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India Hits 6 Million COVID Cases as Modi Government Represses Dissent

Fears of mass unemployment and food shortages outweigh discussion on the pandemic.

As India becomes just the second country to hit 6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, we speak to journalist Rana Ayyub in Mumbai, who was recently hospitalized after testing positive for the disease. India’s lead pandemic agency says an antibody study suggests more than 60 million people in the country have already been infected with the coronavirus — 10 times the official count but still a small fraction of its population of 1.3 billion. “It doesn’t feel like India is even talking about the pandemic,” says Ayyub, a global opinions writer for The Washington Post. “More than the fear of the pandemic, people in this country are fearing the massive unemployment and the fact that they are going without food.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The global death toll from COVID-19 topped 1 million this week, and the World Health Organization warned the actual toll is likely much higher. More than half the deaths occurred in just four countries: the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico. On Monday, India topped 6 million cases with more than 80,000 new coronavirus cases reported in just 24 hours. India now has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, behind only the United States. India’s official death toll is rapidly approaching 100,000. India’s lead pandemic agency said Tuesday an antibody study suggests more than 60 million people in the country have already been infected with the coronavirus, 10 times the official count but still a small fraction of its population of 1.3 billion.

This comes amidst protests in several parts of India. Demonstrations erupted Wednesday after a 19-year-old gang-rape victim who died was cremated against her family’s wishes. The victim was from the Dalit community, one of the so-called lower castes. Her brother said the accused men were all members of a privileged caste.

Last week, farmers blocked highways and railway tracks to oppose agricultural reforms they say will leave them at the mercy of corporate agribusinesses.

This week, Amnesty International announced it’s forced to shutter operations and lay off all staff, after the Indian government froze its bank accounts after the group published two critical reports about the country’s human rights violations. Amnesty staff say there’s a, quote, “incessant witch-hunt” of human rights groups by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. This is David Griffiths, director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International.

DAVID GRIFFITHS: They’re simply seeking to silence those who criticize them, those who call out human rights abuses in the country. We have seen a steadily intensifying series of attacks for several years. That is certain.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Mumbai, India, where we’re joined by Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist who’s a global opinions writer for The Washington Post. Her book is titled Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. She has just recovered from COVID. She was hospitalized for the coronavirus.

Rana, if you can talk about your own situation and what’s happening in India today as India becomes only the second nation in the world, after our country, the United States, to surpass 6 million infections?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Amy, great to be back on the show.

Well, I mean, I recovered. I recovered very well. But then again, one must understand that I am a privileged upper middle class in India, also a public voice, so I had to put a tweet just saying that I was not getting a hospital bed, and I was provided one. But that’s not true of the rest of India, which is 80% of the Indian population, which still does not have access to beds and access to the basic medical facilities. That somebody like me had to actually put out a tweet when my oxygen levels dipped a bit, that I wasn’t getting any hospital bed, I mean, I shudder to think: What does a less privileged in India do at a time like this?

We have more than 6 million cases. You know, the lockdown has been lifted. There is massive unemployment. The farmers are on strike. But it doesn’t feel like India is even talking about the pandemic, is even talking about COVID-19, because the only thing that India is doing right now, as opposed to confronting and battling this pandemic, is to fight its human rights activists, dissenters, incarcerate them. There is the injustice that is happening in this country. I don’t think the Indian government or Indians, by and large, are even concerned about what’s happening.

When I go on the field as a reporter — I mean, right after I tested negative and I went on the field, I asked people what does it feel about, you know, the fact that we have 6 million cases. They’re not bothered, because there’s no money to buy food. There is massive unemployment. People are worried about their next meal. They’re not worried about social distancing, as we talk about, because, like I said in my last interview to you, the social distancing is a privilege that most Indians cannot afford. People are, at this point of time — I’ve been also doing relief work, besides the journalism that I do, and I have seen the poverty from close quarter. There are people surviving on one meal in two days. So, more than the fear of the pandemic, people in this country are fearing more the massive unemployment and the fact that they could be looking at — you know, they are going without food, and they are looking at poverty and looking at unemployment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Rana Ayyub, it’s not just — as you’ve said, it’s not just that most Indians don’t have access to health facilities. It’s also the case, as you’ve pointed out, that the impact of the lockdown and what’s happened in the wake of this pandemic has been devastating for the poor. In particular, the closure of schools —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — has heavily impacted children in India, together with the closure of early childhood development centers, where millions of children used to go and get access to at least minimal amounts of food —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — immunizations, clothes, etc. These centers are still closed. Now, there are reports, increasing reports, of millions of poor children across the country who have been forced to work in conditions almost the equivalent of slave labor, often getting paid the equivalent of just several cents an hour for doing extremely dangerous work, from rolling cigarettes to scavenging garbage. Meanwhile, Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire and the richest person in the country, has reportedly made $12 million an hour since March.

RANA AYYUB: Yeah, yeah. The poor are getting poorer. The rich, the rich billionaires, whether it is Jeff Bezos or whether it is Mukesh Ambani, I mean, they have — you know, the government has been very kind to them. In its latest earnings report, for the second quarter of 2020, I think Mukesh Ambani, like you said, showed a massive surge in his income. It has been able to raise about 1.5 lakh crores from strategic investors like Facebook and Google, by selling 33% stake in — across all the platforms.

And this is happening while farmers in India are out protesting, protesting against three new acts which have been passed by the Indian Parliament under Narendra Modi without taking the note of the opposition members. Now, these laws are assailed on the grounds of being illegal and wholly unconstitutional, with a petition — with various petitions stating that the acts are anti-farmer, anti-agriculturalist, and brought at a time when the country is literally grappling with a pandemic. And this law has been brought with the sole intention to benefit big corporates like the Ambanis and the Adanis, who have been at the receiving end of the Indian government’s largesse. And these acts will pave way for the cartelization and the commercialization of agricultural producers. And if they’re allowed to stand, it is going to ruin India, while the corporates in India will continue to gain. No wonder the likes of Mukesh Ambani will keep gaining every hour throughout the pandemic, and the farmers, who are right now, as we talk — are protesting bare feet in the national capital without having their meals for days at a stretch. While I’m talking, the Indian government has arrested Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition, for protesting against the gang rape of a Dalit girl.

So, this is — I mean, each time I speak on television, I talk about the world’s largest democracy. I don’t even know if I call it a democracy anymore. We saw what happened the last one week. Amnesty has been forced to shut down in India, because Amnesty has literally been an eyesore for the Indian government for speaking about human rights in India, for speaking about the poverty that we speak about. Now, this is a government that wants us to praise Mukesh Ambani NGO and not to talk about the farmers issue, which is why organizations like Amnesty India have been forced to shut following a lockdown.

It is the same Amnesty India which gave a damning report on the anti-Muslim carnage in February, when the pandemic had just about started maintaining a stronghold in India, when Trump was visiting India. He was visiting Narendra Modi. They both had a press conference in New Delhi, while, miles away, Muslims were being slaughtered, after members of the ruling party gave threatening, provocative speeches. Amnesty India actually put out a report saying how the government was complicit in the attack on Muslims.

And that’s what has been happening in India. In India, everything except the pandemic is being taken care of. Dissenters are being taken care of. Human rights activists are being incarcerated. Our actors, the cinematic icons of India, who have stood by dissenters, who have stood by students, are being fixed. They are being fixed in false cases of smoking marijuana. I mean, that’s what the government’s priority is right now.

Our news media has prostrated before those in power. It is not asking the questions that you and Nermeen are asking to me right now. I wish that was the case that I could go on an Indian news channel and these questions were asked to me. But at this point of time, Indian news channels are only repeating the lies that are being said by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We are in a mess right now, Amy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Rana, can you talk about that, the complicity of the news media, and in particular the broadcast news media, with the Modi government? It’s been extremely — it’s been striking, especially this last weekend as these farmers’ protests erupted across the country.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: The broadcast media was exclusively focused on this drug scandal that you mentioned, which implicated the country’s top — one of the top actresses, Deepika Padukone. And there were scenes of, you know, journalists’ cars racing after her car, following her every move. And this was happening not only in the midst of the farmers’ protests, but also in the wake of these rapes, a series of rapes, not just of the Dalit woman who died yesterday. And today another victim of gang rape, another Dalit woman, has died. In August, there were several reports of extraordinarily brutal violence against women, rapes of women and girls, the youngest among them a 3-year-old.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, could you talk about this, the complicity of the media with the Modi government; the violence against women, especially in Uttar Pradesh; and the extraordinary focus in the media on these celebrity — which many say are trumped-up — scandals, and against Deepika Padukone, who in fact is one of the only actresses who appeared at JNU, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi earlier this year in solidarity with student protesters, some of whom have now been arrested?

RANA AYYUB: Yeah. I mean, last year — I mean, I think, two years ago, Reuters Foundation came up with a report that India is the most unsafe place for women. And instead of debating this, because we have seen — we saw the Nirbhaya case, that almost led to the UP, the Congress government, you know, being routed out of power. So, the nationalist news anchors of India, instead of discussing the state of the safety of women, went on a rampage on how a Western organization was out to defame Indian culture and how there was — the Indian activists were behind this report.

But what they refuse to see, that today, a Dalit woman, who was 19 years old — her name was Manisha Valmiki. Her surname suggests that she came from a Dalit family. She was in hospital for 12 days. And today the director general of police where she was raped and killed said that it wasn’t even a rape. The forensics says it wasn’t even a rape, which is why we are not surprised that she was burned, allegedly, cremated, overnight in Uttar Pradesh, where the family was not even allowed to be present. And there was this mound of clothes, and there was — over which her body was placed when she was burned last night. This is what India is doing to its daughters.

But, unfortunately, the Indian media is not asking the right questions. You know, it was said during the emergency, when Indira Gandhi asked the media to bend, it crawled. At this point of time, the media has not even been asked to crawl. It is prostrating before Narendra Modi. And it doesn’t feel — it feels like the Indian media is living in an alternate world.

Like, you talked about Deepika Padukone. This stems from the suicide of a Bollywood actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. And ever since his suicide, women have been — there’s been a witch hunt against women who surrounded him, the first being his girlfriend, who was accused of abetting his suicide by not being there for him and by taking him to a psychiatrist. There is a medieval witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty, followed by Deepika Padukone, who’s one of the biggest superstars in India, who had the guts and the spine to stand with the students’ movement in February when it was opposing the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Deepika did not say a word, but she went and stood in solidarity with the students. Yesterday, when I was supposed to write my Washington Post column, I spoke to a couple of India’s biggest film directors. And they said what they are doing to Deepika Padukone — I mean, there’s a surveillance on her WhatsApp, and there is a word in which, allegedly, she has asked for weed. And that’s what the government is using to nail her and to fix her.

And she’s not the only one. Indian film director Anurag Kashyap, who has been very, very vocal against the government, there are two cases against him. Multiple film stars that I spoke to for The Washington Post piece believe — tell me that they are feeling claustrophobic, because Bollywood, as a medium, has the ability to sway the masses. And the government knows that the mass media, whether — it has been able to control the Indian news television channels and the newspapers, but it also had to control the film industry, which is why it is now being labeled — the film industry in India is being labeled as a drug cartel to discredit and delegitimize it, so that those who have been criticizing the government fall in line. That’s what’s happened with Deepika Padukone. She’s a woman. Of course, how dare a woman speak! Which is why she’s being fixed in the case.

I mean, Indian celebrities, whether it’s Priyanka Chopra or all of our Indian celebrities, when George Floyd was killed in America, they were tweeting “Black lives matter.” A Dalit woman was gang-raped, brutally killed, her body burned last night. Not a single celebrity is tweeting “Dalit lives matter.” That’s because they’re scared to talk. They know that if they talk, they will be fixed. They know that if they talk, Indian media will start a witch hunt against them. I mean, there are images of Indian actors, like Rhea Chakraborty, with about 100 cameramen pouncing on her, and those images go on television channels. You label them sluts. You label them all sorts of names on your television channels.

I mean, I feel — some days I feel ashamed to be a part of this news media, which has refused to ask the right questions. And all of this, mind you, is happening through the farmers’ protests, which is so important, which is at the heart of the problem in India right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Rana Ayyub, we just have 30 seconds, but the latest news about a special court in India acquitting all the suspects involved, including high-ranking officials in Modi’s government — involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, which led to riots and violence unprecedented since India’s partition in ’47?

RANA AYYUB: Well, Nermeen, I was in Bombay when the carnage took place. I was 9. And for somebody like me and for Muslims in India, when yesterday the court, a special CBI court, acquitted everyone who, on video, led a rally to demolish the Babri Masjid, that led to the carnage of a thousand Muslims, and despite the video — there are people who are saying on video, on televisions, that, “Yes, we did it,” the court’s saying, “No, you are acquitted.” I mean, it’s — we have the first time in the history of the world that the accused are saying “We did it,” and the courts are saying, “No, you stand acquitted.” And that speaks volumes of where Muslims and Dalits in India stand right now, where the criminal justice system in India stands right now, where we are as a democracy. And I think that, like I keep saying, that the world should now turn its attention to India, because what’s happening in America, you see a mirror image of that happening in India. It’s about time that —

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to end with that, Rana, that mirror image. You’re also an astute observer of the United States. Do you see the Hindu nationalism of Modi, the parallels with the white supremacy that President Trump refuses to condemn, in fact advocates?

RANA AYYUB: Absolutely. I think Trump and Modi are mirror images of each other. When Trump came to India, and when he had this massive rally with Narendra Modi, they were speaking the same language. When Mr. Trump spoke about Islamic terrorism, the entire crowd in Mr. Modi’s rally was jubilant. Mr. Trump refuses to condemn white supremacy. He refuses to talk about racism. Mr. Modi believes that there’s no such thing as Islamophobia in India. Mr. Modi has not spoken a word about the gang rape of a Dalit woman in India. Mr. Modi has enabled the attack on Muslims in India. I think this is a mirror image.

And you also see the masses who support Modi and Trump. These are people who feel victimized in their own country despite being a majority. So, both Trump and Modi are playing to the victimhood of this majority community, you know, which believes that it has a first right to all the resources in their country, which is why I think India and America are in absolutely similar position. But the world should know that if the world’s largest democracy goes down under, ripples will be felt by the world, which is why it’s time for the world to concentrate on India.

AMY GOODMAN: Rana Ayyub, I want to thank you for being with us, Indian journalist who’s a global opinions writer for The Washington Post, author of the book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. And we’re very thankful that you, at least yourself, have recovered from COVID, though India is number two, behind the United States, in the world for COVID infections.

When we come back, tomorrow marks two years since Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. Stay with us.

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