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Powered by Fear, Indians Embrace Coronavirus Lockdown | Press "Enter" to skip to content

Powered by Fear, Indians Embrace Coronavirus Lockdown


BHOND, India — On the long, straight road into the farming village of Bhond, past fields of tomatoes, eggplant and rust-colored wheat, stood a police barricade, an incongruous sight for a settlement so small and remote.

Beyond the sweating police officers lay a second line of defense. Villagers armed with sticks, their faces covered with fraying bandannas, blocked the road. Fearful of the spread of the coronavirus, they were determined to enforce the government’s stay-at-home orders and keep outsiders from entering their hamlet.

No one is paying these men. They are out here all day, every day, under the withering sun, even as the farms behind them collapse under debt.

“Police or no police, we will continue,’’ said Mubarik Khan, a tomato farmer who has been guarding the gates to Bhond, about 50 miles from New Delhi, for the past three weeks. “I’m worried, we’re all worried, but I feel a sense of duty to be out here.”

A fractious country of 1.3 billion people where it has long been difficult to get individuals and communities to follow the rules, India has pursued its coronavirus lockdown — the world’s largest — with remarkable zeal.

People aren’t just dutifully following the law. Many are going above and beyond it. Volunteer virus patrol squads are popping up everywhere, casting an extra net of vigilance over the entire country. Neighborhoods are imposing extra rules and sealing themselves off.

The volunteer efforts could help India protect its people from the pandemic, given the state of most Indian hospitals, the enormous population and living conditions like packed slums that leave its people particularly susceptible to outbreaks.

India has reported about 16,000 confirmed infections and 500 deaths, far less per capita than many richer countries. But its testing rates are also lower, and some health experts believe the virus may be lurking here and there, undetected.

Many Indians are falling in line because they fear falling ill in a country with a weak health care system offering treatments they cannot afford. But the popularity of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, explains part of the obedience. For many people here, this is Mr. Modi’s lockdown, and what he says goes. His government is India’s most powerful in decades, so many Indians are scared to break his rules.

Praising his countrymen for behaving like a “disciplined soldier,” Mr. Modi has tried to cultivate a sense of fraternity under the lockdown. Recently he asked all Indians to stand in their doorways at a certain time and clap and make noise. Likewise for a nationwide candle-lighting ceremony. In both instances, millions obeyed.

India’s lockdown is nearly a month old, and Mr. Modi recently extended it to May 3. As it grinds on, it has won praise but also elicited concerns about overzealous enforcement, especially targeting the poor and minorities.

Lower castes are being shunned more than usual. The term “social distancing” plays straight into centuries of ostracism of certain groups who until recent times were called “untouchable.”

Muslims, a large minority in a Hindu-dominated land, are also facing a burst of bigotry and attacks. The Indian government keeps pointing out that an Islamic seminary in New Delhi was responsible for spreading thousands of infections. Now many Indians believe that all Muslims carry a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“This is one of the problems of overzealousness,’’ said Adarsh Shastri, a politician in the Indian National Congress, the leading opposition party. “People get a chance to enforce the laws per their own personal prejudice.”

As in the United States and other countries, the lockdown has snarled the supply chain. Farmers have been cut off from their markets, and hungry people from food.

Some of these problems have been made worse by the way lockdown rules are interpreted. For example, produce trucks are supposed to be allowed to pass through checkpoints. But many Indians now fear truck drivers as virus vectors. Trucks packed with vegetables have been turned back by police officers and volunteer guards.

In perhaps an acknowledgment that the lockdown has been especially tight, the government plans to encourage officially on Monday the unshackling of industries such as agriculture, rubber and tea plantations, cargo freight and water conservation projects — some of which were supposed to be open anyway. The new guidance will cover only areas without many infections.

Indians across the country have followed the instructions to retreat indoors, no matter how cramped their living spaces. One member at a time emerges to get food, which is usually not every day, and always with a mask on.

Still, fear keeps growing. More communities are imposing their own measures to tighten the lockdown further and all but stop the flow of people.

In one case, in Delhi, a son turned in his own father for stepping outside. In another, in West Bengal State, some families who wanted to maintain social distancing asked their loved ones to sleep in trees.

Neighborhood associations, especially in wealthy areas, have become extra careful. One association in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, tried to require all residents to download the government’s official coronavirus app on their phones, until several residents complained it was an invasion of privacy.

In Jor Bagh, a New Delhi enclave of parks, bird song and multimillion-dollar apartments, the leaders of the residents’ association have curtailed the movement of residents, guests and staff, barring workers like private security guards or pizza deliverymen who are supposed to be exempt from the restrictions.

“I decided to go beyond the government’s mandate and imposed severe measures to protect my community,’’ said Sonny Sarna, president of the Jor Bagh association.

Some residents grumbled about the inconvenience of not having food delivered to their doors. But those grumbles stopped after a pizza deliveryman in another Delhi neighborhood got sick and the occupants of 72 homes he had recently served were put under quarantine. Most Jor Bagh residents seem appreciative of the extra rules.

In rural areas, volunteer virus squads patrol the roads day and night. Some carry sticks, sickles and pockets full of nails for puncturing the tires of cars they deem suspicious.

“You can call us civil defense,’’ said Monu Manesar, the head protector of his village in Haryana State.

As a van approached, he shouted: “Hey, stop! What are you carrying in there?”

He peered into the van and saw boxes of bees from a honey farm.

“It’s a honeycomb,” he told the three men helping him. “Let them go.”

Mr. Manesar is a district coordinator for Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist group that over the years has been blamed for attacks on non-Hindus. The fact that some of these virus patrol squads include the same people who have targeted minorities in the past may explain recent hate crimes connected to the coronavirus.

Nearly two weeks ago, Sahimuddin, a reserve police officer and a Muslim who, like many in India, goes by one name, was riding his motorcycle on a rural road about 40 miles south of Delhi. A group of farmers manning a barricade at one village questioned him and then called ahead to the next village to be on the lookout.

As Mr. Sahimuddin approached the next village, several Hindu farmers at a barricade threw a noose around his neck and yanked him off his bike. They beat him viciously, nearly crushing his windpipe, Mr. Sahimuddin’s family said. Police officers corroborated their account.

He is now in a hospital, voiceless and struggling to breathe.

“You don’t know how much this angers me,’’ said his wife, Sameena. “Those men had no business stopping my husband.”

In another community, in southern India, upper caste residents recently dug a five-foot-deep trench around the homes of several Dalits, the lowest on the caste ladder, to keep the communities separate.

“We are in this together,” he said.

Hari Kumar, Shalini Venugopal and Sameer Yasir contributed reporting from New Delhi.


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