show its willingness and sincerity to fight Covid.

This is clearly evident from the fact that the prime minister and Union home minister remained silent for long after the West Bengal assembly elections.

Till then there were no consultative meetings while people were gasping with breathlessness and were running around frantically for oxygen and hospital beds.

The home minister did appear at election-related meetings, while missing from the hospitals.

Please note that pushing this agenda has been preceded by the kind of discourse initiated in the village WhatsApp groups this column is talking about.

The stock response for any post blaming the incumbent regime, is: In a brief span of a mere seven years one must not expect much.

Modi must be given much more time to do Vikas; and that if one is really a true and loyal child of Bharat Mata, one must not fall prey to the mischievously anti-Hindu and anti-Bharat campaigns of the Congress, Left, and foreign powers who are jealous of the rise of India as a superpower under the able leadership of Modi.

That all deaths have to be taken either as their 'mukti' or as divine will, whereas all credit for the recovery of the infected and of vaccine must go solely to Modi.

It is also being argued that India has suffered much fewer deaths compared to China, the US and a few other Western countries; that this comparatively contained toll is all due to Modi's able leadership.

IMAGE: Relatives mourn the death of a COVID-19 patient at the Swaroop Rani Nehru Hospital in Prayagraj, May 8, 2021. Photograph: PTI Photo

Now the discourse on these WhatsApp groups is: The dead bodies buried in the sand dunes cannot be of Hindus; after all Hindus are cremated, not buried.

Last year, these WhatsApp groups were proactively and zealously propagating the discourse of Corona Jihad (external link).

They have maintained a conspicuous silence on Kumbh Mela, advanced by a year, which spread (external link) large scale infections and deaths.

Sharing any such news report or opinion pieces on such WhatsApp groups carries a risk.

Another limitation of such contrarian content is: These are mostly in English, and not in vernaculars; those in vernaculars are not in sub-regional idioms.

Nonetheless, this is only a part of the problem.

This is an era of Neo-Hindutva; they have voluntary and paid (now, even at an ignominiously low rate of Rs 2 per tweet) cadres and propagandists and other resources to push their discourse and agenda.

This is termed by the anthropologist Sahana Udupa (2019) as 'Enterprise Hindutva' -- a mediatised form of majoritarianism, which is 'argumentative and capable of working with contradictions', and also with utter falsehoods, I must add.

Nonetheless, Udupa talks only about urban social media, whereas the bigotry-laden infection and apologia (infodemic) for the regime has reached down to the remotest villages through social media.

They only expect the regime to subjugate and show the Muslim their place, nothing else, and that Muslims alone are big impediment in the way of Bharat Mata becoming Vishwa Guru.

The Liberal-Left forces on the other hand don't have enough cadres and financial resources to rebut and make micro-interventions in all such real and virtual spaces.

The manner in which a large proportion of common people have mortgaged their rationality and questioning spirit to let hatred, prejudice, and bigotry take over their minds, is a cause of worry. They don't expect governance and development, health and education from the regime, so much so that even an incorrigible optimist would find it difficult to shed his pessimism.

One may deduce that this regime knows only one thing: Contesting and winning elections through communal cleavage.

That is the challenge today for those who wish to take India out of its pathological bigotry and darkness.

Mohammad Sajjad teaches Modern and Contemporary History at Aligarh Muslim University and is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge 2014/2018 reprint).

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