Covid-19: Mass compliance and social control

Topics Coronavirus | Lockdown

Critics may well jeer at the usefulness of clanging plates or flashing torches to fight the Covid-19 virus. Through these entirely symbolic actions, however, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may well be testing public compliance. He knows that measures to control the spread of the Coronavirus have to rely more on voluntary acquiescence than on strict enforcement. Given that there may be protests against onerous lockdowns, and experts have warned of potential food riots, he needs to regularly test the ambient social temperature.

The one-day janata curfew and the exhortation to ring bells in honour of healthcare workers, and subsequently to light lamps are therefore of a piece -- a means to test peoples’ commitment to his leadership and social compliance. The lamplighting may be a prelude to even more onerous but decentralised lockdowns of Covid-19 hotspots.

In times of a crisis, people may accept harsh lockdowns by the government and obey its commands in a show of solidarity. However, voluntary compliance and suspension of criticism could also encourage an expansion of governmental authority over society in unprecedented ways. The present government it seems is not beyond using the Covid-19 crisis to deflect attention from its gross failures, to push its political agenda, control the media, intimidate civil society and legalise new surveillance tools.

The need for controlling the pandemic came handy for disbanding longstanding protests and sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. The sit-ins, which largely comprised Muslims who felt their citizenship was existentially challenged, had become an international embarrassment for the government. Eventually they were dispersed without an offer of a political process for resolving their concerns, by simply evoking a medical emergency.

Under normal circumstances baton-charging of one of the most iconic protests, by women at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh -- would have been criticised as a disproportionate response. But in “the state of exception” created around the pandemic, there was no public protest against the use of force to clear the last demonstrators. Neither is there sufficient criticism against blanket targeting of Muslims after the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi amplified the spread of the virus. The media has joined as a force multiplier of the communal narrative being pedalled by the ruling party’s storm troopers.

In J&K, lockdowns were always bad news. Earlier a military lockdown enabled the Centre to take away the special status of the erstwhile state, without facing public protest. The latest lockdown has been an opportunity to implement new domicile laws which have the potential of completely transforming the demography of the region.

The media too has been encouraged to fall in line. Six hours before announcing the 21-day nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Modi met 20 media owners and editors. He impressed upon them that “it was important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour” and that “citizens need to be assured the government is committed to countering the impact of Covid-19.” An audit of subsequent reportage in the media houses present in the prime minister’s meeting shows a high degree of compliance according to Caravan magazine.

Deserted street in Karnataka on account of Janata curfew | File photo

However, even the normally pliant media refused to come to heel when thousands of daily-wagers began to leave India’s metropolises for their villages following the lockdown. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta tried to persuade the Supreme Court to give directions to the media to focus only on the government’s version of the pandemic, accusing them of having created the panic that caused an exodus of migrant workers. Although the Supreme Court said it would not like to interfere with freedom of expression, it nonetheless directed media to “refer to and publish the official version about developments.”

Realising the limitations of government machinery, Prime Minister Modi has recommended that state governments rope in NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Yet vilification of NGOs by the government continues. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, opposed a petition in the Supreme Court by social activists Harsh Mander, Anjali Bharadwaj and Swami Agnivesh on the plight of migrant workers reccomending a pay-out of 21-days’ wages. Mehta questioned the credentials of the petitioners as “public spirited persons” inspite of the fact that it is they who organised the first food kitchens for daily wage-earners and migrants. It is no surprise that the government has asked the Supreme Court to shut down “professional PIL shops” till the Covid-19 pandemic persists.

Fears that many governments will violate privacy and increase surveillance because of the pandemic have grown. Surveillance is up not only in authoritarian societies like China but in several democracies too. Singapore and a number of European countries have followed China in tracking smartphones to ensure quarantine compliance. In India, the Delhi Chief Minister has ordered the tracking of 25,000 mobile phones of persons under home quarantine. On March 29, the Department of Telecom shared a standard operating procedure with all telecom providers regarding an application called Covid-19 Quarantine Alert System (CQAS) to collect the mobile data information of users invoking Section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885.

Several state governments have launched mobile apps which send “geo-fencing” alerts to the authorities if a person under surveillance moves out of a designated area. They include Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Kerala. A dozen other states and Union Territories are reportedly likely to follow. While the SOP laid down by the government says that all phone data collected during the quarantine period will be deleted four weeks after the period is over, it is arguable whether the State machinery, having tasted blood, will easily give up these technologies of surveillance.

The apprehension that the pandemic could create conditions for the growth of authoritarian politics may then be coming true in India. The retreat of our elected representatives has further left the government in full control of the public discourse. It must resist the temptation to use public acquiescence to meet an unprecedented crisis to extend partisan and undemocratic agendas which would have been debated in normal circumstances.

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