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In India, pandemic turns political opposition group into COVID-19 help line

By providing basic information and monitoring the government’s performance in fighting the pandemic, the Lockdown Helpline is holding the authorities accountable.

(RNS) — When Richard Jacob first joined Mumbai Against CAA, a grassroots organization, it had nothing to do with COVID-19. The group had come together to join the growing opposition to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who stands credibly accused of attempting to turn India into a purely Hindu state.

But after the government announced its March 24 lockdown of the entire country to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob and his partners quickly pivoted to address the immediate needs of their neighbors. Since its launch on March 27, the group’s Lockdown Helpline has answered more than 2,600 calls from the Mumbai metro area, securing rations for residents, connecting people needing care to nongovernmental organizations that can help and addressing acute mental health episodes.

Jacob, 45, was born in Mumbai to an Indian Christian family, but he does not consider himself religious. Rather, he is an ardent believer in modern India’s founding vision of religious diversity and tolerance. An entrepreneur, Jacob had no experience with community organizing. “I’m sure, if not for the anti-CAA protests, I wouldn’t be involved in all of this,” he told me in a recent interview.

He has faith nonetheless in the passion that brought his group together. Political activism, he pointed out, “is at a standstill, because it’s a question of life and death. The focus right now is to save lives.”

“This was the need of the hour,” he said, “and there was something to be done.”

When he was elected in 2014, Modi was already intent on replacing India’s deeply embedded vision of itself as a welcoming secular state with Hindu nationalism. But only with the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act last December has his strategy provoked large-scale popular dissent, with outraged citizens occupying major thoroughfares across the country. The CAA offers a path to Indian citizenship for immigrants of almost every major religion except Islam, and it threatens to render India’s Muslims stateless.

In India (as elsewhere), the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality. Day laborers have left major cities en masse, walking for days along highways to return to their villages. Senior citizens are stranded without food. The government has used the crisis to further ostracize Muslims. Many have been detained under the guise of quarantine measures, while others have been falsely accused of using the virus as a pathogen for anti-Hindu terrorism.

People wait for water by the side of a road during a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus at Nala Sopara, Mumbai, India, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday extended the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown to head off the epidemic’s peak, with officials racing to make up for lost time. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

The stigmatization of Muslims has been exacerbated by a cluster of fatal COVID-19 cases that followed a meeting in early March of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, in one of New Delhi’s historically Muslim neighborhoods. Tablighi Jamaat leaders have since been charged with culpable homicide.

The Lockdown Helpline is trying to ameliorate the worst aspects of the pandemic by keeping the government accountable. It acts as an independent source providing basic information and a record of government performance in fighting the pandemic. Its data collection team harvests the latest news on state initiatives, making Mumbai’s residents aware of where government-run community kitchens and food pantries have popped up. It also lets the public know which ration shops are running low on key staples such as wheat and beans and commits to filling the gaps through its own supply chain.

As importantly to its agenda, its tracking reveals which promised services are being delivered, and to whom.

The political messaging of this data collection may not be explicit, but the Lockdown Helpline’s actions speak to an interreligious concern for one’s neighbor, regardless of faith. The help line has worked with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a Muslim organization, to provide more than 600 ration kits to residents of religiously mixed neighborhoods on Mumbai’s outskirts.

Many of the help line’s volunteers are Muslim, as well. Jacob enthusiastically recalled one Muslim volunteer’s delivery of ration kits for more than 50 families in a predominantly Hindu area. The elder women of the neighborhood blessed him upon his departure. More than a symbol of interreligious tolerance, this act sustained that sacred beliefs and rituals can be sources of solidarity with other religions, not of division.

“For me and the entire team, we all felt those hands on our heads,” said Jacob, “as if those ladies were blessing us.”

The Lockdown Helpline’s organizers still desperately want the government to do more. The group foresees worsening conditions among those technically above the poverty line but with dwindling savings; organizers doubt that nongovernmental organizations and individual donors alone can feed this massive at-risk demographic. Meanwhile, the Indian government is failing to respond adequately to the pandemic and will probably continue to deflect accountability by blaming minority scapegoats.

But the commitment to facts and genuine care for others speaks for itself. Jacob concedes that the help line is not going to start a revolution, but to the growing ranks who receive its care, it shows that India’s religious diversity and democracy are not mutually exclusive; it offers us blueprints for how traditions of care can pressure political change through truth and solidarity.

Those are lessons that can survive the pandemic, and spread.

(Adam Willems studies religion and economy at Union Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)