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India

At Modi's call, Indians resort to rituals to fight Covid-19

Elements of Hindu beliefs are seen in the prime minister's appeal to light lamps to tackle the pandemic

UCA News reporters

UCA News reporters

Updated: April 06, 2020 10:08 AM GMT
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At Modi's call, Indians resort to rituals to fight Covid-19

Residents light diyas or oil lamps outside their home to observe a nine-minute vigil called by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a show of unity in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Amritsar on April 5. (Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP)

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The Hindu Diwali festival of lights was relived for nine minutes in India on April 5 when millions lit lamps and candles in a show of solidarity in the fight against fast-increasing cases of Covid-19 infections in the country.

Conch shells were blown, as in Hindu rituals, and even firecrackers were burst as Indians overwhelmingly responded to a call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to show India's unity and resolve to fight the disease.

Many explained the event as a means to create a positive atmosphere amid the gloom triggered by the spread of the pandemic that has left more than 4,300 infected and claimed at least 118 lives across India. 

April 5 saw 500 new cases, but experts say the actual number could be millions as the rate of testing in India remains far lower than that of other countries such as South Korea.

As South Korea tested 8,150 people per million of its population, India's rate was just 35 per million of its 1.3 billion people, published reports show. Experts explain that testing and isolating the infected is the best way to stop the infection spreading.

However, Modi, known for his radical pro-Hindu leanings, asked people to switch off electric lights and come out onto the terraces and balconies of their homes with their families at 9pm on April 5 to light lamps and candles for nine minutes.

"Salute to our prime minister. By this small action of lighting lamps, he has given a bigger message of national unity and resolve" to fight the virus, said India's Information Minister Prakash Javadekar.

'Hindu auspicious action'

Some people noted an obsession with the number nine in Modi's appeal, which he made on television on April 3, nine days after he imposed a 21-day lockdown until April 15.

"Nine days into lockdown, at 9am, Modi spoke for nine minutes, calling to light lamps for nine minutes at 9pm on April 5, nine days away from the end of the lockdown," noted Anto Akkara, a journalist-turned-rights activist. 

"If this is not superstition or religious obscurantism, you tell me what it is," Akkara said when asked to explain his criticism of the event on social media.

"I'm all for lighting the symbolism of the candle. But such obsessions without actions to help those already in darkness, poverty and hunger because of the lockdown are baffling, particularly when it comes from the prime minister of a country," he told UCA News.

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said Modi's call was meaningless when India is facing a serious lack of medical masks, test kits and personal protection equipment for health workers on the front lines.

"I am a citizen of India, not a clown to perform to the tune of the ringmaster," George said. 

S.S. Pandey, a Hindu based in central India's Jabalpur city who follows the Hindu religious calendar for all auspicious functions in his family, told UCA News that the section of time was decided on "as per the Hindu religious calendar."

"The chosen day, time and duration were very auspicious for the country to escape from the deadly grip of the virus," he said.

Wide-ranging support 

Film icons, sports stars, industrialists and top-ranking Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamali supported Modi's move.

Cardinal Gracias, at the end of his televised Palm Sunday liturgy, urged people to "come out" and light a candle or oil lamp following the call of the prime minister.

"Let us join all our neighbors in a show of solidarity, and make it also for us a moment of prayer. We are in Holy Week. We pray to God to bless our country, bless our families, and bless our communities," Cardinal Gracias said. 

Cardinal Alencherry, in a video message on April 5, expressed the support of the Christian community in India for the efforts of the prime minister and the government in the fight against the pandemic. The government and Modi are "giving all the encouragement to doctors, nurses and other health workers for their effective functioning during the season."

Hundreds of Catholics across India followed the call.

"We switched off all lights in our home and lit candles for nine minutes heeding the appeal of our prime minister," said Richard D'Silva, a Catholic based in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

His four-member family held burning candles for nine minutes. "It was a beautiful experience as all Indians joined together to fight against the dark cloud of coronavirus engulfed in our country," he said.

Congress leader Sashi Tharoor, a Hindu, tweeted that Modi's call was no accident. He said the prime minister was "invoking all the auspicious elements of Hinduism associated with the number nine. Back to Ram Bharose?! (trusting Lord Ram)," the parliamentarian from Kerala wrote.

Muslims targeted

Some Hindu groups have blamed Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat's conference in New Delhi in mid-March for causing large-scale Covid-19 infections. 

The meeting defied government orders against large gatherings, while some participants traveled back to their villages, with reports linking some 60 percent of all coronavirus cases in India to this gathering. 

As India heads into its second week of the 21-day lockdown, causing hardship to the poor, analysts warned that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could stoke "anti-Muslim sentiment to deflect public anger from the government's failings in managing the crisis," reported India's Financial Times daily newspaper.

BJP leader Virendra Sachdeva denied that India's ruling party was trying to blame Muslims as a community.

"No one is targeting Muslims. But Tablighi Jamaat preachers are Muslims, and it is well known that over 1.5 million people attended such a markaz outside Lahore in Pakistan last month and thus spread the virus across Pakistan as well," he said.

The Indian Union Muslim League in a tweet mocked a large gathering of Hindus throwing the norms of social distancing into the air and marching through streets with lit lamps. It shared a video of people coming out on the streets and mockingly wrote: "Surgical strike on Covid-19 by the followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi."

Cricket stars Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli also joined the lighting of lamps.

'Action, not antics.'

Christian leader A.C. Michael, a former member of Delhi Minorities Commission, said many Indians "celebrated Diwali and once again displayed their skill of lighting over 1,000 lamps in a row on their terraces in large groups, violating social distancing norms."

"I suggest that the prime minister immediately announce free tests, isolate, treat and make PPE (personal protection equipment) kits available in abundance. He also needs to come out with packages to take care of daily wagers and small-scale industries," Michael told UCA News.

Christian leader Sajan George said Indians are "being asked to perform antics. We want to know how many hospitals, ventilators, ICUs are ready. We want to know if Covid-19 testing will be made accessible and affordable."

India wants to know who and how the food and medical needs of migrant workers are being addressed. How about the government shedding light on these issues?" George asked.

"India is simply not testing enough [to fight the virus] ... Making people clap and shining torches in the sky isn't going to solve the problem," Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted on April 4.

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