Course:ANTH302A/2020/India (Central)

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There are various ways to describe Central India. For this page, Central India includes the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Maharashtra has the second-highest amount of people in all of India[1], holds the most populous city in India, Mumbai, and is one of the states hardest-hit by COVID-19[2].

Central India has been significantly affected by COVID-19. The majority of highly populated Central Indian states have a large number of cases, such as Maharashtra, which has 600,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. [3]. Considering India has one of the highest rates of respiratory diseases, there are considerable health risks associated with COVID-19 for Central Indian citizens [4]. The lockdown has also affected the environment because of industry and factory changes, health, politics, migrant workers, and caste discrimination. The topics discussed in each section touch on the new realities people face under quarantine conditions, in these tightly packed cities brimming with COVID-19 cases.

The intersections of environmental impact, the privatization of healthcare, implications of caste, and considerations for migrant workers under the COVID-19 pandemic have provided insight as to how response plans within situated and local contexts maintain variability. Times of crisis provide the opportunity for inherent disparities and injustices to be revealed while also providing the opportunity for communities to respond with resilience moving forward.

Highlighted States of Central India

Environmental Effects of Lockdown - Rachelle

Globally COVID-19 has decreased tourism, traffic, and industrial activities. Central India has also experienced this decrease in human interference and involvement with the environment, which positively, yet unintentionally, impacted the environment. [5]. Due to its large population and levels of pollution, Central India has always had poor air quality. After the COVID-19 lockdown, the air quality has begun to improve, as well as the water quality [5].

Many Central Indian citizens feel as though the one good thing COVID-19 has done is improve the environment, which in turn can benefit the health of Central Indians. [4]. However, extreme pre-existing pollution has not only damaged the environment but has caused India to have one of the highest rates of respiratory diseases in the world [4]. Therefore, COVID-19 presents a particular vulnerability for Central Indian citizens.

Environmental Improvements

Case Studies

Maharashtra has extreme pollution “due to traffic congestion and dust” ( p. 109807)[5]. One study found that the percentage reduction in the concentration of air pollution, including PM10, PM2.5, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, increased significantly from April 2019 to January 2020. PM2.5 had the most increase in air pollution reduction from a 46.1% reduction in April 2019 to 85.1% reduction in January 2020 [5]. These results demonstrate that a reduction in industrial activities has decreased the pollution that lowers the air quality.

The Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD)

The AOD over Central India shows that the lowest levels of concentrations of aerosols, in recent times, have been in 2020. [5]. This suggests that lockdown measures and the decrease in activities in 2020 have positively impacted the environment.

Nitrogen Dioxide levels in India

According to the European Space Agency, Central India has seen a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels after the lockdown [5]. As high levels of nitrogen dioxide are emitted through vehicles, industries, and power plants, and because COVID-19 has decreased or shut down these businesses and activities, the environment has been positively impacted.

Water quality

The quality of rivers, such as the Narmada River, has improved due to the COVID-19 lockdown[6]. Some rivers have had their self-cleansing properties enhanced by 40-50% [5]. This has resulted in the water looking cleaner and more wildlife moving freely throughout the waters.

Government Involvement with the Environment in Central India during COVID-19

The majority of Central Indians are aware of the environmental impacts of COVID-19. Many are growing concerned that the Indian government will proceed after COVID-19 with the usual protocols for factories and industries that pollute the environment, and that the improvements that were made in the environment will only be temporary. As Lavakare, a worker of Care for Air, states ”[Indian] [g]overnments cannot use this disruption as an excuse to go back against the gains that have been made . . . right now, we have a priority, we need to stop this big crisis” [4].

"Competitive Humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka” discusses how organizational and personal interests often dominate agencies and the corruption that can arise from this [7]. Not only the Indian government but the Indian Environmental Ministry’s only interest is profit rather than the interest and the health of the Central Indian people. This is visible through the National Board for Wildlife’s approval of a multitude of wildlife clearances for development projects during COVID-19 [8]. This is clearly corrupt, as personal and organizational interests, such as wealth, are being prioritized over everything else. This exists because the systems of society allow for the existence of these personal interests of powerful agencies. Therefore, while the COVID-19 lockdown improved the environment, disregard for environmental consequences continues to exist because of personal and organizational interests.

Despite all the environmental improvements that have occurred since the COVID-19 lockdown shut down factories and industries, the government has failed to acknowledge that environmental improvements are necessary for Central India. India was ranked fifth in the Global Climate Risk Index of 2019[8]. Experts have said that the problem is that governments, businesses, and individual departments have worked in opposition to each other and/or separately [8]. Sökefeld argues in "From Colonialism to Postcolonial Colonialism: Changing Modes of Domination in the Northern Areas of Pakistan” that colonialism has not simply created a dichotomy of those in power versus those who are not, but has also generated a lack of distinct clarity of who has the most power[9]. This could be applicable to Central India during COVID-19 and the lack of environmental acknowledgment, change, and togetherness among organizations and government bodies to solve this problem. Perhaps the lack of distinct clarity of those who dominate society is what creates this opposition and separation of agencies and organizations working to help the environment. This calls into question whether the environmental change that does exist is genuine or if it is just performative and another way to assert dominance over other organizations because there is no clearly defined superior organization or agency.

Similarly, in “Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: the British in India” Cohn discusses how maintaining a nation depends on controlling and representing the past [10]. This could be applicable to the justification of Central India’s lack of action towards maintaining and improving environmental conditions since COVID-19. For decades India was insistent that global warming was only a problem for more developed countries, and therefore, did not dedicate time or resources to helping the environment [11]. Perhaps Central India is able to dominate the present situation and justify the lack of action towards environmental change with this narrative of the past, for the purposes of economic gain. COVID-19 could potentially also be used as a justification and another attempt to fabricate a narrative on environmental change to maintain control over the nation. COVID-19 has the potential to be a wake up call for the government and other organizations to come together and create change that will positively affect the environment. Considering all the environmental improvements that have resulted from the lockdown, this is the perfect opportunity to understand and learn what environmental changes are necessary. The government has yet to make these improvements because of their focus on financial gain and they are able to maintain this control through the creation of their own narrative.

Migrant Workers under COVID-19- Alexa

Stranded migrant workers during fourth phase of the lockdown

The loss of employment, financial insecurity and significant displacement under the COVID-19 pandemic have been substantial concerns for many migrant workers. Within Central India, migrant workers have been considered one of the most vulnerable cohorts within the ‘informal sector’, which make up 80 per cent of India’s work force.[12]

It is reported in “Migration and the Invisible Economics of Care: Production, Social Reproduction and Seasonal Migrant Labour in India”, that those who are in the most precarious situations are migrant workers from the poorest areas, compounded with the lowest Human Development (HDI) and most severe multivariate poverty: Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha; particularly, where the natural resources and forms of capital have been exploited by superior castes and outsiders, not leaving much for Indigenous communities.[13] Additionally, those who are remunerated the least for the toughest labour fall under those who are socially and economically disadvantaged; these workers are predominately from Dalit and the Adivasi populations.[14] In accordance with India’s 2011 Census Data, Maharashtra has the greatest number of migrants. It is reported that the state government implemented lockdown procedures on 20 March 2020, leaving migrant workers out of work with thousands of people collectively in search of transportation back to their villages.

Under the ongoing pandemic, concerns of rising gender inequality, the level of consideration for migrant cohorts in welfare services, and the relationship between migrant workers and the government have become significant intersections of inquiry.

Government Response to COVID-19: Consideration for Migrants

The relationship between migrant workers and the government of Central India is considerably the most significant nexus in revealing the implications of COVID-19 on these labourers. The ways in which the government and Central India as a whole has responded to the pandemic, has presented distinct discourses surrounding the issue.

While Central India does have welfare provisions in place for those along or beneath the poverty line, such measures are frequently unavailable or inaccessible to migrant workers. In “India Moving: A History of Migration” written by Chinmay Tumbe (2018), they emphasize that welfare aid and assistance is regularly only offered in one’s place of birth.[15] While the driving forces of migration are deeply rooted in financial concerns and aims to sustain livelihood, migrants often seek work within cities when they are unable to gain sufficient income within their villages.[12] Demographically, migrants are not consistently accounted for in Census data due to their frequent movement between cities, villages and their place of work. It is reported in the federal government’s 2017 economic survey that, “If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20%, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million.”

Migrant workers remain increasingly susceptible to exploitation within the workforce as they are hardly ever part of trade unions and enter into uncontracted work with lack or absence of work benefits and protections.[12] Historically, migrants are classified as marginalized groups and considered “scheduled castes” sitting at the bottom of Hinduism’s arranged hierarchy of castes; along with tribal groups, these two constitute about 25 per cent of the national population.[12] While India’s constitution pledges that there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state[16], migrants are effectively confronted with discriminatory and institutionalized prejudice.

Exploitative practices and lack of consideration for migrants by the government are exacerbated under times of crises. In “Aftershocked: Introduction” written by Warner, Hindman and Snellinger (2015), they emphasize that, “While many in Nepal were aware of the risks of an earthquake, many felt disempowered and placed little confidence in the government’s ability to respond or protect its citizens”.[17] In the context of COVID-19 within Central India, the lived experiences of distinct communities maintain disparities during and after catastrophe strikes; implications of the crisis, governmental response and concerns among citizens expose sentiments of apathy toward migrant workers and further illuminates the concept and existing discourse of conditionality in citizenship status.

In “Lullabies for Broken Children: Diasporic Citizenship and the Dissenting Voices of Young Sikhs in Canada”, Nijhawan and Arora (2013) discuss Indian migration to Canada and report that migrants were “...prone to state surveillance and deportation, while the curbing of immigration followed a hardly veiled racial logic of exclusion that became instrument to state controls of the migrant flow”.[18] Drawing upon the intersectional types of migration including race, gender and class, these migration flows have gained traction in regions of postcolonial South Asia; it is acknowledged that further scholarship has examined ‘dislocation’ beyond physical considerations to understand the historical and contextually specific variability in these diasporas.[19]

Gender Inequality Among Migrant Households under COVID-19

As migrant workers across all industries within Central India have been increasingly vulnerable to the loss of employment or precarious types of employment during the pandemic, domestic roles within migrant households have created an unequal division of labour, contributing the widening gender gap among migrant cohorts. In “How COVID-19 Worsens Gender Inequality in Nepal”, Luna K.C. (2020) discusses the unequal gender dynamic caused by increased domestic responsibilities taken on by women and girls; this gender gap has been exacerbated by the pandemic where increased domestic tasks (such as child-rearing and care for elderly family members) could “leave women and girls further behind […] evidence suggests that girls are at particular risk of dropping out and not returning to school in the aftermath of the pandemic.”[20] Migrants who are left either out of work or left doing inequitable labour, are often in feminized sectors of work such as the garment industry, where majority of the labourers are women. Suhrawardi (2020) strongly emphasizes “the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving them without income and without choice but to return to cramped homes in slums or villages, without resources to fight the pandemic or even with the basic ability to sustain their lives […] in a state of abject poverty and with the threat of an outbreak in this already vulnerable community”.[21]

Private Healthcare Response -Nicholas

In operating health services, a major factor of how people treat those services are their perceptions of its quality, and the urgency of their situation. This pandemic has stressed the health capacity of the public option for many individuals, and has refocused people’s attention on the private sector for care. This has led to a re-examination of its perceived reputation and how adequate it was in fulfilling the public health need.

Reputation Creation

Lately the image of private hospitals in the context of the central Indian media has been portrayed as counter to the concept of public health in their operation for the health crisis. Private hospitals have garnered a reputation of either catering to the rich or those in vulnerable situations that may not have the means to afford such expensive care, both before and especially after the start of the pandemic[22].

In reflection of this in the media, the profit driven exploitative nature of private hospitals can be seen in how adversely hospitals try to abstain from treating COVID patients, and in the cases they do take advantage of their patients and thus leading to government intervention, “To stop private hospitals from overcharging patients during the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation has imposed a cap on charges of admission and surgeries till August 31.”[23] The hospital has responded to this with threats of shutdown due to these changes as well as being “unlikely to treat Covid patients as they will have to isolate the entire premises”[23].

This type of rhetoric is not new to the privatized health system. To look at such long-term ingrained biases, Seira Tamang’s commentary on the bureaucracy of Nepal and its own long-term system corruption shares similarities. The entrenchment of Nepal’s bureaucracy to cater to those in power rather than the citizens has led, “citizens of Nepal feel alienated from state structures, and this contributes to their reluctance to engage with the state amidst a sense of helplessness and frustration.”[24] These private hospitals follow a similar path, being the preferred choice of politicians for treatment[25] which does not help the reputation of their public alternative, actively resisting COVID care mobilization and when they do provide care it has to be under the watchful eye of the government with special rates. This adds to the already extensive image cultivated by these hospitals of their exclusivity and disinterest in public health and emphasizes their private profit driven nature.

The Shifting Context of Care

Private hospitals within India fulfilled the niche of serving people either with the money to afford their care regularly over the public alternative or those that could not be accommodated by the overstrained public health system. During this pandemic, the context of how treatment needed to be performed has changed, with the need for large coordinated efforts and with new source noting “it is clearly the public health system that is primarily tackling the epidemic, from identify and tracking suspected cases to testing and treatment. What’s more, these services have been provided free to all without question…”[26] To further compound this inadequacy of private hospitals ,“in Mumbai, there were two private hospitals that became hotspots after dozens of their health workers got infected.”[26] The stress that the pandemic has placed on the medical system, and its context has shown the private model has not been conducive to public health and in some ways been actively fighting it, with repeated government intervention in Maharashtra alone with the Municipal commissioner filing complaints on how they “were not admitting Covid-19 patients”, to hospitals in Nashik overcharging their patients[27].

This incompatibility really speaks similarly to how Jock Stirrat viewed the disaster relief efforts in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami, where many factors from the decentralized nature of the damage to a larger number of male rather than female single family households made this an “unorthodox” situation for these NGO in providing aid[28]. This disaster exasperated these NGO’s structural competitive nature with each other with the need to spend money for “visual” effect that could prove how their organization was spending money in the proper capacity but as a result other sectors suffered[28].

These NGOs were thrust into a situation where their previous models of support were ineffective at providing a wholly adequate relief effort. Meanwhile within the context of central India, these private hospitals known for their “higher quality” alternative of health services have been seen floundering in the media in their response to COVID.

Saifee Hospital Mumbai (Government Run)

Calls for Nationalization

This perception accompanied with the inadequacies of providing for public health during the pandemic has encouraged the argument for a nationalized health service within India, as the aforementioned burden on families incurred because of medical cost. To examine how this damage can be spread throughout the family rather than just the individual, we can look at Sara Dickey’s ethnography about Anjali in Madurai. The main conflict from Anjali’s story comes from them seeking private medical assistance due the pressing injury of her father. This resulted in: borrowing from moneylenders at 10 percent interest, using up the money saved for the eldest son’s marriage as well as delaying Anjali’s marriage[29]. The cost incurred was due to how, “This same surgeon, Anjali said, would have treated her father “for free at the [Government] Hospital, but because he treated him outside, he wanted Rs 15,000””[29].

This familiar scene of the unavailable government hospitals and the private medical sector happened in the 1990s to which can be traced onto how the pandemic has exacerbated the need for medical beds and treatment. The central Indian media has been emphasizing how, “Low public investment in healthcare system incurs human costs…39 million people fall into poverty every year due to high out-of-pocket spending on healthcare.”[30] to support their point. This story of how the family needed to pool their collective resources to help offset this “human cost” of their father seems to be playing out again in response to the pandemic, but on a much wider scale.

Impacts of Caste - Tiffany

Caste system

COVID-19 is a virus that can infect anyone, but factors like caste can increase the likelihood of contracting the sickness. Caste is a social structure that ranks certain groups of people above others, with the Brahmins at the top and the Dalits (‘untouchables’) at the bottom of the social structure[31]. Caste impacts people’s interactions with others, things they can use, and their occupation[32]. According to the caste structure, the Dalits are responsible for doing the dirtiest jobs, which include sanitation and sewage cleaning[33]. Although caste discrimination was removed from the Indian constitution, caste discrimination still occurs[31]. The issues that we see from the intersection of caste and the pandemic in Central India include attacks on Dalits, inequality of water access, and inconsiderate lockdown procedures.

Caste Violence

In Aftershocked - Digging for Dalit: Social Justice and an Inclusive Anthropology of Nepal, Folmar, Cameron, and Pariyar discuss how it is crucial not to overlook caste discrimination as carried out by locals by focusing only on the government’s actions[34]. We can see how this point is relevant for India because when the pandemic began, there was a 72% increase in caste violence among locals from April and May 2019[33]. The National Dalit Movement for Justice, an organization based on advocating rights and raising awareness around caste discrimination, kept track of caste discrimination events when the pandemic began[35]. The National Dalit Movement for Justice document recorded that a Dalit man was murdered by higher-caste men in Rajasthan[35]. In Maharashtra, 150 higher-caste members attacked a Dalit family[33]. The higher-caste group justified the attack by saying that the Dalit family was contagious with COVID-19 because of their caste[33]. Caste discrimination has always been prevalent for the family, but they were never discriminated against to the point of being attacked until the pandemic occurred[33]. A man who works as a toilet cleaner in Mumbai was also attacked by police simply due to his caste[33]. There were many other cases of physical assault, verbal assault, and even police brutality toward Dalits that were recorded on the document[35].  

Lack of Water Access

Caste discrimination is also present in the inaccessibility of water for Dalit members. An important preventative measure to contracting COVID-19 is washing hands, but many rural Indians do not have proper washing routines[36]. Eighty-two percent of rural Indians do not have running water within their house, this paired with droughts lead to a lack of water for basic necessities such as washing hands[36]. Maharashtra currently has a drought and a local described how they rely on the government to deliver water trucks during the drought season, which do not always arrive[36]. Dalits are not allowed to use wells that upper-castes use because they would “contaminate” the water[37]. Moreover, the higher-castes control water usage[36]. Bhowmick continues on to describe how a representative from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) that focuses on handwashing and hygiene within Maharashtra is hopeful that the pandemic will help encourage villagers to wash their hands more often[36]. It is interesting to compare the perspectives of the local from Maharashtra and the UNICEF representative on their thoughts of handwashing. The local is skeptical that handwashing would increase because he has seen how the government has previously failed to provide basic water trucks during droughts, while the UNICEF representative is hopeful that COVID-19 would increase handwashing[36]. This difference in perspective between them may be due to differences in their positionality due to caste and class. Like how Folmar et al. discuss the need to acknowledge both government and people’s caste discrimination[34], we can see how lack of water in communities is both due to local discrimination and government negligence to provide for the Dalit community.  

Lockdown

The Indian government and many people around the world are saying that “the virus does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking”[38]. This was also the government's approach to implementing lockdown procedures for COVID-19. The government declared a lockdown that caused migrant workers who are often of lower-castes to walk home from major cities back to cramped living conditions[39]. In the meanwhile, upper-castes can safely quarantine since they have proper housing in the city they are employed in[38]. Groups of workers walked home from their jobs in the city with little food and money, which some did not survive, like Jamlo Makdam who died on her way home to Chhatisgarh after working on a farm[40]. In Is There An Indian Way of Thinking?, Ramanujan describes how India emphasizes context, which is shown through the importance of the caste system, family, and in Indian literature[41]. It is unfortunate to see how although context plays an important role in Indian society, the government did not consider how the context of different people, like caste, would be affected differently by the pandemic. Although the government of India is attempting to move away “from the context-sensitive to the context-free” (p. 55[41]) on a macro-level by removing caste discrimination from the Indian Constitution, on a micro-level, India is still very context-sensitive because caste discrimination still occurs. This discrepancy between the Indian constitution and reality is causing the lower-castes to suffer disproportionately during this pandemic. In Dr. Shneiderman’s video, Expertise, Labour and Mobility in Nepal’s Post-Disaster Reconstruction, she discusses the importance of local, situated knowledge for recovery after Nepal’s 2015 earthquake[42]. We can draw from this that there is no simple solution for COVID-19. Instead of implementing lockdown procedures from China and other places[40], solutions have to take into consideration the local context, such as caste discrimination, housing situations, and accessibility to water. Although it is true that no one is immune to COVID-19, some people are more at risk of it and Indians need to accept that as well. If the government of India does not consider the unique circumstances of different castes, inequality will only be amplified during the pandemic[38].

Right-wing Nationalism during the pandemic

Almost everywhere in the world, reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic has been deeply partisan[43][44], with a consistent split seen between left- and right-wing responses to the global catastrophe[45]. Right-wing governments and populaces across the world have been seen to react poorly, fumbling state responses[46] and spreading harmful misinformation[47][48][49], ranging from denial of the scientific reality to the advocacy of non-medical solutions to the medical emergency [50][51]. In India, the right-wing BJP has downplayed the severity of the pandemic [52] and derided decisive attempts to curb the spread of the virus as alarmism and government overreach[53]. There are four main ways that India’s far-right nationalists have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in India.

Quackery & Pseudoscience

In India, as elsewhere, right-wing nationalists have been touting pseudo-scientific alternatives to modern medicine as a miracle cures to the ailment. When instances of people recovering after using pseudoscience cannot be found, they are fabricated, either from whole cloth in the form of anecdotes, or by attributing recoveries resulting from conventional medical care to their brand of quackery, as it was with the quickly-refuted claim by Indian Minister of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy Shripad Naik that British Crown Prince Charles had recovered from COVID-19 by practicing traditional Indian homeopathy [54][55], holding to their lie even after flat refutation from the British crown[56]

Nationalistic Opportunism

As we can see in the 2019 Johnny Harris video "How this border transformed a subcontinent" in the Vox Borders series, military, nationalistic posturing is a daily occurrence in modern India[57]. Many right-wing public figures all over the world have used the pandemic as an excuse and platform for nationalistic boasting and sabre-rattling, projecting an image of a strong military nation, regardless of the relevance to the pandemic[58]. In many cases, a right-wing nationalist will make outlandish claims about their nation’s ability to handle the pandemic, without consulting with experts in the field. This was the case when Balram Bhargava, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, declared that India would have a vaccine by August 15 (to coincidence with Independence Day of India), before being forced to withdraw the claims later after outcry from experts [59].

Scapegoating

In his 1996 work, “Ethnic Nationalism, Refugees and Bhutan”, Michael Hunt, referencing Smith, writes: "...ethnic nationalism does not involve a specially racist component, but manages to exclude non-members within and deny their rights, while preserving their essential humanity. Instead of being exterminated, they are rendered homeless. As indigestible minorities in their own homes, they suddenly find themselves deprived of a homeland. They are felt to constitute a threat to the continued existence, and purity, of the emergent ethnic nation. They must therefore be denied citizenship in their own land, rendered defenceless and homeless and ultimately driven out."[60] It is by this method that right-wing nationalists scapegoat the already-marginalised ethnic and religious groups. In the context of the pandemic, Hindu nationalists are blaming India’s Muslims for COVID-19 [61], which often culminates in physical attacks against them [62]. Dalits are also targeted; imprisoned, starved, and accused of being dirty and spreading the virus[63].

Unequal Distribution of Aid

When the nationalists respond to the epidemic with actual effective action, the benefits are not spread out equally. The beneficiaries of effective action are, by and large, those least at risk, while the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the suffering [64]. As in Nightmarch (Shah 2018), a book about indigenous people fighting for their lives against aggression by Indian security forces, we see that the Indian state has little regard for those it deems as other, such as the migrant labourers baton-charged and beaten by police in Mumbai on May 14 while demanding to be allowed to return home [65]. Less overtly violent (but more deadly in its outcomes) are the widespread instances of cruelty by omission, such as experienced by the many unable to access India’s COVID-19 financial aid. On May 8, 16 low-caste workers, whose employer had been withholding payment since the start of the pandemic, and who had no help from the government, were crushed to death by a train while on an all-night march towards a site in central India they thought might be hiring [66]. They were only walking on the train tracks to avoid being assaulted by Indian police acting to enforce the BJP's harsh dictates [67].

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