November 29, 2021

Colonialism, Nationalism, and the COVID-19 Crisis in India (Alyssa Putzer)

Colonization and the effects of colonization continue today. And whether colonizing countries are physically still occupying their colony or emancipation/independence has occurred, the consequences of colonization remain littered about the colonized country like plastic cups after a college fraternity party.

One place where we can see the effects of colonization continuing to wreak havoc, despite the fact that the country has been independent since 1947, is India. Having been under British rule for about one hundred years, India struggled to maintain their own cultural identity as a result of Western rule, cultural appropriation, and a “divide and rule” strategy, as theorized by Richard Morrock in “Heritage of Strife: The Effects of Colonialist ‘Divide and Rule’ Strategy upon the Colonized Peoples” which he defines as “the conscious effort of an imperialist power to create and/or turn to its own advantage the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, tribal, or religious differences within the population of a subjugated colony” (129). These strategies, paired with Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh’s conceptualization of the colonial matrix of power (CMP), left India in a place of vulnerability and political corruption following their independence as the CMP, previously maintained by the British, was transferred to today’s right-wing Hindu nationalist groups that continue to uphold British colonial tenets of purification, homogeneity, and ethno-religious cleansing.

Today, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is raging in India. With nearly 30 million cases and 350,000 deaths as of June 6, 2021, India experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world in a massive second wave that continues to overwhelm hospitals, clinics, crematoriums, and vaccine distribution. The effects left over from British colonization and passed on to right-wing Hindu nationalists left the door wide open for a crisis of this scale in the country as powerful nationalists continue to maintain colonial-era tenets, beliefs, control, and imposition to uphold colonial antecedents. In this paper, I argue that colonization and the transition of the colonial matrix of power from the West to right-wing Hindu nationalist groups has propagated and exacerbated the current COVID-19 crisis because the problems that occurred as a result of colonialism are being further propped up by a false narrative of right-wing nationalism.

For nearly a century the Indians lived under the thumb of the British. India lost its self-identity, with no decision-making power in politics, culture, or religion. Prior to colonialism, Hinduism was not a cohesive, homogeneous religion. It was diverse, practiced differently based on ethnic group or location, and seen as a lifestyle rather than a major world religion. However, modern Hinduism came to exist under British rule when orientalists categorized and generalized Hinduism, framing it as an oriental religion in competition with “civilized” Christianity. This categorization epitomizes colonialism, pointing to a colonizing narrative that Mignolo highlights in On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, stating that “To say that non-Western civilizations have different ontologies means to project Western categories to non-Western thinking. Most of culture and civilizations on the planet see relations while in the West we are taught to see entities, things” (147-8).

This mode of categorizing forces a Western method of thinking, creating a sense of “othering” based on Western notions of significance and difference in what is seen as “entities” rather than relationships. Walsh states in On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis that the practice of naming, according to Puerto Rican scholar Iris Zavala, “sustains that the heuristic code of naming is a form of political cartography or mapmaking that fixes the cultural image, subordinates differences, and radically destroys identities. The European baptizing of the continent drastically modified the heretofore history, plurality, and social, cultural, economic, spiritual, territorial, and existential foundation of these lands, making it – by naming it – a singular unit seen and defined from the European gaze” (22). Asserting a name to something gives the one doing the naming power and ownership. For the British to identify Hinduism in a modern context, name it, provide it with parameters, and position it in opposition to colonial Christianity reinforced the British CMP.

The British Raj also utilized Morrock’s “divide and rule” strategy, a typical strategy of colonial powers, which consists of four tactics: “1) the creation of differences within the conquered population; 2) the augmentation of existing differences; 3) the channeling or exploitation of these differences for the benefit of the colonial power; and 4) the politicization of these differences so that they carry over into the post-colonial period” (130). Creating, augmenting, exploiting, and politicizing differences has been another way that colonial powers have instigated control, and the British executed it well. During British rule, the majority of the troops employed to maintain British control “were local recruits, preferably from northern India, and they generally had long-standing martial traditions… This policy of selective recruitment dated from 1893, and the main purpose was to exclude groups which had been disloyal during the so-called Sepoy Mutiny of 1857” (143).

In this same vein the British instigated the Hindu-Muslim rivalry, pitting them against each other as another way of highlighting their differences in order to “divide and rule.” According to Morrock the Muslims, which comprised about 28 percent of India’s population prior to the Partition of India which divided India and Pakistan, “were overrepresented at both the top and the bottom of the Indian social pyramid” (145). The 1909 Morley-Minto Reforms in India led to the British allowing elections “for provincial legislative bodies in the 11 directly-ruled provinces of India” (=145).

These elections, however, were not held in any of the almost-600 states that were ruled indirectly. “Furthermore, even after the franchise was extended in 1935, no more than a tenth of the adult population was allowed to vote. The chief consequence of these elections was to drive a wedge between the Hindus and Moslems by the use of separate electoral rolls for each religious group” (145-6). At the time, every elected official in India was only responsible for constituents who were part of their specific religious group. This meant that every issue became a political one.

This led to Muslim candidates running and campaigning as Muslims, as opposed to Indians in order to appeal to their specific religious group. The Muslim League did exceptionally well amongst Muslim voters in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and bagging nearly even available Muslim seat in the elections leading up to independence. As independence approached, however, Muslims became increasingly uncomfortable realizing that independence would reduce their numbers, making them a further minority and forcing them to compete for Hindu votes. The Partition of India led to the creation of the Islamic state of Pakistan, leading to Muslims numbering just over one-tenth of the population of India, affecting their success in state and national elections as only Muslim-majority areas were able to become part of Pakistan, while Muslim-minority areas in Hindu provinces had to remain in India.

With a sufficient Hindu majority, religious violence continued and continues today, much of which can be attributed to residual effects of the colonial era which, according to Morrock, “has all but passed into history… the distortions that were created in the social fabric of the ‘Third World’ nations – underdevelopment, illiteracy, and the ethnic antagonisms which were the result of ‘divide and rule’ – will remain at least until these nations have finally broken free of the capitalist system altogether” (151). In short, perpetuating this religious divide not only enhanced the power and control that the British had over India during colonization, but laid the groundwork for the violence to continue even after independence.

The effects of colonization in India have carried over to today, despite the fact that the British have been out of India for nearly 75 years. The divisiveness and identity stripping that those colonizers perpetuated has been taken up now by right-wing Hindu nationalists, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India. This party has played a tremendous role in religious polarization in the country. The BJP was a catalyst for Hindu nationalism, which has taken measures to purify India, believing that the Indian constitution needs to be replaced with a Hindu constitution and enforcing strict, traditional, untainted Hinduism throughout India. Ashutosh Varshney describes the goal of Hindu nationalism as follows:

Hindu nationalism thus has two simultaneous impulses: building a united India as well as ‘Hinduizing’ the polity and the nation. Muslims and other groups are not excluded from the definition of India, but inclusion is premised upon assimilation, on acceptance of the political and cultural centrality of Hinduism. If assimilation is not acceptable to the minorities, Hindu nationalism becomes exclusionary, both in principle and practice. (232).  

To Hindu nationalists religions like Sikhism and Islam fall under Hinduism and are able, if the practitioner is willing, to assimilate into pure Hindu Indian culture and politics. Abrahamic religions, however, like Christianity and Judaism, do not fall under this umbrella and are seen as threats to nationalistic efforts. In fact, for many Hindu nationalists, “… the two terms – India and Hindu – are synonymous” (241). Politics, culture, and religion blend together and Hinduism gains new meaning with a new label that, to Hindu nationalists, encompasses what India should be. They believe that it should go back to its roots, establishing a pure Hinduism based on historical research and ancient texts for a fundamentalist, traditionalist, anti-modern society. In looking at how right-wing Hindu nationalists have sprung into action following Indian independence, it would appear that they are engaging in decoloniality, which Mignolo defines as the effort “to delink (to detach) from that overall structure of knowledge in order to engage in an epistemic reconstitution” (2017).

They are not rewriting history, but returning to an age prior to Western colonialism, creating a seeming Hindu homeland, delinking from the previous CMP and “shifting away (delinking) from Western epistemology” (108). However, this concept of “delinking” does not constitute a full-scale separation from something. In fact, it “presupposes relinking to something else” (120), which is exactly what happened following Indian independence. The delinking transferred the CMP from the British colonizers to right-wing Hindu nationalists whose view of decoloniality is a false reality that is not decoloniality at all; it is a response by the right-wing to remove modernity while also keeping the CMP in place and veiling it under the guise of decolonization/decoloniality, continuing to perpetuate religious violence, the strategy of “divide and rule,” and inequities within society in the form of the caste system.

This is still what Steven Newcomb would term as an “up-down image-schema” in his book Pagans in the Promised Land: The Roots of Domination in U.S. Federal Indian Law. While Newcomb is attributing this image-schema to the U.S. over American Indians, I believe it is synonymous with the relationship between the British and the Indians and, subsequently, right-wing Hindu nationalists and liberal Hindu reformers, Muslims, and secular Hindus. The up-down and similar force-barrier image-schemas “partly structure the commonplace argument that the United States has an ultimate authority ‘over’ Indian nations as a result of the force of conquest. This conception of the United States having plenary authority over American Indian nations on the basis of conquest is also related to the metaphors having control or having force is up and being subject to control is down” (Newcomb 8). The British used labels, “divide and rule,” and force to conquer and control the Indians prior to independence, that power matrix is now in the hands of right-wing nationalists.

Today, the CMP has propagated and exacerbated crises because the problems that occurred as a result of colonialism are being further propped up by a false narrative told by right-wing Hindu nationalists. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on in India. Generally speaking, COVID-19 has illuminated global disproportions according to the book COVID-19 in the Global South: Impacts and Responses by Pádraig Carmody, Gerard McCann, Clodagh Colleran, and Ciara O’Halloran. The way that we, as a global society, have seen various government groups attempt to control and mitigate the effects of the pandemic “have served to highlight persistent systemic fault-lines in a global socioeconomic system where inequality has, yet again, come sharply into focus” (161).

The inequities alive and well in India as a result of British colonialism and the transfer of the CMP to right-wing Hindu nationalist groups have been exposed even further throughout the COVID-19 crisis, especially the recent second surge. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has implemented many Hindu nationalist policies, like revoking Article 370 in Kashmir, which has retracted the autonomy they were previously granted. Additionally, Modi passed the Citizenship Amendment Act and enforced citizenship tests in the state of Assam, all taking place as recently as 2019.

The Citizenship Amendment Act was an effort made to ease the path to Indian citizenship for religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who identified as Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian. However, the Citizenship Amendment Act intentionally and blatantly left out Muslims from those countries. That said, Modi and rising nationalism has continued to spread hate, inequality, a fight for international influence, and discrimination, resulting in vaccine shortages and uneven distribution of resources, including tests and other medical supplies. On top of this, the plight of Hindu nationalists for a pure, Hindu India resulted in the continuation of the Kumbh mela festival in Haridwar.

This year, the annual festival took place at the beginning of April when COVID-19 was surging. Despite the pandemic, millions of Hindus gathered to participate, most unmasked and unvaccinated. Modi and other nationalist government figures refused to cancel the festival which quickly became a super-spreader event. BBC News reported that 9.1 million Hindu pilgrims attended the festival, and 2,642 devotees tested positive, though many participants did not get tested and many identify as sannyasis and reside in remote villages with little knowledge of the pandemic or access to resources, like tests. However, strong nationalist and lingering colonial influence contributed to the continuation of Kumbh mela. In fact, the Kumbh mela was a hotbed for the spread of cholera in 1865, which was allowed to take place by colonial nationalists despite the risk of infection.

Today, Kumbh mela and an influx of Hindu nationalism was the catalyst for the COVID-19 surge in India. Because Hindu nationalism emphasizes a return to Hindu spiritual and cultural traditions, Modi and other Hindu nationalists have opposed modernism and Westernization. This may hold some of the characteristics of Mignolo’s decoloniality/decolonization in that it rejects colonialism and the CMP that was embodied by the British colonists, but it is, in fact, just a transfer of that CMP to right-wing Hindu nationalists who have upheld many of the features of British colonialism, defined by The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people [by] another”.

The British notion was one of modernity and bringing that Western modernization to a backward, oriental world that needed their guidance, ruling, and control in order to move forward. Right-wing nationalists, while rejecting Western modernity because the liberal, progressive westernization taints their purification efforts, appear to be snubbing colonial concepts but are actually upholding them by dominating, subjugating, dividing, and suppressing Indian citizens, further exacerbating the wealth, economic, and social disparities that have existed since British colonialism.

The continuation of these colonial views and the false narrative of right-wing nationalism that gives the illusion of decolonization intensified the COVID-19 crisis through Morrock’s “divide and rule” strategy that creates, intensifies, or augments differences and continues to prevent large-scale recovery and fair distribution of resources in India. India’s proverbial front yard continues to be littered with the aftereffects of British colonialism. But rather than throwing away the remnants, right-wing Hindu nationalists picked up the trash and continued to disparage the already-disadvantaged and widen a gap that contributed to the burgeoning COVID-19 crisis.

Alyssa Putzer is a graduate student at the University of Denver and Marketing Editor for The New Polis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *