For generations, Muslims in India have drawn on mutual aid networks for solidarity and support amid government neglect and social discrimination. Now, as India faces a humanitarian disaster during the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, these networks are more important than ever.
Because of the lockdown, declared with mere hours’ notice, millions of migrant workers have walked hundreds of kilometers to return to their villages. They have faced numerous obstacles along the way including police assaults and state border harassment, and have received very few provisions from the state.
Amidst this crisis, the risk of a massive hunger crisis in India looms large. As elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic has ripped through the fabric of daily life to lay bare the inequalities and sufferings that have accumulated and grown throughout the neoliberal era, leading to this moment. In India, the dispossession of tribal, rural, and some urban communities over decades, combined with the dismantling of labor protections, has left migrant workers and others in situations of great precarity and with no safety net.
Epidemics can bring out the best and the worst in any society. For example, the scapegoating of racialized minorities in the midst of disease outbreak has a long and violent history. The persecution of Jews during plague outbreaks in medieval Europe and the targeting of Italian immigrants during New York’s 1916 polio epidemic are only two of many examples.
In India, the coronavirus pandemic has intersected with anti-Muslim racism and hatred. Over the last several years, fear, discrimination, and violence against India’s largest religious minority infected Indian society like a virus itself. The ideology and actions of a right-wing Hindu nationalist government facilitated this hatred, culminating now in the scapegoating of Muslims as responsible for the virus’ spread.
Just before the announcement of the lockdown, Muslim women had been leading the inspirational protest gathering in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The nonviolent sit-in lasted 101 days, until police cleared the site on March 24.
Muslims in India have not only faced sustained political attacks, with the CAA being the latest incarnation, but they also suffer disproportionately worse socioeconomic conditions. Food rations during the current crisis have been severely insufficient for poor communities in general, including many Muslim communities. The government announced the doubling of food rations for those with ration cards, but that provision excludes refugees, like Rohingya Muslims, and many migrant workers without cards.
Even among citizens, many individuals lack ration cards due to bureaucratic obstacles and mistakes that take time and multiple efforts to correct. This is something I saw first-hand in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, where I have conducted research over many years in low-income and predominantly Muslim neighborhoods.
The majority of Muslim workers in these areas are self-employed as daily wage laborers. Many families already limited their food intake to begin with, eating only rice and lentils on any given day. Medical issues and weak access to medical care are also deep structural problems in these minority communities. In this context of poverty and government neglect, Muslim communities have long relied on mutual aid and solidarity networks to build up autonomous institutions. The current lockdown highlights the importance of this strategy.
What activists in the Global North call “mutual aid” overlaps with numerous practices in marginalized communities in the Global South, where voluntary cooperation and care are actively lived and deeply embedded in everyday life. These include freely giving one’s time as well as raising money among those who can afford to give toward distribution of medicine, groceries, and basic supplies.
Voluntary acts of care in India have flourished amidst the pandemic. Individuals have traveled out of their way to distribute food to migrant workers in transit or to tribal communities, responding in some cases to urgent calls for help. Groups of volunteers, alongside NGOs, have raised money for lost wages and have distributed rations and sanitation kits in neighborhoods and villages across many states.
Despite incidents of violence against Muslim minorities, there have also been inspiring interfaith actions. For example, in one site in Jammu and Kashmir, Hindu shrine workers provided Ramadan meals to migrant Muslims who were fasting.
Acts of mutual aid resonate especially within Muslim communities, as charitable distribution directly to poor families is a religious requirement. One voluntary organization in Hyderabad, the Helping Hand Foundation (HHF), has had a significant impact in the city, especially among minorities . I had the opportunity to meet with HHF members and community volunteers and support staff on numerous occasions and observed some of its work prior to the pandemic.
Since 2007, HHF has focused on medical needs in poor and underserved communities, establishing community-based health centers, promoting public health education, and offering moral and economic support for people struggling to navigate a challenging and often inaccessible medical system. Volunteers sometimes accompany sick patients to the hospital to ensure that government hospital staff take their needs seriously. The group has worked with thousands of people with problems, from childhood cancer to cardiac disease and diabetes. It has also facilitated access to life-saving surgeries in numerous cases.
During the coronavirus crisis, HHF has undertaken several solidarity projects. Support systems that volunteers had set up in public hospitals have allowed for testing and quarantine capacities. Volunteers have conducted public education “skits” on infection prevention in hospitals and at railway stations and bus depots. This type of education is critical to fight against misinformation, which fuels the stigma against minorities and other categories of people.
Dozens of volunteers checked in on over two thousand families in low-income neighborhoods, working hard to prevent starvation among the poorest families. They created a community kitchen in the city to provide meals to migrant workers and distributed 5,000 ration kits in neighborhoods that had not received government relief.
Volunteers also worked with madrasa (traditional Islamic school) students, a vulnerable group of young men affected by the lockdown and in desperate need of food and supplies. These students often depend on charitable distribution during the Islamic month of Ramadan, but could not do so this year due to the lockdown. Finally, HHF volunteers raised money for mosque leaders who lost their incomes with the closure of mosques, drove ambulances for sick patients including those with non-COVID related illnesses, and raised funds for PPE for medical workers.
Some of these actions look different from examples of “mutual aid” as invoked by activists in the North. Mutual aid is an organizing principle based on voluntary and non-hierarchical methods of cooperation. The concept tends to assume certain types of relationships or organizations that build solidarity and political consciousness toward revolutionary transformation. Intellectuals and activists often draw a sharp boundary between the undesirable paternalism of charity work and the preferred horizontal sharing of mutual aid.
But in practice, this line gets blurred, perhaps especially in times of crisis and in societies with extreme levels of inequality. Crowd-funded distribution and social programs, practiced widely in the Global North, also have elements of “charity” and hierarchy, as well as unintended consequences such as the strengthening of exploitative Internet platforms. Yet for now, these limitations appear unavoidable in many mutual aid programs around the world.
In India, dramatic wealth inequality makes fundraising and charitable contributions crucial to mutual aid work. NGOs in particular have been at the center of anti-poverty programs for many years. This has long raised concerns about their potentially depoliticizing effects, or what Arundhati Roy called the “NGOization of resistance.” We must remain cognizant of these risks when thinking about mutual aid as a radical ideal.
At the same time, there exists a wide variety of NGOs in India, some of which have deep connections to the state while others, in contrast, are rooted in communities, neighborhoods, and social movements. HHF, for example, is an NGO, but it is firmly anchored in the most marginalized neighborhoods in Hyderabad and strives to subvert the bureaucracy that prevents poor families from meeting their needs. In the absence of universal welfare and universal relief during a pandemic, this type of work is essential. Solidarity work can be as simple as helping someone get to a hospital.
Still, “mutual aid” also flourishes in everyday life, outside the domain of NGOs. This is sometimes organized, and sometimes spontaneous. One story from my fieldwork in Hyderabad beautifully illustrates this point. In 2019, I interviewed a young mother who had to rush her child to a private hospital for surgery, as the child had been injured in a pedestrian accident. As she recounted, several of her neighbors spontaneously followed her, arrived at the hospital, and collectively demanded a reduced price for the child’s operation. They refused to back down until the hospital authorities agreed to negotiate. Thanks to her neighbors, she did not have to go into long-term debt to pay for the surgery and save her child. Such events expand our imagination of what solidarity, care and mutual aid can mean both within and across communities.
For the most marginalized and racialized communities, the lockdown has exacerbated their pre-existing vulnerabilities. And a return to normalcy means only a return to precarity and daily struggle. In these spaces, mutual aid work takes many forms, many of them essential to survival. The solidarity it engenders can and must thrive, even in conditions of racial and nationalist violence. If mutual aid contains the seeds of nonviolent transformation of societies, we must be aware of its potential limitations and the theoretical grounds for its critique. But we must also be open to seeing how it looks in different places and on the ground, for there is no blueprint it needs to follow.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.
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