Communalising Corona: Is it necessary at this hour?

DR DIMPY MAHANTA

The enemy that India is facing today is one without an ideology, religion or nationality. That is the Novel Corona virus pandemic which has taken so many human lives all across the globe and is still spreading its tentacles to gulp down the entire human race. It is a war between the humanity vis-à-vis a deadly virus of the size of a few microns in diameter. Psychologists believe that one of the ways to unite divergent groups with diverse interests is by creating a “super-ordinate” goal. In the present times of pandemic, our super-ordinate goal is to win the war against this deadly virus. We, as a nation should stay together, confine ourselves at home, maintain our basic hygiene and salute our COVID Warriors who have been serving us round the clock 24×7. But unfortunately, our unity seems to be endangered when so many so-called enlightened educated elites of our society attempt to inject religion in a virus and the common masses follow them blindly.  

Innumerable hate messages and abusive remarks were being afloat on the social media platforms like facebook, twitter handles etc. calling the community who attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz by various names like CORONA JIHADIS, SUICIDE BOMBERS, ANTI-NATIONALS etc. In the process, the entire thing had gotten a communal color, something which could have been completely avoided. Even scholarly individuals and electronic media did not hesitate to use “Us versus They” in their lingo while all that is needed at this crucial time is to stay harmoniously as ‘one entity’. There is little if any doubt of “they” being referred to the Muslims.  In a cricket team, if one player gets injured or gets bowled out, the team doesn’t start abusing that player to the extent that he feels scared to play the future matches. Rather the entire team or the captain takes responsibility of its winning or losing the match without blaming or spotting out anyone in particular in the team. This leads to camaraderie and better bonding amongst the team-mates. Same thing could be extended to a larger society where instead of blaming the minority community who attended the congregation, it would have been wiser to consider them as normal patients or victims of COVID-19. People who were simply scared and fearful of revealing their identity amidst people who they don’t trust much with the fear of being outcast from their family and friends and thereby facing stigmatization. According to me that understanding was required in our so-called enlightened minds rather than trying to find patterns or liberally use terms like corona jihad and suicide bombers.

Besides some lacunae in the government machinery which led to this kind of situation, the main fault lies in the Leaders of such religious organizations who propagate radicalization. Any kind of development of scientific temper amidst the people is strongly discouraged by the radical leaders. Their sole aim is to maintain their status quo amongst the innocent ignorant people of their community. And for their own selfish motives of transferring their power and supremacy from one generation to the next, they do not hesitate to pass on regressive thoughts and practices in the minds of common people. Without any formal education, the followers develop firm faith in these leaders and they in turn take advantage of this by playing with their psyche and sentiments by ‘radicalizing’ them very gradually in the process. 

Radicalization is a process of developing extreme beliefs, emotions, and behaviors. Such beliefs are profound convictions opposed to the fundamental values of society, the laws of democracy and the universal human rights, advocating the supremacy of a certain group (racial, religious, political, economic, social etc.). The extremist emotions and behaviors may be expressed both in non-violent pressure and coercion and in actions that deviate from the norm and show contempt for life, freedom, and human rights. A complete inroad to psychological mechanism involved in the process of radicalization is extremely important to understand the current scenario. 

The minorities in our country quite often experience a sense of insecurity, anxiety and threat. The religious leaders take advantage of such a situation by first emotionally charging up their followers by infusing in them thoughts of perceived deprivation, perceived injustice and thereby leading them to experience perceived disconnectedness. This implies the perception that an  individual does not belong to the mainstream of the society, an idea that feeds violent attitudes. Slowly the minds of the common people become vulnerable and receptive to the new way of thinking, the radicalized ideology. The common people slowly start developing a strong categorical thinking (us-versus-them) and an ‘in-group versus out-group’ mentality. A phenomenon called as cognitive opening. There is a strong relationship between affect (emotions), behavior and cognitions (thought process or beliefs) often called as ABC model in human psychology. 

Any radical irrational belief system will cause charged up emotions like anger and hostility which inturn would lead to violent attitudes and aggressive behaviours. In the present context, definitely few of the Tablighi Jamaat participants had committed a grave sin by engaging in violent acts against our COVID-19 warriors, our health workers. Such actions are punishable under law without giving a communal fervor by addressing the entire community as Corona Jihadis. The current times are full of uncertainty causing fear and anxiety in the human psyche all across the globe. Under such circumstances, participants who went in groups to attend the Tablighi Jamaat, are no exceptions to the same emotions coupled with regressive irrational beliefs infused in them by their religious leaders. The problem of experiencing the sense of self-uncertainty, specifically feelings of uncertainty about their life, their future and uncertainty about their self and identity is solved by group identification. It has always been their group or the small community which defines their overall self concept. The announcement of lockdown and subsequent decision of the authority to quarantine them was perceived by them as a realistic threat to the very existence of their same in-group. Thus, leading them to either hide or display such aggressive unacceptable violent behaviours towards our medical professionals. 

All religions across the world teach one thing, i.e., condemn the sin but not the sinner. Generally, whenever individuals commit sins or bad acts, people are quick to condemn themselves (self-downing) and others (other-downing), thinking that they are not valuable human beings or are rotten people. Hence, an unconditional self/other acceptance is the need of the hour. It means to develop an understanding that all people are imperfect creatures, fallible human-beings. There is no perfect human-being. All people under varied circumstances, sometimes behave badly and sometimes well. But human beings are much more than the sum of their individual behaviors. Therefore, global evaluation of human worth must be avoided as it is a generalized evaluation and leads to denigration of self as well as other.

Saying all of these, I still strongly feel that the congregation at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz shouldn’t have taken place at this hour or should have been postponed noticing the rate of spread of the pandemic claiming lives by the thousands. At the same time it is understandable that any international conference is planned atleast a year in advance and visas of foreign delegates are also done months in advance. But no congregation or conference can be more important than survival of the human race. 

However, this is not the time for blame-gaming rather it is vital to maintain communal harmony and fight together against the common enemy. Under such circumstances, the educated elites of all religions must display harmony and empathy towards every community rather than having misplaced anger and categorical thinking of ‘Us-versus-Them’. Else there will no difference between them and the religious leaders who infuse the same categorical thinking in the minds of the vulnerable sections for their own selfish gains. We are all an integral part of one society and we cannot exist by eliminating the other. 

Being a daughter of Assam, I have always felt extreme pride of having been born and brought up in a syncretic culture where Eid is celebrated with the same fervor as we celebrate Holi, Diwali or Bihu. The onus lies on us in not letting this syncretic culture disappear with such thoughts of hatred towards the other religion and also generalizing the acts of the participants of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation and blaming the entire community as anti-nationals. Such actions are very detrimental to the pluralistic society where we live in. 

It is a sheer luck that the congregation at Tirupati during the same time didn’t come up with a COVID-19 patient. Even if there was, it’s not known to us. Educated Elites from the same community and the Aamirs should give public appearances requesting the participants of the Nizamuddin congregation to come forward and cooperate with the government without any fear of stigmatization. They must get actively involved in creating awareness about the disease and its spread. Moreover, such religious organizations propagating regressive radical thoughts in the minds of our common people should be strictly banned and the property confiscated and used for educating the communities. This step towards building scientific temper by de-radicalizing their thought process must be considered a responsibility and should be taken forward by the educated enlightened ones of the same community. 

And finally to the common public, my only appeal is to maintain harmony. Hence this understanding of human psyche at this hour of crisis is immensely important in order to maintain brotherhood and have a sense of empathy and forgiveness. Corona must be replaced with “Caruna” i.e., Compassion. This is certainly not the time to instigate public and engage in hate speeches at this critical hour and give communal colour to the fight against this Corona Virus. Else, the effects of communalizing corona virus will be immensely dangerous and its repercussions will stay far beyond, even after the pandemic ends.

Dimpy Mahanta is Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Cotton University. She is President North East Indian Association of Applied Psychology (NEIAAP).