“This is not a negligence. It’s a serious criminal act.”
“Spreading Covid-19 is also like terrorism, and all those who are spreading the virus are traitors.”
“The government should not sit quiet. It should gun down a few to ensure they follow lockdown norms.”
Those are just a few of the comments by ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party members from 2020, referring to a gathering by the Tablighi Jamaat group in Delhi that turned out to be an early Covid-19 hotspot. Though the congregation began before the novel coronavirus had been declared a health emergency in the country, some believe that the actions of the Jamaat were condemnable. Court cases filed against members have led to numerous acquittals.
What is much more evident is how the incident and the BJP’s rhetoric fueled hate speech and bigotry against Muslims in the early stages of the pandemic. Muslims were blamed for deliberately spreading the virus across India by waging what Hindutva adherents claimed was a “corona jihad”.
For months, headlines, incendiary statements and viral videos sought to convey the idea that the spread of the virus in the country was the responsibility of a single community.
Imagine if the Tablighi Jamaat gathering had been happening right now, with India in the grip of a brutal second wave of Covid-19 and daily case counts hitting numbers far higher than the worst days of 2020. Imagine the response of the BJP and India’s pro-government news channels if a police person had said something like this:
“We are continuously appealing to people to follow Covid appropriate behaviour. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible to issue challans today. It is very difficult to ensure social distancing... A stampede-like situation may arise if we would try to enforce social distancing at ghats so we are unable to enforce social distancing here.”
It is not hard to imagine the anger and demands for accountability that might have been unleashed by a comment like that, from a senior police officer.
So what explains the relative silence of the government and the BJP when the same comment comes from the Inspector General of the Kumbh Mela currently taking place in Uttarakhand?
The point is, of course, not to encourage bigotry or hatred directed towards the millions of people who have congregated on the banks of the Ganga for the Kumbh, but to point out the blatant double standards – and the utter lack of accountability from the authorities.
In the Tablighi Jamaat incident, it was clear that the government had failed to dissipate a gathering that eventually became a hotpsot and then proceeded to make things worse by stigmatising the disease and making Indians afraid about getting tested.
In the case of the Kumbh, the dangers are much more obvious.
As new variants are ripping through states around the country, with patients filling up hospitals and crematoriums struggling to handle the numbers of dead, the Uttarakhand government did not just fail to take action limiting numbers at the Hindu festival – it actively encouraged people to come and told them not to worry about Covid-19 restrictions.
This was what Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said on March 20:
“I invite all devotees across the world to come to Haridwar and take a holy dip in the Ganga during Mahakumbh. Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.”
While claiming that all Central guidelines would be followed and that only those with a negative RT-PCR would be allowed to come, Rawat repeatedly said there would be no “rok-tok” or obstacles. “There is no strictness,” he said. “But Covid guidelines should be followed… It’s open for everyone.”
He is right. In the case of the Tablighi Jamaat, little was known about the virus when the gathering was organised, the congregration began before the government had announced a lockdown or public restrictions – and authorities had not announced that those attending had little need to worry about health guidelines.
With the Kumbh, Uttarakhand’s chief minister decided to tell pilgrims to show up without worrying about the pandemic – and now, naturally, authorities are saying that it is impossible to impose Covid-19 guidelines due to the size of the crowds.
In 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi actively chose to call off Holi gatherings, thereby sending a message to citizens around the country that they ought to do the same.
What stopped Modi, Rawat and other BJP leaders from taking the same tack with the much larger Kumbh, which could have been organised for the traditional akharas and sadhus without encouraging ordinary pilgrims from around India to attend? Did the party decide that religious, economic and political considerations (elections take place in the state next year) should be placed ahead of a basic need to limit the spead of the coronavirus? And will there be any accountability for such decisions?