Just before midnight on 22 December 1949, sixteen months after the Indian nation-state was formed, three Hindu fundamentalists sneaked into the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The men – an ascetic and his disciples – smuggled in a statue of the god Ram and placed it under the central dome of the mosque. They were members of the Hindu Mahasabha, the group that had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi the year before. The next morning, their allies stormed the mosque. They said the god had manifested himself at the site they believed to be his birthplace in a ‘divine exercise’.
The mobile phone footage shows 19-year-old Muskan Khan riding a scooter into the yellow-walled compound of her college campus in Mandhya, a city in Karnataka in south-west India, on 8 February. She parks it, steps off. Around her, a jumpy, agitated crowd of young men dressed in matching saffron-coloured scarves are caught in the throes of a tirade: ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ they chant, spinning the cloth above their heads, as though punctuating the chorus of a pop song. Khan has to walk past the boys to enter the college building. They charge at her, taunt her, demand she take off her hijab. She punches the air, her body tilting, face crinkled in a frown, and declares: ‘Allahu akbar.’
The documents seemed to reveal a plan to assassinate Narendra Modi; discussed buying arms and setting up guerrilla training camps; and named Dalit and Muslim student leaders as comrades with ties to the Congress party. It was sensational, with all the trappings of a classic conspiracy: a group of armed activists with links to the opposition, plotting to topple the government. The police called the evidence they had gathered ‘conclusive’; the BJP’s propaganda machine branded the accused as Naxalites. One of them, Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union activist and lawyer, passed her defence team a handwritten note. ‘It is totally concocted,’ she wrote, ‘fabricated to criminalise me and other human rights lawyers, activists, organisations.’
A tanker carrying medical oxygen from the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand to central Madhya Pradhesh was halted after it crossed the border into Uttar Pradesh on 25 April. India registered more than 350,000 new Covid-19 cases that day. The vehicle was on a tight deadline; patients on ventilators were urgently awaiting its arrival. The driver alleges that police commandeered the tanker at Varanasi and took it further off course into the state, to Jhansi. When the oxygen did not arrive at Sagar as scheduled, state chief ministers got involved. The UP government reluctantly parted with the tanker, but has since denied the incident ever took place. As India is overwhelmed by a second wave of the virus, the country has run out of oxygen.
Two parades took over the streets of New Delhi on Tuesday, 26 January. On the Rajpath, to celebrate Republic Day, the prime minister unfurled the national flag to the sound of a 21-gun salute, as fighter jets flew in patterns across the sky. At the city’s peripheries, thousands of protesting farmers pressed in with their tractors, decorated with marigolds. Many others had made the journey on foot; young and old, dressed in high-vis vests and bright turbans, they held up the Indian flag. After more than two months of peacefully occupying sites around the outside of the city, they had finally entered its limits. New Delhi residents showered them with flowers, and handed out food and water. Similar demonstrations took place across the country, and even abroad. For a brief moment, hope and revolutionary impetus were in the air.
On the morning of 14 September 2020, a teenage Dalit girl and her mother entered the fields of a landowning, upper-caste family in the district of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to gather fodder for their cattle. The woman heard her daughter scream and rushed over to find her injured and covered in blood. In a video shared on social media, the girl, slipping in and out of consciousness, says: ‘They strangled me, because I did not let them force me.’ According to her family, the police delayed filing a First Information Report for the crime. The assault was a clear case of caste atrocity, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, but the police did not record it as such. A close look at the legal system reveals that the police and courts routinely erase the question of caste from criminal proceedings.
Two young women, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, have been held in judicial custody at a maximum security prison in Delhi for more than a hundred days. They are founding members of the feminist student activist collective Pinjra Tod (‘break the cage’). At the start of the year, Narwal and Kalita led peaceful protests against India’s new citizenship laws, which discriminate against Muslims and Dalits. The Delhi police are looking to place blame for the deadly riots that tore through the city in February. The charges that Narwal and Kalita are being held on include property damage, assaulting state officials, armed rioting, murder, and the manufacture and sale of arms. They have also been booked under two sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, on counts of fundraising for terrorism and inciting criminal conspiracy. Anyone accused of such crimes is automatically denied bail.
Tomorrow will mark one year since the Indian government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which had provided a loose form of legal autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir. Democratically elected Kashmiri leaders were arrested, 30,000 additional troops deployed, and a total communications shutdown imposed, cutting residents of the valley off from one another and the outside world. Jammu and Kashmir were divided into separate union territories. Months passed without any internet or telephone access. A weak 2G connection has now been made available, but it is unstable and often suspended.
On 20 May, Super-Cyclone Amphan hit West Bengal and Bangladesh with wind speeds of over 200 kilometres per hour. It tore through embankments in the Sundarbans Delta, flooding riverine villages and choking vegetable and paddy fields with seawater. Salt water also got into wells and freshwater ponds, depriving thousands of people of their access to drinking water. Storm water surges – more than five metres high – carried away livestock, houses and entire islands. The winds blew salt water into the trees: guava and palm, but especially mangrove. Now, a month after the storm struck, they look burned by the brackish water, their leaves yellow and red.
Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago. The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.