Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf

Should Hindutva Be a Priority During a Pandemic?

With the current landscape of Indian politics, Covid-19 has the potential to be a juncture that paves the way for relentless authoritarianism, especially if the Government of India continues to indoctrinate its citizens in the name of entertainment.

May 2, 2020

During the nationwide lockdown, Indians have been glued to their television screens. According to a recent report by Broadcast Audience Research Council, TV consumption in India grew by 38 percent since the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, funded by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government, has been quick to react to these evolving habits. They have decided to re-telecast two mythological series from the 1980s: Ramayan and Mahabharat, on a widely watched, publicly-funded TV channel. The teachings of these epics, written in the fourth century, form the basis of Hinduism and are ubiquitous in modern India.
Yearning for entertainment amidst these seemingly long days, Indians of all ages and backgrounds wake up every morning to enactments of the holy texts. This includes characters in ornate costumes, fantastical creatures and creative depictions of different gods, with the screenplay and dialogues emphasizing what is presented as ‘cultural values’. Unfortunately, female characters are depicted as being subservient to male ones, oppressive kings enslave hapless peasants and masculine stereotypes are glorified. And that is what comprises the nation’s daily fix of entertainment. However, the shows are more than mere amusement, they’re a prime example of a supposedly democratic government attempting to instil “Hindutva” values in a constitutionally secular nation.
The Indian Constitution, after independence from the British Raj in 1947, was built on four pillars: freedom of expression, the abolition of gender and caste discrimination, religious pluralism and self-sustained economic prosperity. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, he has actively tried to inculcate a one-nation-one-religion ideology, blurring the lines between citizenship and faith and devaluing the identity of Indians in the process. History textbooks have been rewritten, cities with “Muslim-sounding names” have been officially renamed and people possessing cows have been brutally lynched. The perpetrators of such acts have often been affiliated with the BJP. Furthermore, India’s once-trustworthy media has now turned into an apparatus of propaganda and corruption. Most big-name news channels have become completely submissive to the government, while independent journalists who have reported against the ruling party have received death threats.
Mr.Vempati, CEO of the public broadcasting group, said in an interview that “telecasting the epics was very much in line with the mandate given by the Parliament to preserve the cultural diversity of India.” In reality, cultural diversity isn’t limited to the principles of one religion and this guise of ‘culture’ acts merely as a trojan horse to impose nationalist beliefs. Since winning re-election in May last year, Modi has established a far-right nationalist base, many of whom see the two hundred million Muslims living in India as invaders of a Hindu nation. Many Muslims now prepare for a grave future as second-class citizens of their homeland and first-choice scapegoats of the Covid-19 pandemic. After India’s Health Ministry fixated on an Islamic seminary for spreading the coronavirus, a spree of anti-Muslim attacks broke out across the country.
If there was ever a time for a national myth busters campaign, it has to be now. In unprecedented times like these, with finger-pointing as the popular sport, the media possess the power to destroy the echo chambers of false nationalism and pseudoscience. Non-fictional content, like documentaries on the history of India, would educate cronies of the BJP on how their country came to be. Tutorials on DIY face masks would alleviate the burden on the underfunded local healthcare industry. And yet, it appears that the priorities of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting lie in informing people about Hinduism’s core beliefs and in uprooting the pillars of the country.
Above all, as humans face a common enemy, solidarity is more important than ever. Discrimination based on gender, caste and religion only make the opponent stronger. Certain plotlines in the screenplay of the Ramayana and Mahabharat only normalize the sexist and casteist ideologies that have sucked out every last iota of serotonin from the underprivileged. The patriarchy and misogyny, two common features of Hindu households, that recent education has tried to bring down are now being reimposed through blind worship of the epics. Ironically, as Indian married couples spend more time together than ever before, they’ve been sacredly watching shows that unabashedly define the gender roles they have unwittingly been enablers of. Although the myths shed light on morality and not all that is shown is discriminatory, the question is whether citizens unanimously agree on the authority of the message. Authoritarian regimes, like China and the Soviet Union, have used propaganda and education in the past to shape cultures of the respective nations. This is no different. With public TV airing shows that sensationalize the warped ideologies that have plagued India for decades, Modi’s so-called “New India” is blossoming.
Historically, pandemics have served as critical junctures, defining the social structures we live in today. The Black Death, in the 14th century, brought an end to serfdom across Western Europe. Drastic reductions in the workforce due to high mortality rates made labor scarce and hence gave them substantial negotiating power. With the current landscape of Indian politics, Covid-19 has the potential to be a landmark that paves way for relentless authoritarianism, especially if the government continues to indoctrinate its citizens in the name of entertainment. As countries are unifying in adversity, the democratic and secular ideas of India’s Constitution are fading away — slowly but surely.
Gaurav Dewani is Video Editor. Email him at
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