Sobhi Mohanty

From communal violence to lockdown hunger – Emergency responses by civil society networks in Delhi

We’ve had an amazing response to our launch of the project on ‘Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid‘, and are now processing all the contacts and info we’ve received. For those wanting examples of the kinds of experiences we are interested in, I’ll be posting some examples over the next few days.

First up, Sobhi Mohanty argues that the massive civil society Covid response in Delhi had its roots in its response to a previous crisis – the scapegoating of Muslims by the government, which was still happening as the pandemic hit. This piece is a shortened version of a paper in the Interface Journal.

Delhi and its surrounding areas are the hub of one of the densest industrial regions in India. Announcement of the lockdown without advance notice, and shutdown of transportation and of inter-state borders quickly resulted in NGOs and social workers being faced with an overwhelming scale of distress. From migrant workers who lived in temporary makeshift shelters and lacked domicile documents, to the tens of thousands of families living in Delhi’s slum settlements who typically get by on marginal daily or weekly wages, a large section of the region’s population started running out of food, running out of savings to purchase supplies from private or even government stores, and frequently lacking the paperwork needed to access food from public distribution systems.

Civil society actors, themselves in physical lockdown, responded along two lines. First, they focused on creating a system of local network/s for relief provision – to ensure coordination with public officials – district and municipal authorities, police officials, and elected state representatives – to make relief work more efficient and in line with social distancing rules. The work on ground comprised drawing up lists of individuals and families who were in critical need of food or any form of emergency support on the basis of incoming messages for help, verifying these messages through an extensive volunteer network, roughly mapping areas that needed help, and then working on either fundraising, procurement and distribution of food supplies, or setting up of community kitchens at strategic locations.

A second line of work by CSOs was to meticulously document ground realities and gather information. The Delhi Relief Collective for example – a loose association of NGOs and individual volunteers – used WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media platforms to collate and communicate information about relief work, and continuously worked to build a database of target beneficiaries on the one hand, and policy responses, changes in government rules around lockdown, and the broader on-ground context of the growing food (and migrant) crisis. They used this knowledge to build a rights-based discourse around the fallouts of the lockdown for informal and migrant worker, focus media and political attention on the situation, and advocate for targeted governance and emergency welfare measures.

Anti-CAA protest, Delhi. Credit: wikimedia

It is significant that in the case of Delhi, a large section of the civil society network leading current relief and advocacy efforts actually mobilised in response to a very different sort of crisis – communal violence. This started as a protest against the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) (CAA/NRC) legislations that were widely perceived as a strategic intervention by the right-wing government to undermine the legal and social citizenship of Muslims within the country.

It took the form of both online activism, and a continuous series of physical demonstrations across the country. The most iconic of these was a sit-in organised by Muslim women in the east Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh. The sit-in started around 11th December 2019 and continued unbroken over many weeks. By the end of February 2020, it was being extensively covered by international media as the longest running peaceful protest in India.

Despite incidents of police-aided violence on university campuses in Delhi and at protest sites in other parts of the country, protestors at Shaheen Bagh and at these other sites remained non-violent. On the night of 23rd February 2020 however, there was a sudden eruption of extreme violence across multiple east Delhi residential neighbourhoods, a predominantly Muslim part of the city. The government declared a curfew in these parts of Delhi on the next day, but the curfew primarily served to intensify the violence in these areas. Over the next week, at least fifty people were reported brutally killed in these riots, many more dead bodies started emerging in sewers, and the extensive arson in these areas left thousands homeless, including both Hindus and Muslims, and the many families that lived in the numerous slum communities nearby.

On the night of 24th February, a well-known national human rights activist – Harsh Mander – started organising emergency rescue operations in the curfew neighbourhoods in response to emerging reports of violence. Meanwhile, both private residents of these areas and a few independent news media reporters started using Twitter to disseminate live coverage of mobs carrying out lynching, setting mosques, shops, and homes on fire, and police complicity in these ongoing events. Soon, multiple leading activists joined in these efforts to coordinate emergency rescue and relief operations by setting up private WhatsApp groups comprising NGOs, researchers, lawyers, journalists, and other private citizens across Delhi; the Delhi Relief Collective was one of them.

The complete lack of cooperation by formal government institutions, from the police to elected representatives, necessitated enormous online coordination using WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, in order to track and verify distress messages, connect with residents within the affected neighbourhoods in order to collect detailed information about the violence as it happened in real time, start campaigns to raise public awareness, and put pressure on political representatives once reports had been verified.

Shaheed Bagh protests, January 2020
Credit: By DTM – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85920044

It was under these circumstances that news broke of the WHO declaring the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic. At that point, hundreds of homeless families in east Delhi who had just been the victims of horrific communal violence and lost their homes, were now living in crowded relief camps. When the Delhi government discussed shutting down these camps, volunteers who had been involved with rescue efforts made urgent attempts to help these families find a temporary home with relatives or volunteers.

The pandemic also provided the perfect opportunity for many government-supported news outlets to extensively brand public protestors, such as those at Shaheen Bagh, as irresponsible for endangering public health. On 25th March – while hundreds of migrant workers were crowding the streets of Delhi, and hundreds of poor and homeless families were gathering en masse at community kitchens and shelters as a consequence of government lockdown measures – the Shaheen Bagh site was cleared by the Delhi police in the interest of social isolation.

The communal violence events described here, and the pandemic lockdown measures, have provided a similar context for civil society actors to navigate. Both violence-related curfew and social isolation-related curfew restricted physical entry into areas, prevented access to information about ground realities, made delivery of emergency support difficult, and required personal risks to civil society volunteers. Both necessitated helping those on the margins of citizenship in urban India. Some of the areas in Delhi that have been worst affected by the lockdown for example, are those same east Delhi areas that were affected by the communal violence. This is not surprising given that they are largely poor Muslim neighbourhoods, are located at the outskirts of the city, and have numerous migrant worker settlements, all factors contributing to their being relatively sidelined when it comes to government welfare provision.

Finally, extensive documentation and creation of a knowledge base of on-ground realities in each case not only allowed relief work in both cases to be efficient despite minimal resources, but also allowed CSOs to publicly demonstrate how already marginalised groups were being systematically targeted with physical and economic violence through the complicity of formal government institutions. Thus long term strategies of advocacy and civil society support for these groups could (and continue to) be built atop the layer of emergency relief provision.

It has been Indian civil society that has allowed for a humanitarian crisis in the making to be swiftly identified and at least partially addressed. Using the lockdown as an opportunity to target this same civil society with repressive measures has perhaps been one of the worst uses of the Indian government’s resources at this time, providing a not unclear indication of the democratic struggles that lie ahead.

About the author: Sobhi Mohanty is currently a PhD student in Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International & Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to starting her PhD, Sobhi worked for several years on sustainable livelihoods projects in India, both in slums, and in rural communities.

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