India is caught in a perfect storm of crisis, facing its worst public health catastrophe since independence, an unprecedented economic downturn, and the most serious conflict with neighboring China in more than fifty years.
Serge Jordan, ISA
India confirmed its first Covid-19 case on January 30. The deeply reactionary, Hindu chauvinist government of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) initially downplayed the threat of the virus, insisting that the cases of infection were mostly imported isolated cases and that community transmission was not an issue. “There is no need to panic” was Modi’s messaging on Twitter on March 3. He advocated “small measures” to ensure self-protection. The country now has the third highest number of confirmed cases in the world.
Despite failing to take serious public health measures to prepare for the pandemic, Indian authorities were nevertheless quick to use the opportunity of the outbreak to clamp down on the mass protests that had developed against the discriminatory Citizens Amendment Act (CAA). This movement had shaken all corners of the country for several months. In late March, the main sit-in protest site in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood of New Delhi was put down by local police and paramilitary forces, and the protesters’ tents and billboards were removed with bulldozers. COVID-19 came as the perfect excuse to clear out what had long been an important thorn in the government’s side.
After two months of inaction, Modi eventually imposed a sweeping lockdown at the end of March – in a country with 1.3 billion people without any planning and with less than four hours’ notice. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown have in turn precipitated a huge economic crisis. This crisis has deeper causes but was only waiting for a trigger to unleash its devastating effects.
In a country where over 80% of the workforce is informal, the lack of mass and adequately planned relief accompanying the lockdown drove hundreds of millions into joblessness and hunger overnight. While the government had pledged to provide food for poor workers during the lockdown, a survey conducted between April 8 and April 13 by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) of over 11,000 migrant workers across several states, found that 96% of these workers had not received any food rations.
Stripped of their income, stranded because of the sudden closing down of public transport and railway stations across the country, a huge stream of desperate migrant workers and their families walked hundreds of miles back to their home villages and towns. These are the very places mired in poverty these workers had escaped from to begin with. Nearly two hundred migrant workers lost their lives in road accidents during this journey, the largest exodus since the 1947 communal partition of the subcontinent. Others died of hunger or exhaustion, and 16 were run over by a freight train in the western state of Maharashtra while sleeping on the tracks.
It was only weeks into the lockdown – and after the plight of migrant workers had provoked mass outrage and several waves of protests by the workers themselves in Mumbai, Surat, and other cities – that the central government announced that migrant workers would be able to return to their home states on special trains and buses. Even then, they had to pay for their fares, in many cases at highly inflated prices.
The conditions in which these workers had been forced to exist had all but guaranteed the spread of COVID-19, which was then transported from the cities to rural India, where health care is even less accessible than in the cities. Hence the states where most of the migrant workers have returned to in recent weeks (Bihar, Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh) now have some of the country’s fastest-growing infection rates. According to NITI Aayog, the government’s planning body, infections have now spread to 98 of the country’s 112 poorest rural districts, up from 34 on April 15.
Health Disaster Looming
After having imposed one of the most callous lockdowns on the planet, Modi’s government started relaxing lockdown measures toward the end of May, in line with mounting pressures from big business. Not only were manufacturing, construction, shopping malls, and many other non-essential sectors allowed to restart operations without any serious measures taken to ensure workers’ safety; they were also given the green light as the number of infections in the country was skyrocketing. As Indian writer Arundhati Roy pointed out, “India is the only country where the numbers climbed sharply through the lockdown and just when the graph is the steepest the lockdown has been relaxed.” In other words, a criminal approach on both ends. Modi has since tried to reassure the capitalist class that no second lockdown will take place, making abundantly clear that the profit motive has to override any other considerations, regardless of the human toll.
The mishandling of the lockdown is only one symptom of the rotten edifice of brutal class, caste, and communal divisions underlying “modern” India, which the crisis has laid bare. Whereas “vertical” social distancing, in the form of caste segregation and stigmatization of the poor, has found new ways to flourish in the context of the pandemic, the physical social distancing needed to contain the pandemic was always going to be an unaffordable luxury. Tens of millions of poor Indians live in excruciating poverty in overcrowded slums.
India has only around 0.5 hospital beds for every 1,000 people, one of the lowest ratios in the world, and one doctor for every 10,000 patients – ten times less than the numbers recommended by the WHO (even though these figures translate very unevenly between different parts of the country). In the most affected cities, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, an increasing number of reports attest to the ordeal experienced by patients and their relatives, as many get repeatedly turned away for treatment by overwhelmed and understaffed hospitals. Footage has even shown COVID-19 patients sleeping next to dead bodies wrapped in plastic in a Mumbai hospital. Overworked doctors and medical staff are also catching the virus in growing numbers due to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Truth be told, the opposition parties don’t have much to show for in the states they rule. For many years, the BJP, the Congress Party, and many other pro-capitalist parties on the state-level have been complicit in starving the public health care system of resources. India only allocates a meagre 1.3% of GDP to health care nationally. The private sector, which has been given the red carpet treatment all this time, can now make a killing from this growing humanitarian tragedy by demanding from patients with COVID-19 symptoms extortionate charges unaffordable even for middle-class Indians.
It is in this critical context that a number of state governments (like in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) have temporarily taken over private hospitals – in some cases even taking over specific wards or beds – or capped the prices private hospitals can charge to their patients, to make up for the shortfall in under-resourced public institutions. But half-measures are not enough to face up to a crisis of this scale. Far better would be if all private hospitals and health care providers were permanently brought under public ownership and democratic management by the workforce, offering treatments free of charge. Unsurprisingly, support for measures of this sort have grown rapidly, as indicated in a recent opinion poll conducted in the southern state of Tamil Nadu showing that 75% are in favour of nationalizing the private health care system.
In light of this growing health disaster, the state of Kerala, ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), somewhat stands out. It initially managed to maintain a very low rate of infection through an effective strategy of testing, contact tracing, and extended quarantines, facilitated by comparatively higher levels of population literacy and investment in healthcare compared to the rest of the country. This relatively better management of the pandemic is a real indication of remnants of social gains previously won in the state under pressure from the working class. However, it cannot obscure the fact that the so-called “communist” Kerala administration has pursued over many years policies increasingly in line with the neoliberal logic, based on the privatization of health care institutions, leading to a steady erosion of these gains. Furthermore, a recent uptick of infection cases in that state has also shown the limits of Kerala’ “success story.”
There, as elsewhere in India, the Stalinist communist parties have seen their support base seriously undermined over recent years, as their leaderships have adopted anti-working-class policies. They have engaged in a desperate search for unity with regional pro-big-business parties in the name of fighting for “democracy” and “secularism” against Modi and the BJP. This strategy has done nothing but systematically undermine the prospect of building an effective, grassroots political opposition to communalism, casteism, and capitalism.
Mounting Economic Crisis
Ahead of the pandemic, the Indian economy was already faltering and was forecast to grow at its slowest pace in years. The pandemic and the global economic downturn have hastened the country’s path toward its first full-blown recession in four decades. The official unemployment rate has now shot up from 7.8% in February to over 21% in June, according to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Modi’s government has responded with a $265 billion stimulus package. In substance however, this package is mostly composed of sweet deals and bailout money for the super rich and major corporations, and meager pittances for workers, poor farmers, the unemployed, and other vulnerable sections of society. Although the government said the package amounts to 10% of India’s GDP, the actual money being spent is expected to be far less. The severity of the crisis could pull the Indian government toward further fiscal stimulus down the road, as is already advocated by a number of bourgeois economists. But Modi’s policies have left no doubt as to who will be called upon to pay the bill.
A special and opaque relief fund (“PM Cares”) nominally aimed at tackling the health emergency has been set up. In practice, it has been mainly used to provide a scheme of tax rebates for the rich while the wages of government employees are slashed. The poor are bearing the brunt of the crisis with monumental job losses, pay cuts, and an explosion of hunger; UNICEF is predicting that 300,000 children could die of malnutrition in India over the next six months. Yet the net worth of Indian billionaire Cyrus Poonawalla, head of Serum Institute of India (one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world), has experienced a 25% rise during the four months of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has also been used as a pretext to enhance the BJP’s rabidly pro-big-business agenda and intensify the exploitation of the working class. At least 12 state governments, 10 of them ruled by the BJP, have enacted brutal anti-working-class legislative measures including lengthening working days and weeks, suspending the minimum wage, reducing social security benefits, easing restrictions for firing workers, etc. In the northern and BJP-led state of Uttar Pradesh, nearly all labor protections have been put on hold for a period of three years, including the right to form trade unions. Other measures include the opening to privatization of public sector undertakings (PSUs) – predominantly state-run industries like mining and defense.
However, the idea that Modi’s government can press ahead with such plans without a fierce resistance from below is wishful thinking. Without a doubt, the trade union leaders are feeling the heat from their members in this time of unprecedented economic hardship and combined attacks from the bosses and the central and state governments.
After a first day of countrywide protest on May 22 against Modi’s attacks on workers’ rights, ten central trade unions organized another day of “non-cooperation” on July 3. Half a million coal miners went on a three-day strike starting July 2 to oppose the government’s plan to auction coal blocks to private companies. Three trade unions representing over 82,000 workers in 41 ordnance factories, including the BJP-affiliated union, have also announced an indefinite strike after the second week of July against the government’s decision to implement the so-called “corporatization” of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
These actions are welcome, but what is needed is a serious and coordinated strategy to develop them into a larger struggle to defeat Modi and his government’s reactionary offensive. The general strike that took place on January 8 of this year might well have been the largest in human history, with over 250 million participants – more people than the 229 million who voted for the BJP in May 2019. Viewing such strikes more as a yearly ceremonial event rather than as a way to build a mass political challenge to Modi’s rule, the trade union leaders have time and again missed the chance to build on that potential. An offensive strategy is urgently needed that can link up the “bread-and-butter” issues with the struggle against the communalist, casteist and anti-democratic policies of the BJP, which millions have shown their readiness to challenge during the anti-CAA movement.
Hindutva and State Violence
The whole situation in India is building up towards major social convulsions. Arun Kumar, an economics professor at the Institute of Social Sciences in Delhi commented: “This situation is worse than war. If we are not able to provide essentials to the bottom 50 percent of the population, then there will be social revolt” (New York Times, 3/24/2020).
It is precisely this prospect that is driving Modi and the BJP’s ideologues and politicians into more aggressively promoting the ruling party’s agenda of Hindutva (Hindu supremacism) and increasing measures of state intimidation and repression. The crisis has boosted the features of nationalism, authoritarianism, and religious bigotry as pillars of Modi’s reactionary rule.
The pressure on those speaking out against the government has increased substantially, with a rise in the arrest of prominent left-wing political activists and academics, sometimes justified under the guise of anti-terrorist laws (like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) or of the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897.
There is extensive documentation of the unmitigated violence used by the Indian police during the lockdown. People were liberally beaten up with lathi sticks for adventuring outside, or forced to perform public punishments such as push-ups and frog-jumps in the streets. At the receiving end of this humiliating treatment have often been poor and casual workers desperate to bring some money or food home. In March, a 32-year-old man died in West Bengal after being beaten by the police while out shopping for milk during the curfew.
The emboldened culture of impunity within India’s police force was dramatically illustrated in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district. On June 19, a father and son were arrested, beaten, raped, and tortured to death in police custody for having kept their small mobile phone shop open for 15 minutes beyond the state government-imposed curfew. In the context of the global mobilization following the death of George Floyd in the U.S., this case provoked widespread anger and brought people on the streets across Tamil Nadu, with some local trade unions even calling strikes, compelling the state government to act. However, similar horrific incidents are all too common, particularly against lower castes and religious minorities. In 2019, an average of five people were killed every day in police custody, and the situation has only gotten worse since.
The years of Modi’s rule have seen a steady rise in state-sponsored communal violence, particularly against the Muslim minority. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in India was immediately preceded by bloody communal riots in northeast Delhi, instigated by Hindu right-wing fanatics and assisted by the local police force. The pandemic has provided a new field for the BJP bootlickers in the capitalist media and on social media platforms to unleash their bigotry. They have worked overtime to scapegoat Muslims and portray them as the reason for the spread of the virus in the country, arguing they were on a “Corona Jihad” mission to infect Hindus.
Sino-Indian Rivalry Heating Up
Lately, the escalating tensions with China have grabbed the headlines. Both the Chinese and Indian ruling classes have been building infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a long-disputed territorial boundary between the two countries in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. But one has to take a step back to appreciate the broader context in which these tensions have flared up in recent weeks into the deadliest clashes between the Indian and Chinese armies since 1975.
In particular, the global economic crisis of capitalism triggered by COVID-19 has turbocharged the conflict between the U.S. and China, in which India is increasingly entwined. India’s increasingly close military collaboration with U.S. imperialism as part of the building of a strategic counterweight to Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region, and the expansion of Chinese geopolitical, economic, and military influence on India’s doorstep (such as in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc), have been heightening tensions on both sides for a while. The collapse in the world economy has lit the fuse.
The global downturn has also reinforced protectionist policies, expressed in India through Modi’s new mantra of so-called economic “self-reliance.” The Indian government has raised tariff barriers against China to protect its industry, launched antidumping investigations on imported products, and announced stricter regulations for Chinese investment in India. At the same time, it has tried to balance these moves with attempts to promote itself as an alternative manufacturing hub for Western companies looking into shifting their production chains away from China.
All these factors have blown on the embers of the long-simmering tensions. This took a violent turn in mid-June when the Indian and Chinese border patrols confronted each other in the Galwan valley, in the Himalayan plateau, resulting in the death of at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Both sides have since stressed the need for de-escalation, but have brought more military personnel and machinery into the areas under dispute and whipped up nationalist rhetoric against each other. Further clashes in the coming months are therefore possible – however neither nuclear-armed power is interested in a full-blown military conflict.
For now, the tensions have bounced back onto the economic front. Sections of India’s ruling elite seem to be willing to use the current stand-off as an opportunity to reduce the country’s investment and trade reliance on China. BJP officials and traders have called for boycotting Chinese goods. The government has cancelled public works contracts with Chinese companies and imposed a ban on 59 Chinese apps, including the very popular social media video platform TikTok, and is also contemplating higher tariffs on Chinese imports.
This conflict and the jingoistic, anti-Chinese campaign that has come along with it, provides a useful distraction away from Modi’s abysmal failures in addressing the worsening economic crisis and pandemic on the home front. In that sense, the rising economic nationalism and the menace of war also serve the ideological purpose of reviving the bankrupt idea that working and poor people share a common interest with their own government and ruling class – an idea which has been profoundly undermined by the crisis and its consequences on the lives of millions.
Organizing these millions against the system of capitalism, its wars, its multi-layered oppressions and its horrors without end, and for a socialist alternative based on economic planning, international cooperation, and working-class solidarity, has never been as relevant as it is today, in India as on a world scale.