Technofascism in India

An ostensible public health tool is now being used to create ghettos of the sick

Image via Flickr.

Covid-19 arrived winged, following the circuits of global capital, gnawing through the sinews that bound together the movement of people, financial instruments, and goods. Job losses have mounted, industrial food-supply chains in the United States and United Kingdom are on the verge of a breakdown, and India’s invisibilized migrant laborers have begun their long march home. Crisis, chaos, and terror are fodder for authoritarian governance. While nations like Japan, Ethiopia, Spain, Hungary, and Botswana declared a “state of emergency,” granting  governments extra enhanced powers to combat Covid-19, other nations had recourse to a market-based techno-fundamentalist approach, unleashing the immense powers of corporate surveillance apps to manage the pandemic.

How has this emergency worked in India, where constitutional rights stand hollowed out? India, unlike other states, did not need to declare a state of emergency since emergency powers have gradually been incorporated into governance itself. Authoritarian tendencies were always simmering within Indian politics, culminating in the declaration of a twenty-one-month emergency in 1976. However, since the election of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in 2014 and the rise to power of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), we have seen an undeclared emergency: Increased concentration of power within the central government and a weakened judiciary has slowly dismantled a more federalist system. 

Let’s begin with occupied Kashmir, where militarization of quarantine measures has intensified. Kashmiris are no stranger to lockdowns—ironically they had just emerged from the world’s longest lockdown in a democracy, just weeks before the pandemic broke out. The earlier restrictions, including an internet blackout, had already crippled the public health system in Kashmir. The internet trickles into the hospitals of Srinagar at a speed of 2G,  making it impossible for doctors there to access up-to-date information and attend government-mandated web trainings and briefings about the virus. Low speeds and lack of broadband internet also inhibits much of the population from accessing the government’s health portal. And that is just one of the many problems the viral emergency has brought to one of the most militarized spaces in the world. Since April, the Indian government has arrested journalists, student activists, intellectuals, and teachers throughout the country under the draconian anti-terrorism Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), with the toll especially high among Kashmiris and those fighting for Kashmiri rights elsewhere. On May 3, 2020, the entire valley of Kashmir was declared a high-risk “red zone.” The few journalists still able to smuggle news out were reporting incidences of Indian military and paramilitary retaliation against villages and gun violence against Kashmiri demonstrators. 

Kashmir shows the brutal face of Indian authoritarianism, but there’s a banal technofascist side, too, stitched together by market liberalism, a willing citizenry, and India’s digital economy. Government after government has stressed that public cooperation is critical for a successful approach to counter the pandemic. Modi has sought public cooperation in many forms, ranging from compliance with extreme lockdown measures despite the cost in mass hunger, to clapping hands and pots, to celebratory light festivals. Modi does not want to let a good crisis go to waste, especially when he can use this moment to crush dissent and arrest writers while consolidating his program to promote Islamophobia, Hindu science, and a technofascist utopia. Early in the pandemic in late January, the government’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) issued advisories about dubious prevention measures and prophylactics to the virus, such as cow urine, ginger, and turmeric. Slick infographics began coursing through India’s social media landscape of WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, as followers of the Modi cult championed the wonders of Ayurveda and cowpathy, mixing alternative healing practices with quackery.

The government has issued a new phone app, Aarogya Setu (“Bridge to Health” in the BJP’s increasingly modish Sanskrit), that helps track Covid-19 cases and warns you if you are around others who have tested positive. This surveillance app works by mapping and modeling users’ patterns of life and work via structural recognition algorithms that compute users’ past habits (where we’ve been, who we have been in contact with, how many times) and then model predictions of our possible future movements. Nearly one hundred million people have already downloaded Aarogya Setu, despite the multiple privacy rights that users click away to the government. Privacy-focused groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation have raised an alarm over the program’s lack of compliance with global privacy standards. Details about the use of the data, where and how long it will be stored, and which government departments will have access to it all remain murky. Indeed, in many states, lists of Covid patients were put into the public domain. In Karnataka government authorities are now requiring people take hourly selfies and geotag them through another app called Quarantine Watch. Those who had initially not downloaded Aarogya Setu have either received notifications from their employers ordering them to do so, or in some cases, have been denied medication if they could not show apps on their phone. On May 1, 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs made Aarogya Setu mandatory.

NITI Ayog, the policy think tank of the Indian government responsible for the app’s development, is also using drones to monitor people’s movements and deliver disinfectant to crowded grocery markets in a contactless manner. One cannot forget, however, that India’s digital landscape is overlaid on an existing caste matrix and an ecology of sectarian hatred. In practice this means that poorer neighborhoods and slums are now heavily surveilled and “high-risk,” subjected to thermal mapping and monitoring. NITI Ayog is using Aarogya Setu and its vast security surveillance apparatus to erect geofencing, a technique that segregates populations based on categories of risk and alerts a government agency if a “risky” person jumps quarantine by, for example, crossing from one neighborhood to another. To enforce geofencing, the state has divided areas into red and orange zones of containment, with red the most heavily restricted and surveilled and green the zones where some freedom of movement is allowed. The red zones are geofenced and under aerial surveillance, and movement is only allowed for medical emergencies. It may soon be a legal offense to share your phone with others. Not coincidentally, many of the red zones are in Muslim and Dalit neighborhoods. These are also areas that are least likely to also receive necessary preventative and curative medical attention. An ostensible public health tool is now being used to create ghettos of the sick. 

Medical geographies are also caste geographies in India. Scholars such as Aniket Jaaware, Sanal Mohan, and Shailaja Paik have outlined what they term both the promiscuity and modernity of caste practices of touching and distancing—practices that have outlived the legal outlawing of untouchability in contemporary India. Thus contactless human interaction, although currently medically and scientifically ordained, will also consolidate caste prejudice in India. In a nation where physical and social distancing comes only too naturally for the large majority of upper castes, one can only shudder at the political reinforcement geofencing allows in demarcating infected (read: polluted) geographies. In historian Gopal Guru’s searing critique, untouchability is nothing but the upper castes’ fears of a “walking danger” that needs to be quarantined.

Blaming minorities for the spread of epidemics is not new to India. The annual Islamic missionary gathering of the Tablighi-Jamat held in Delhi in March was deemed a vector for coronavirus transmission and generated a string of Islamophobic narratives. These authoritarian tendencies fueling sectarianism are reminiscent of the imperial British policies around the Hajj pilgrimage, which considered the Hajj as a site of “twin infection” during the 1865 plague outbreak, which spread eastwards from Hijaz to British India and westwards to the Ottoman Empire. Muslims in India were also ostracized during the HIV/AIDS outbreaks in the 1980s, with little evidence that they had greater infection rates. Now drones are being deployed to monitor the Nizammudin area of east Delhi where the Tablighi-Jamat met. This surveillance legitimized media propaganda and the fake news industry, who went to work under the hashtag #CoronaJihad. The leader of Tablighi-Jamat has now been charged with manslaughter.

Such expansive technological invasions into our private lives should cause alarm for India’s minorities and those protesting or despairing over India’s descent into fascism. The unleashing of a robust security apparatus to monitor the pandemic has been referred to by the Israeli dissident architect and scholar of surveillance technologies, Eyal Weizman, as the creation of “our collective and personal risk landscape.” This innocuous-sounding phrase is another way of talking about predictive restriction of movement, whereby you may not be allowed to move once you have been deemed a risk. We could also call it predictive policing, incarceration, and removal from the body politic, and the technologies were in fact developed with just these purposes in mind. The pattern analysis algorithms and human response data employed by Aarogya Setu and geofencing techniques were technologies initially developed by the CIA and the IDF along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders and in Gaza and tThe West Bank. Will India’s civil society be able to ensure that these expanded public health powers are kept “fenced” in their proper areas of use? The judiciary in India, especially the Supreme Court, has shown little inclination to challenge the expanded powers of the central government, following the declaration of the lockdown. So far, only one state court has shown courage. Kerala’s High Court recently ruled that the government could not outsource storage of its contact tracing data to an American firm, Sprinklr, until sufficient safeguards were in place to anonymize the data collected. The court also forbade Sprinklr from sharing data for any purpose except those related to its public health contract.

In the meantime, Aarogya Setu and the drone monitoring system will give the Modi regime enough information to play with in order to further their fascist social policies, as the movements, intimacies, and circulation of Muslims are now available for constant scrutiny. As Covid courses through India, it is increasingly clear who will pay the price for the epidemic. In the last week of April, an elected member of the ruling BJP in Uttar Pradesh asked everyone to boycott Muslim vegetable sellers. Neighborhood vigilantism, the bedrock of Hindu nationalism, which has gradually expanded since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and strengthened itself since through pogroms in Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar, and Delhi, can now be done “from above,” with reconnaissance outsourced to tech companies in the name of public health. Technofascism in India operates through surveillance, through detention, and by cutting vulnerable minorities off from access to economic opportunities and—as we have seen in Kashmir—through withholding essential rights, such as accessing health benefits through the government’s online health portal. In a country that has already begun preparing a national citizen’s registry based on religion—the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act—and has denationalized 1.9 million people in the northeastern state of Assam since 2014 and is now building additional detention centers there to hold them, the measures taken to stop the spread of a biological virus will only help spread the virus of Hindu Fascism—if we let them.

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