The encounter of emergency COVID-19 governance with the consolidation of Hindu nationalist power under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India offers a context ripe for the articulation of nationalism with public health policing. One particular aspect of such a nationalism articulated through visual media emerges in the way that Hindu majoritarianism today unites images of risk and security with visions of medical modernity. This intersection of nationalism with a vision of health as postcolonial development must be distinguished from the more directly anti-science nationalisms articulated by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US. Instead, the Indian government highlights its emergence as an economic power as central to the global response to COVID-19. India’s significance to the public health response was confirmed by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, François-Philippe Champagne, who welcomed India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to the Canada-led Ministerial Coordination Group on COVID-19 in November 2020. Champagne emphasized India’s “critical role” in vaccine and pharmaceutical production (“Readout”).1
Despite the public reports of proposed treatments of cow dung, cow urine, and yoga for COVID-19, espoused by Hindu nationalist groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha and accepted by some Bharatiya Janata Party politicians (Varadarajan), the Modi government has invoked high-tech biomedicine combined with lockdown policing aimed at minorities as the dual solution to the outbreak. This confirms the manner in which the Modi government, since its campaign to secure election in 2014, has made a claim to scientific modernity. Invoking Hindu tradition as the basis of a triumphant developmentalism for the new India, contemporary Hindu nationalism invokes science as an element of a vast and triumphant Vedic tradition poised to bring India into a new millennium. The racialized character of this nationalist form is evident not only in the fact that it builds upon an explicit history of the use of racial science to designate Hindu identity in the history of right-wing nationalism (Jaffrelot), but also in its configuration of Indian biotechnology as a global solution to what Trump has called the “Chinese virus.” Rather than invoking a spiritual/secular binary, this vision of Hinduism as emerging from its deep history to modern triumph incorporates science into the vision of postcolonial development (Subramaniam 50).
Development was the initial promise of the original Modi campaign, taking advantage of popular visual rhetoric that emphasized the corruption of the post-independence state. This positioned Modi as an entrepreneurial leader who could cut through the failures of the existing system—a figure whose heroism emerged in part because it could be articulated against a Muslim male other (Murty). Modi ascended to the presidency in part on the promise of a certain form of sanitary development for the nation—the promise of a toilet for every household in the “Clean India” campaign.2 Yet after the COVID-19 outbreak, Hindu nationalist biopolitics oscillated between images of emergency threat in the early days of March and April 2020, visions of modern health security that attempted to counter the knowledge of the widespread outbreak that overtook the country by summer, and a vision of India ascending to provide the global solution to the pandemic at the moment of vaccine approval in the fall. In India’s pandemic biopolitics that combine medical intervention, minority threat, and surveillance, images of masking and policing have become central to the public imagination of health security.
In this short essay, I excavate some of the key images of the pandemic in international media that depict COVID-19 in India from February 2020 to March 2021 by focusing on the centrality of masking, policing, and ultimately biomedicine to an emergent discourse on India’s development as a worldwide biomedical leader. This approach allows me to sketch some of the key themes and shifts in public visions of COVID-19 that occurred in both Indian media and in India’s relation to the pandemic in international journalism. While images of outbreak and emergency were central to early representations of the disease in India, visions of the pandemic later highlighted the role of the state and biomedical intervention in attempts to contain it. It is necessary to note that there are regional differences in the images being circulated, and that states like Kerala and West Bengal with a history of leftist governments and expansive commitments to public health have been centred in international reporting on the virus. Nonetheless, many of the images from India oscillate between configuring risk around targeted vulnerable groups and investing hope in Indian biomedicine. The visual transitions in COVID media—from risks of threats from targeted groups such as Muslims, Dalits, Chinese, and migrant workers to sanitary and prophylactic technologies like masks, handwashing, and vaccines—suggest that emergent representations of India’s relationship to the world amidst the COVID-19 crisis deploy science in ways that confirm nationalist visions of Indian progress and exceptionalism, even amidst spectacular public health failures of the state.
Early images of COVID-19 emergency rule invoke spatial control and militarized quarantine as effects of rapid deployment of state power against viral spread. This coalesced first around the public health roundups of Muslims in New Delhi in the early days of the outbreak. While public health workers were at times lauded for rapid contact tracing, international media also reported on what the South China Morning Post reported as the “Islamophobia” of the focus on Muslim viral importation (Fig. 1). Emphasizing that members of the Sunni evangelical group Tablighi Jamaat were targeted on social media before being rounded up for quarantine, the newspaper’s photo depicts a line of masked, Taqiya-clad Muslim men awaiting transport to state-mandated quarantine. Bisecting the image with a medical tent, the photo displays a contrast between the state health authority on the left and the line of men awaiting relocation and containment on the right.
Figure 1. South China Morning Post coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak at Tablighi Jamaat and Islamophobia. Screenshot taken by author. (Sonia Sarkar. “Coronavirus Outbreak at Muslim Group Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi Spurs Islamophobia in India.” South China Morning Post, 1 Apr. 2020, www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3077934/coronavirus-outbreak-muslim-group-tablighi-jamaat.)*
Images of the mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities following the sudden March 24, 2020 lockdown order attracted international media attention. The rapid pace of the lockdown—with only fourteen hours advance notice—led millions of workers facing unemployment and hunger to return home. Given the large number of migrant workers who have settled in cities from rural communities, especially in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the lockdown displacements produced confusion and were accompanied by incidents of violence aimed at those returning. The scale of the migration was in the millions, with workers exiting large cities like Mumbai and New Delhi and returning to home communities, first on foot and later through transportation arranged by state governments. As states attempted to contain this movement and prevent migrants from crossing internal borders, media displayed scenes of large numbers of migrants lining major roads and forming camps. Amidst this mass exodus, which undoubtedly helped to spread the virus to new areas even as it increased the economic and physical vulnerability of exploited workers, news images reported on the high rate of automobile collisions and a variety of other hardships facing migrants.3 In this context, the news site Scroll displayed an image of hundreds of migrants walking in a long line as they depart New Delhi toward Agra on March 29, 2020 (Fig. 2). Depicting the migrants circling alongside an open road, framed on the left by a line of buses, the image contrasts with the composition of images of the localized spatial controls of urban contact tracing and quarantine depicted above in Fig. 1. Whereas the earlier image combined a depiction of Muslim difference with a vision of spatial containment, the snaking line of migrants that goes beyond the frame on the top and right sides indicates the expansive population affected by the state response, multiplying uncertainty and risk for marginalized people. As such, images of sudden migration following the lockdown demonstrated a broader scale of crisis that could not so easily be pinned to specific groups of minorities or locations of urban contact, presaging the onset of the pandemic as a national phenomenon. Amid wide-ranging criticism of the Modi government’s haphazard response, such images threatened to contradict state attempts to demonstrate decisive control. They also reflect common post-independence tropes of overpopulation and inefficiency that reinforce the narrative of a state bureaucracy that is easily overwhelmed. While such tropes were earlier deployed by Modi himself, in the context of the lockdown such images were also deployed by critics who argued that the hasty lockdown action reflected not just poor planning but also an authoritarian approach that failed to mobilize expertise appropriately.
Figure 2. Media coverage of migrants leaving New Delhi during lockdown. Screenshot taken by author. (“Covid-19: At Least 22 Migrants Die While Trying to Get Home during Lockdown,” Scroll, 29 Mar. 2020, scroll.in/latest/957570/covid-19-lockdown-man-collapses-dies-halfwaywhile-walking-home-300-km-away-from-delhi.)
In the early days of the outbreak, public health images conventionally included masks and other prophylactic measures such as handwashing, and also indicated China as a source of the disease. Anticipating Trump’s attempt to publicly associate the virus with its origin in China, a Kolkata hospital posted public health signs at its entrances titled, “The New China Virus: What Do We Know About It?” (Fig. 3). Displaying a drawing of the map of China identifying Wuhan, placed next to illustrations of a variety of animal species that host coronaviruses, the poster focuses on the Chinese origin and possible symptoms, but does not include information about mode of transmission or prevention measures. The poster was displayed in a news image for the Hindustan Times in February 2020. A masked person walks in front, with a headline that connects the spread of the virus in factories to potential economic losses for India, presumably due to both the loss of imports and the potential disruption to India’s own factories. As the economic transformations of Indian neoliberalism amidst Hindu revival are often narrated in terms of rivalry with China, the image reflects both a xenophobic rendering of Chinese difference and a fear that failures of postcolonial development might allow the dual Chinese vectors of capitalist prowess and viral contagion to threaten India’s capacity for industrial growth.
Figure 3. “China Virus” posters in West Bengal. Screenshot taken by author. (Vineet Sachdev. “Chinese Factories Shut by Coronavirus, 13.7% of India’s Imports at Risk.” Hindustan Times, 15 Feb. 2020, hindustantimes.com/india-news/indian-economy-to-take-a-hit-as-china-shuts-down/story-vKhfuW4ARMJfVeHv1lXJJJ.html.)
Several public health videos from India went viral in late March 2020, none more popular than a one-and-a-half-minute handwashing demonstration video released by the Kerala state police (“Hand Wash”). Set to the popular 2020 Malayalam-language film song “Kalakkatha,” the video features six officers methodically rubbing their hands, fingers interlocking, to the beat of the drums. The video playfully utilizes dance poses to draw attention to the World Health Organization recommendations for long, methodical handwashing. At this early point in the pandemic when surface transmission was believed to be one significant vector of COVID-19, the masked officers combine imagery of sanitation (handwashing), prophylaxis (masks), and state authority (police uniforms) to create a performance that links sovereignty to public health duty. To the extent that policing informs both the state interventions and the imagined mobilization of Indian citizenry against COVID, the video suggests that individual hygiene can be conscripted into collective response to control disease.
Figure 4. Coverage of workers handling vaccines. Screenshot taken by author. (Sreya Banerjee. “India Approves Two Covid-19 Vaccines for Emergency Use.” France 24, 3 Jan. 2021, www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210103-india-approves-two-covid-19-vaccines-for-emergency-use.)
In the months to follow, however, the virus would spread widely across India, which eventually became second only to the US in terms of numbers of infections. As numbers skyrocketed in fall and winter 2020, India’s growing role as one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical manufacturers came into relief as it was a major production site for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the first approved vaccine appropriate for global distribution using regular refrigeration. The Modi government eventually also gave early authorization to a new vaccine produced locally by the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, which would supplement production of the Oxford vaccine, much of which would be distributed outside of India. After two decades in which a neoliberal, Euro-American legal structure protecting pharmaceutical intellectual property came into place to accommodate Indian pharmaceutical production within the international market, COVID-19 gave India a new central role in global public health.4 Alongside photoshoots of government officials unveiling the vaccine production sites, the enthusiasm over India’s role in global vaccine production was expressed in images of workers in full- body coverings loading vials of vaccine in sterile containers (Fig. 4). These complemented a widely publicized mural created in Kolkata around the New Year in 2021, which depicts a variety of types of Indian workers collaborating to bring the vaccine to fight against the global scourge of the virus (Fig. 5). With health workers in PPE in front supported by manual labourers and cleaners in the middle and a policeman in the rear, the group of workers propels an oversized syringe toward the virus, which appears to be strangling an earth inlaid with images of masked humans whose skin tones, hair, and facial features signal planetary diversity of races and ages.
Figure 5. Kolkata mural depicting Indian vaccine’s global impact on coronavirus. Screenshot
taken by author. (Oommen C. Kurian. “India’s COVID19 Vaccine: Nationalism, Symbolism,
Realism.” Observer Research Foundation, 5 Jan. 2021, www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/
In sum, these images across the first year of COVID-19 representation in India reflect at once the heavy hand of state power in the early response to the outbreak, the normalization of sanitary measures in public efforts to fight the disease, and nationalist discourse concerning India’s role in the global vaccination effort. The fact that such images also document the massive toll that COVID-19 has taken on those who fall outside the racialized majoritarian narrative of Hindu ascendancy—Muslims, Dalits, Chinese, and migrant workers—reflects the inability of nationalist discourse in public media to erase the highly public nature of disposability revealed in state responses to the virus, even before the recent emergence of the Delta variant in India. The role of the Modi government in exacerbating both viral spread and pandemic-era inequalities cannot easily be masked by a discourse that imagines the neoliberal rise of Indian biomedicine as reflecting the nation’s exceptional role in combating the virus.
1 Thanks to Danielle Wong for pointing out this connection.
2 See McCarthy.
3 See Dutta.
4 See Rajan.
Dutta, Anisha. “198 Migrant Workers Killed in Road Accidents during Lockdown: Report.” Hindustan Times, 2 June 2020, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/198-migrant-workers-killed-in-road-accidents-during-lockdown-report/story-hTWzAWMYn0kyycKw1dyKqL.html. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.
“Hand Wash Dance Kerala Police.” YouTube, uploaded by State Police Media Centre,
19 Mar. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTeXT0WLlCk.
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“Readout: Canada Continues to Lead Ministerial Coordination Group on COVID-19 Responding to Global Challenges.” Government of Canada, 3 Nov. 2020, www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2020/11/readout-canada-continues-to-lead-ministerial-coordination-group-on-covid-19-responding-to-global-challenges.html. Accessed
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Subramaniam, Banu. Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism. U of Washington P, 2019.
Varadarajan, Tunku. “The Cow Dung Cure for Coronavirus.” Wall Street Journal, 10 Feb. 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/the-cow-dung-cure-for-coronavirus-11581378967. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.
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