“Covid Catastrophe”: Capitalism Unable to Overcome India’s Feudal and Colonial Heritage

India today: where the unimaginable actually exists through a human society near total collapse. As Indian commentator and activist Arundhati Roy put it: “The system hasn’t collapsed…. What we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity.” Nor should US workers think we are immune to a disaster of similar scope nor to crimes of equal proportions. In fact, there are many uncanny parallels. The main differences are merely a matter of degrees, and these simply result from the differences in the eras and conditions under which Indian and US capitalism developed. That is especially true as far as Indian Prime Minister Nerandra Modi and ex-President Donald Trump are concerned.

  • Whereas Modi supported and indirectly helped organize the Gujarat pogrom/riots of 2002 in which well over 1000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, beaten and burned to death, Trump “merely” considers white supremacist fascists to be “good people”.
  • Whereas Modi bases himself on and belongs to, among other things, the 5-6 million member armed

    Modi’s fascist RSS

    fascist group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS), Trump merely calls on the relatively miniscule fascist Proud Boys to “stand by”.

  • Whereas Modi has nearly completely dismantled what was already a rickety and barely functioning public health care system, Trump merely tried to do the same for what little is good in Obamacare.
  • Whereas Modi has deprived millions of Indian Muslims of citizenship and is building a massive prison complex for them in the state of Assam, Trump has merely tried to expel as many Latino immigrants as possible from the country.
  • Whereas Modi imprisoned dozens of journalists last year for “spreading misinformation” and threatens to imprison many more now for such crimes as reporting on shortages of oxygen, Trump merely calls any media that is even partly independent of him “enemies of the people”, encourages assault on reporters, and calls for loosening of libel laws so that he can sue the authors of news stories he dislikes.
  • And whereas Trump appropriately held a “Howdy Modi” celebration in Texas in September of 2019, Modi held his “Namaste (we honor, or bow down to) Trump” rally in April of 2020, appropriately in Gujarat, the state of the Muslim pogrom of 2002.
  • As far as their focus on increasing the profits of corporations and the wealth of the billionaires, there is no difference at all. According to one report, in just six months of last year, “India’s billionaires saw a 35% increase in their wealth and one company, Cyrus Poonawalla, whose Serum Institute of India is the country’s biggest manufacturer of vaccines, saw his wealth increase by a staggering 84.7% to US$13.8 billion.”

The parallels are so many that it’s impossible to list them all individually. So maybe the best way to explain it is to outline the rise of India’s Covid Catastrophe:

By early January of 2020, Covid had been largely contained in India. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Modi bragged “In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

This migrant worker had had to trek hundreds of miles to try to return home. But he couldn’t get there. Here, a reporter captures him crying as he talks on the phone and learns that his son has died of Covid.

Modi Orders Lockdown
In March, with just a few hours notice, Modi ordered a total lockdown of the country. This caused massive hardship, especially for migrant workers, among whom the country’s
Dalits (formerly the “untouchables”) are a disproportionate number. Millions of them had to trek on foot back to their homes in the countryside. Upon arrival back in their villages, the Dalits found themselves without food ration cards or access to whatever meager health care system existed.

Then, in an appeal to his fundamentalist Hindu nationalist base, and with a focus on his election campaign, he reversed course. In April, he sponsored super-spreader events like April’s Kumbh Mela religious festival of millions of Hindus. He also organized super-spreader election rallies throughout the country.

Kumbh Mela festival a few months ago. This was a super super=spreader event.

Meanwhile, while India is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines, those vaccines were largely produced for export to wealthier markets. It is uncertain how much any of the present vaccines would have prevented a new outbreak since it seems some new variants of the virus may be able to evade them. These, combined with the decimation of any semblance of a public health care system, meant that such super-spreader events were primed to take off. And take off they did. The reported number of deaths in India are 222,000, but this is a massive undercount, one reason being that those who die from covid are only reported as dying from that disease if they die in the hospital. There are huge numbers, possibly the majority, however, who can never get into a hospital because they are so full. It is thought that the real numbers may be as much as 30 times the official rate.

The statistics fail to give the real face of the social collapse. The following two reports, both of which are illegal under Modi’s prohibitions against “causing panic”, give a little bit of a glimpse of the real state of affairs. The only reason they have not been imprisoned is that one journalist writes for a premier US capitalist think tank journal and the other is globally famous. Mandakini Gahlot writes in Foreign Affairs

Every night ushers in a now sadly familiar ordeal. Desperately sick patients go from hospital to hospital, begging for oxygen. The hospitals, with only hours of oxygen to spare for their own patients, turn the afflicted away. Relatives and friends post urgent pleas on social media, trying in vain to source the third most abundant element in the universe. But not for love of God or money is there any oxygen to be had in the city.

By morning, a long line of corpses trails outside the Nigambodh crematorium. Relatives of the deceased, many of them infected with COVID-19 themselves, wait for four hours or more in the scorching summer heat for an overworked priest to become available to perform the last rites. In one crematorium, the heat of the ovens burning uninterrupted for so long has melted iron grills. In another, workers are burning bodies on the pavement. Friends in other cities and states—Lucknow, Mumbai, Gujarat—share similar horror stories. That grim detail is the human face of a statistical catastrophe.”

Arundhati Roy gives a similar description: “Hospital beds are unavailable. Doctors and medical staff are at breaking point. Friends call with stories about wards with no staff and more dead patients than live ones. People are dying in hospital corridors, on roads and in their homes. Crematoriums in Delhi have run out of firewood. The forest department has had to give special permission for the felling of city trees. Desperate people are using whatever kindling they can find. Parks and car parks are being turned into cremation grounds. It’s as if there’s an invisible UFO parked in our skies, sucking the air out of our lungs. An air raid of a kind we’ve never known.

“Oxygen is the new currency on India’s morbid new stock exchange. Senior politicians, journalists, lawyers – India’s elite – are on Twitter pleading for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. The hidden market for cylinders is booming. Oxygen saturation machines and drugs are hard to come by.”

This pregnant woman hiked down the hill and one additional km. to the water pump, where she was turned away because she’s a Dalit. “We’ve been locked up here, like prisoners — we live near a milk factory, and there is not a drop of milk for my children to drink. We are called dirty, and they say we spread the disease,” she said.

Add to this the return to their rural home villages of tens of millions of migrant workers, including the Dalit (“Untouchables”), who perform the most “menial” but necessary of tasks such as cleaning, along with jobs in transport. Such is the scope of the near total collapse of Indian society. How to explain this?

If “the sins of the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, then the crimes of the past are still felt in modern society. And the crimes of past rulers over the Indian subcontinent – and of the world, in fact – are many and massive. A major factor was the creation of the caste system by Indian feudal rulers some 2000 or more years ago. Human Rights Watch explains In order of precedence these are the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers), the Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and the Shudras (laborers and artisans). A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as “untouchables” or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system.”

The British imperialists further formalized the caste system, partly to combat the Muslim rivals and partly to formalize their own rule. Another important reason is explained in this comment from a strategist of British imperialism at that time: One of the most time honoured maxims in the science of government is that famous phrase, “Divide et impera, [divide and rule]” and in Caste we have ready-made fissures in the community, which render the institutions of secret societies, so… dangerous among the Chinese and Malays, almost impossible in India.”

The British imperialists also left another ticking time bomb: In effect, they invented Hinduism. It wasn’t the beliefs they invented; no foreign conquerer can simply impose ideas out of whole cloth onto a conquered society. But for administrative as well as political reasons, they grouped together a whole series of different religious beliefs and practices into one category – Hinduism. Then, in following years, especially upon being forced out, they made sure that a conflict between the Hindus and the Moslems remained central to politics in the South Asian continent.

The Hindu communal riots in Gujarat in 2002.
Modi was banned from the United States for his involvement in these.

They thereby helped set the stage for the rise of the fascist RSS, fascist pograms like the Gujarat riot, and ultimately the rise to power of Hindu nationalist bigot Narendra Modi, who was first elected in 2014 and reelected in 2019.

Unable to compete on the world market and unable to become truly independent, the weak, degenerate and corrupt Indian capitalist class has been unable to develop Indian society. Among its failures are its inability to truly modernize rural India and break it from thousands-year old feudal traditions, first and foremost the caste system. These traditions interpenetrate with Hindu nationalism and bigotry to form a basis for the rise of Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (which is almost a caricature of how the most extreme elements in the US’s Republican Party seek to transform that party.)

Modi’s close ties with Indian capitalism have led him to massive privatization.This includes the dismantling of the already inadequate public health care system. According to one estimate India spends a paltry 3.5% of GDP on health care, resulting in having only 0.8 doctors for every 1000 Indians, 5.3 beds for every 10,000 people, while China—for example—has 43.1 beds for the same number, the US has 26 per 10,000 and world leader Austria has 52. India has only 2.3 critical care beds for 100,000 people (compared to 3.6 in China).

The Indian Journal of Community Medicine, described the overall health care “system” in India three years ago: “The Indian healthcare scenario presents a spectrum of contrasting landscapes. At one end of the spectrum are the glitzy steel and glass structures delivering high tech medicare to the well-heeled, mostly urban Indian. At the other end are the ramshackle outposts in the remote reaches of the “other India” trying desperately to live up to their identity as health subcenters, waiting to be transformed to shrines of health and wellness, a story which we will wait to see unfold. With the rapid pace of change currently being witnessed, this spectrum is likely to widen further, presenting even more complexity in the future.

“Our country began with a glorious tradition of public health, as seen in the references to the descriptions of the Indus valley civilization (5500–1300 BCE) which mention “Arogya” as reflecting “holistic well-being.”[1] The Chinese traveler Fa-Hien (tr.AD 399–414) takes this further, commenting on the excellent facilities for curative care at the time.”

In other words, utter poverty amid luxury, underdevelopment amid the most modern facilities. Such is capitalism in India, as it is in the rest of the former colonial world laboring under the yoke of capitalism.

Global Consequences
Workers in the US have partially woken up to the fact that low wages and poverty in the former colonial world directly affects us here;
it is imported into the US through capital flight. A similar process is at work with India’s covid catastrophe. While it isn’t entirely certain, it seems that part of the seriousness of the catastrophe there is due to a new variant of the virus – B1.617. Again, it’s not known for certain, but it’s possible that this “double mutation” of the virus is both more transmissable and more lethal. Not only that, but there is some evidence that current vaccines may be not effective or less effective against it. This virus has been found in the US now.

Modi Land “Reform” and Conditions for New Zoonotic Diseases
Then there is the underlying issue: As evolutionary epidemiologist Rob Wallace has repeatedly explained (and as reported on in Oaklandsocialist
), Covid 19 is an environmentally based disease. The conditions that give rise to this and similar zoonotic diseases are factory farming and wild habitat destruction. Recently, Modi sparked off a huge protest movement when he pushed through a farming “reform” bill. This bill would largely transform Indian agriculture to a system dominated by agribusiness multinationals in which animal and plant crops are raised on an industrial scale. That would mean further opening the door to new and even more devastating zoonotic diseases.

Political Conclusions
So, we see how capitalism’s inability to overcome India’s feudal and colonial past is wreaking havoc on Indian society, now through Covid, but combined with all the rest of this heritage – the caste system, underdevelopment, etc. One simple contrast demonstrates capitalism’s failure: In India it has been unable to end the caste system whereas next door the Chinese revolution wiped out the equally barbaric practice of binding the feet of little girls. That great accomplishment remains, despite the fact that China has since returned to capitalism (which is another subject entirely).

Neither in the realms of economics, of politics nor of simple human health can the world’s working class escape the effects of India’s capitalist covid catastrophe. Internationalism in deeds, not just words, is as important for a healthy workers’ movement as is oxygen for a healthy body.

Other articles on India:

By Roger Silverman:
The Two Faces of India, analyzes the 2019 reelection of Modi. Also available as a podcast.

Indians Elect a Communalist: Some Background  Analyzes the 2014 election of Modi

By John Reimann:
India, Kashmir and the Global Crisis of Capitalism 

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