On June 11, the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh reopened after lockdown. Naturally, devotees flocked to the revered shrine. In July alone, 2.38 lakh pilgrims visited the temple. Despite the precautions taken by the authorities, the temple became a Covid-19 hotspot.
In a little over two months, as many as 743 shrine employees, including priests, have tested positive for coronavirus. Three have died of the disease. It is unknown how many visitors have contracted Covid-19.
Curiously, even as Covid-19 cases keep on shooting up, the temple remains open. After the death of a former head priest on July 17, an advisor of the trust and others urged the temple’s authorities to shut for some time. However, the temple continued to allow devotees in. Critics blamed the temple for risking lives so it could keep earning revenue.
It is difficult to avoid comparing Tirupati to another religious site that emerged as a hotspot early on in the pandemic: the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Delhi.
At the end of March, much of the media ran a vicious campaign against the Jamaat, blaming it for spreading the disease intentionally. This, even though the public threat perception against Covid-19 was so low at the time of the congregation earlier that month that India’s highest democratic body, Parliament, was itself in session. To make matters worse, a skewed picture of the impact of the Jamat congregation was presented to the public. The government frequently released Jamaat-specific numbers, which seemed to dominate the total number of cases because overall testing in India was low.
As soon as the Delhi hotspot was detected, the Jamaat premises was sealed and a manhunt was launched to detect anyone who had visited the location. Some Jamaat members were even jailed.
None of these measures are being followed for Tirupati. The temple has not been sealed and there has been no attempt to trace anyone who could have visited the shrine.
In the case of the Jamaat, the media were outraged that a congregation had been organised early in March, even though the number of coronavirus cases in India was small and the official threat perception was low. Now, when India is generating the highest number of cases in the world every day, there is little public ire about the temple’s operations.
Communalising the pandemic
The difference between Tabligh and Tirupati points to an uncomfortable truth: Covid-19 has been used in India to advance a rather virulent form of majoritarian politics.
This is, in fact, not the only example of this. On March 25, even as all religious functions were banned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, simply ignored the rules and attended a ceremony in Ayodhya related to the proposed Ram temple.
At a time when people fear for their lives, to use the disease as a pretext to attack India’s Muslim minority is immoral. Besides, the cynical use of Covid-19 as a communal tool weakens India’s fight against the pandemic. If Indians believe that the authorities are not acting in good faith, their incentive to follow the rules will be reduced.
For the past five days, India has had more new Covid-19 cases than any other country in the world. The United States and Brazil, countries with more cases than India, have seen an inflection point, with new cases falling. But India continues to rise exponentially.
India must realise that the time for using Covid-19 as an excuse for petty majoritarian politics is past. The focus should be squarely on the pandemic.