Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

The Detainment of Uighur Muslims: An Ineffective Approach to Counterterrorism

Image showing detained Uighur Muslims in the re-education camps.
Detained Uighur Muslims. Source: 牙生, Yahoo Images.

For the past several months, the plight of the Uighur Muslims (pronounced wē-ˌgu̇r) has been covered extensively in national and international news. Under the guise of counterterrorism, the Chinese government has been holding the Uighur in detention camps. While the detention of the Uighur is in and of itself a human rights violation, the torture and inhumane treatment that they experience in these camps has been the greatest cause for concern for human rights activists. Undeniably, the detainment and treatment of the Uighur is concerning, but the counterterrorism measures taken by the Chinese government are just as concerning; not only are they arguably ineffective for decreasing the likelihood of attacks, but they also could inadvertently lead to an increase in radicalization.

Background

The Uighur are a Muslim, Turkish-speaking minority group who make up less than 1 percent of the Chinese population, or around 11 million people. Xinjiang, the province in which the majority of the Uighur live, was annexed in 1949 and has been under China’s control since. While the Uighur have historically been subject to discrimination by the Chinese government, this discrimination increased when the Chinese government formally identified the Uighur as a threat to security in China. It is irresponsible to claim that all Uighur are a security threat, but there have been attacks carried out by Uighur militants in China; the Turkistan Islamic Movement, an extremist Islamic group founded by Uighur militants, has carried out more than 200 attacks with the goal of creating an independent state for the Uighur. While the Chinese government has an obligation to protect the citizens of China, this does not justify the Chinese government’s discrimination against and detainment of the Uighur.

Measures taken by the Chinese Government

China first began its crackdown on the Uighur in 2017, when men were prohibited from growing long beards, women were prohibited from wearing the niqab, or the face veil, and several mosques were demolished. Further, the government began using face recognition technology and phone monitoring to track the Uighur. However, the Chinese government took the most drastic measures a few months ago, when over a million Uighur were detained and placed in camps. When reports first began to emerge on the mass detention of the Uighur, the Chinese government claimed that the camps were solely vocational training centers. However, this past November, leaked governmental documents proved that the camps were built to be re-education centers in which the Uighur are forced to renounce their religion and language, or simply put, their identities.

The Camps  

The purpose of re-educating the Uighur is highlighted throughout the leaked documents, wherein it is made clear that they must not only renounce their previous beliefs and traditions but must also accept and adhere to the new beliefs they are indoctrinated with. Thus, the process of indoctrination is twofold; first, the Uighur are forced to admit that their belief in Islam is illegal, criminal, and dangerous, highlighting the negative views the Chinese government holds towards Islam, and second, they are forced to pledge allegiance to President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. In an interview with Uighur-American lawyer and human rights advocate Nury Turkel, the Intercept details the methods used to ensure the success of the re-education process. Based on testimonials of people who have fled the country, the process includes starvation, sterilization, torture, rape, and even killing. According to Turkel, this is all done to eradicate the Uighurs’ religious and ethnic identities, as these identities are perceived as signs of disloyalty to the Chinese government.

Image showing the outside of the re-education camps.
Exterior of a re-education camp. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Wrong Approach

While measures must be taken against any group of people who pose a security threat to a country, the methods used by the Chinese government are inhumane. After the vast number of attacks carried out by Uighur fighters, it is understandable that the Chinese government should attempt to deter future attacks from happening. However, the methods that have been implemented are not only violating innocent people’s basic human rights, but they may also have the reverse effect. There are examples that have occurred elsewhere that can be used to highlight this. First, Tajik officer Gulmorod Khalimov, who made headlines after he left the Tajik army to join ISIS. He explained that he made this decision after he was exposed to anti-Muslim rhetoric during his anti-terrorism course training in the United States, illustrating that a harmful or negative rhetoric about Muslims, similar to the one currently being propagated in China, can lead to and encourage radicalization. Second, when David Cameron, previous British Prime Minister, announced his plans for cracking down on extremists in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain argued that this would only push people further towards radicalization, noting that the “problem is the constant talk of legislation, harassment, and monitoring… [which] is what’s leading young people towards radicalism.” This is another instance that exemplifies the faulty approach taken by the Chinese government; when stringent measures are taken, such as monitoring and detainment in the case of the Uighur, there can be the unexpected outcome of increased extremism.

The Chinese government claims that they have detained the Uighur to prevent terrorism and extremism, but the methods used are neither humane nor effective. While there need to be measures taken to guarantee the safety of the citizens of China, there are many other methods that can be utilized to achieve this. Further, if the Chinese government does indeed want to address this problem, an approach that does not involve stigmatizing a whole ethnic group and religion is the only way to effectively do so.

Bullets, Band-Aids, or Both: Ambassador Robert Ford Visits UAB

 

Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB
Former Ambassador Robert Ford lectures at UAB. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Former Ambassador Robert Ford, on Wednesday, March 22, made a stop to the UAB Alumni House to speak on the United States’ foreign policy on the Middle East and North Africa.  As a career diplomat serving the US State Department and Peace Corps for 30 years, his tenure was categorized by his reputation as a brilliant Arabist. He first served in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Morocco and as US Ambassador to Algeria (2006-2008) and as the last US Ambassador to Syria (2011-2014).  Additionally, he served on posts for the US State Department in Bahrain and Iraq.  Ambassador Ford’s career was lauded by the US government, and upon his retirement, the US State Department conferred upon him the Secretary’s Service Award, the highest award honored by the State Department.

The opening slide, entitled “Not Our Business: The American Approach to Human Rights in the Middle East in the Age of American First”, foreshadowed Ford’s disdain for the current administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East.  This disdain, he continuously qualified through his presentation, stems not from tangible behavior the Trump administration has enacted in the two months since President Trump’s ascendency, but from the utter lack of preparation to mindfully and successfully engage in the drama of foreign policy.  The Trump Administration has thousands of positions to fill at the national level, including the Department of State; this vacuum signals to politicos a few potential assumptions about the Trump Administration. First, Trump and his cohorts do not have the necessary means (i.e. time, energy) to fill these positions. Second, individuals who may have served in other administrations have refused service in Trump’s government.  Lastly, the Trump Administrations simply have not realized the pressing need of filling these vacancies. The likely explanation is a mix of all three. Ford explained “America First” is not inherently a bad or unproductive philosophy.  Governments must have self-interest.  The very nature of government is to protect its citizens (says the realists) and to actively contribute to a prosocial world order (says certain liberals).  America First is not the problem.  The problem is the infancy of the Trump Administration in its experience and insight in governing. President Trump, prior to his election, never served public office at the national level. Critics of Obama’s immaturity in governing at the national level (as he was a first-term senator when he was elected president) should be losing their minds at the thought of a complete political neophyte taking the reins of the highest elected office in the American political system. The fact, Ford argues, is the Trump Administration is in the middle of a razor-sharp learning curve on the basics of governing America. They know not what they do.

Vacancies go unfilled. This directly affects foreign policy as it would affect any office without employees. The second challenge to effective foreign policy, the Middle East notwithstanding, is the president’s desire to eviscerate the State Department’s funding. Trump reiterates a ‘no nation-building’ philosophy during his campaign; again, this is not necessarily a lack of judgement. According to Ford, former President George W. Bush’s overreach into the Middle East (among other expeditions) certainly landed America in hot water. America has retreated away from wholeheartedly committing to nation- and democracy-building interests.  Some argue the pendulum has swung too far into situational interventionism. Obama’s failure in Syria to oust Assad (or effectively empower others to achieve this end) has certainly contributed to jihadism in the Middle East.  The foreign policy game Obama played in Syria, one example of many,  was structured around a ‘red line’ (in the case of Syria, this was the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians). This hardline stance can undercut flexibility; Obama couldn’t act in the case of Syria unless definitive proof implicated Assad.  Meanwhile, Syrians died, jihadists recruited, and Russia peered into the situation with increasing curiosity-turned-investment. This tricky game of knowing when and where to intervene vexes every player of foreign policy, including President Trump.

a picture of Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque Courtyard, Damascus. Source: american_rugbier, Creative Commons.

 

The American foreign policy in the Middle East has been, and continues to be, marred with interests in diametrically opposed parties. America’s investment in Israel compels American State and UN players to willfully and knowingly ignore the stark human rights violations being committed against the people of Palestine. The American naval base in Bahrain, as in the case with Israel, incentivizes American foreign policy writers and players to ignore the repressive tendencies of the Bahraini state.  Iran and the Nuclear Deal, another linchpin in American investments in the Middle East, angers Israel. The Syrian government, with the help of Russia, is still murdering Syrian citizens en masse. These are the headlines read by individuals with a keen eye for Middle Eastern politics, however this is not the full picture, Ambassador Ford argues.

The culture in the Middle East adds another layer of complexity that is frequently ignored by self-proclaimed arabists. America has poorly interpreted and acted in accordance with the social values and cultural mores of the Middle Eastern peoples. Ford explained, drawing on his experience as ambassador, the people of the Middle East want employment, less corruption, and the relationship with their government characterized by dignity and respect. He argued collectivism, the impact of the faith of Islam, and the shadow of colonialism all shape the psyche of the Middle East. Group affiliation is a substantial psychological need in the world region; the need to belong, coupled with rising anti-American sentiments, may explain the success of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Culture and politics are intrinsically linked, though some myopic policy analysts and writers take the stance that ‘never the twain shall meet’. Integration, whether between opposing US interests or in the American conception of social forces in the Middle East, is a herculean task.

Keeping these two complexities in mind, the Trump Administration’s glacial pace of governing and the convolution of Middle East politics and culture, what should the American public look forward to in the new administration?  First, proposed Ambassador Ford, expect the budget cuts to soft humanitarian aid to alter the composite of human rights interests in the State Department. Institutions like USAID will be on the chopping block. Human rights, rarely discussed by the Trump Administration, will likely not serve as America’s guiding maxim in policy development. Militarization, according to Ambassador Ford, seems far more likely instead. Trump and his team advocate for substantially greater investment in the American military complex, to the tune of ~$54 billion.  Although the argument could be soundly made that human right-based interests and intervention in the Middle East typically co-occurs with other American interests (i.e. oil), the Trump Administration has wholly ignored the human rights approach in US foreign policy.  This philosophical and political shift may elucidate how Team Trump plans to handle crisis situations in the Middle East.  Increased defense spending probably equates to increased free-floating militia to be utilized at the whim of the President and his advisors. In short, this probably leads to shift towards favoring a hard power solution in potential situations of conflict. Another alternative explanation  is that Trump’s team simply has not yet created the necessary opinion required for human rights-based foreign policy. Ford argued, due to the egregiously early developmental phase of the Trump administration (coupled with lack of adequate staffing at State and other agencies), the human rights approach to the Middle East simply hasn’t been codified. For human rights advocates (and those who favor soft power approaches), this is the better scenario of the two.

Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford
Dr. Reuter, the Director of the IHR, with Ambassador Ford. Photo by Nicholas Sherwood.

Several factors will indeed influence the future relationship between America in the Middle East. Trump’s administration is new; making judgement calls on their policy and behavior is akin to putting the cart before the horse. In addition to being a new administration, the Trump administration itself is completely inexperienced to political leadership. This inexperience, when compared to past administrations, means foreign policy researchers will have to wait longer than usual for fodder to present itself for dissection. Prior engagements in the Middle East (Bush with his democracy-building and Obama with a situational intervention policy) have not only exacerbated the Middle East as a whole but have set a dangerous precedent for interventionism. Bush’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illuminate the dangers of clinging to your guns too quickly.  Obama, though he favored humanitarian response over military intervention, taught policy-makers that armed intervention is necessary on occasion; look at the ‘too little too late’ case in Syria. Cultural values in the Middle East, such as the importance of family and religious identification, dictate how Middle Easterners will respond to the imposition of foreign powers, whether imposing by force or aid.  Beyond these culturally relative qualities, individuals in the Middle East share common values with the rest of the world: to have a job, to raise a family, and to be treated with dignity and respect. Culture, and of course this includes the influence of Islam, determines how US forces will be received in the Middle East. The people of the Middle East wish to self-determine, according to Ambassador Ford.  Self-determination may be difficult for a group of people whose lives and livelihoods have caught the eye of warmongers and bleeding hearts alike. The pressing question for President Trump and the rest of his Administration is what will help the Middle East self-determine the most: bullets, band-aids, or both?

Islamophobia: A Threat to All

Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons
Source: Daniel Zanini H., Creative Commons

 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dalia Mogahed, Research Director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). She delivered a powerful speech at UAB’s Hill University Center about an issue that has plagued American society for many years, Islamophobia.

Islamophobia, as Dalia Mogahed defines it, is “anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination based on an irrational hatred and fear of Islam”. According to a new report generated by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the University of California, Berkeley, over $200 million dollars is spent annually to perpetuate this fear, which is evidenced by the tone and volume of reporting about Muslims. Nearly 80% of the media coverage about Islam is negative portraying Muslims as more dangerous than countries armed with nuclear weapons, drug addiction, or diseases such as cancer. As Americans, it is important that we seek out facts and form our own opinions rather than bending to the bias of others. Prejudice of any kind is a problem that affects all Americans by threatening our safety and way of life.

Islamophobia lecture.
Islamophobia lecture. Photo credit: Charles Coleman.

According to an ISPU report, Islamophobia is a gateway to other types of discrimination such as anti-Semitism, human rights violations, and anti-rights legislation. For example, Mogahed mentions the recently released Community Brief “Manufacturing Bigotry”. In that study, researchers find that legislators who promote Islamophobic agendas are 80% more likely to support anti-foreign legislation, voter identification mandates, and limitations on immigration and oppose women’s rights, access to abortion, and same-sex marriage – all laws empowering groups marginalized in the political process. She points out that

“fear erodes freedom, which is the foundation of our democracy”

and makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudices.

Each of these limiting ideas makes all Americans less safe. In fact, according to a recent report generated by Freedom house, the perpetuation of Islamaphobia aids the rise of terrorist rhetoric and opens the door for extremist ideology. One example Mogahed provided is a recruitment tape released by Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist group. In this clip, terrorists use an audio excerpt from one of presidential nominee Donald Trumps rants to push their Islamist views and label American society as racist.

What can we as Americans do about this and how can we protect our freedom and ideals? Mogahed states that we need to educate ourselves and replace our fears with facts. According to Martin Scott, author of the journal “Catholics and the Ku Klux Klan”, nearly a century ago this same scenario presented itself, but it was Catholicism that was the recipient of discrimination and prejudice perpetuated by groups like the True Americans and Ku Klux Klan.

Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons
Source: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons

 

Today, we need to understand who American Muslims are and how they help shape the diversity of our nation. American Muslims are not only Arab. In fact most are African American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic. According to Mogahed, Muslims are the most likely group to reject military attacks on civilians, and contrary to popular belief those that attend the masjid or “mosque” are the most likely to be engaged in community and civic activities, not radical Islam.

American Muslims, on the whole, retain strong simultaneous American and Muslim identities and want to work to protect the American way of life.

Therefore, it is our duty to help Muslims protect their identity by not associating every Muslim with ISIS or other radical Islamist factions.  If we learn about Islam and get to know the Muslims in our community we will see that they are normal people who are more disgusted with radical Islamic ideology than anyone else because they are the group that is most affected by the actions of radical Islamist groups. I have traveled across the globe and met many Muslims along the journey. They would all agree that there is nothing worse than the killing of innocent people and any individual who condones these acts of violence does not represent normative Islam and its values. To protect our American way of life we have to move past the unfair framing of all Muslims as terrorists. Mogahed advises that we need to create strong diverse coalitions that protect human rights, and religious freedoms to build a stronger more pluralistic America. We have to challenge bigotry by calling out prejudices when we see them. At the same time, we need to not be afraid to call out anti-Muslim bias in media coverage, not shy away from having difficult conversations challenging prejudice, preach outside the choir and vote for government representatives who will uphold American values as opposed to letting fear dictate policy.

IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.
IHR Director Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter with speaker Dalia Mogahed.