Nobody is sure when the Covid-19 pandemic will end or even when it will stop killing Indians. But of one thing there can be no doubt. Even before Covid became the central feature of our lives, the economy was already in the doldrums. With a global recession expected and predictions about our growth rate scaled down to 1.5% or even lesser, this will get worse.
In the post-Covid India, we will all be scared, damaged, poorer and even less sure of what the future holds for us than we were in the already gloomy pre-Covid era.
But there is one other factor that we may not be paying enough attention to. In the post-pandemic world, we will have to work hard to repair relations between Hindus and Muslims. Rarely, in recent decades, have the two communities been so distrustful of each other.
It started with the anger over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens. Without going into the rights and wrongs of that issue, there is no doubt that many Indian Muslims interpreted the government's moves as a way of treating them as second class citizens.
I believed, perhaps naively, when the Covid crisis started that we could sort out our differences and fight the virus unitedly.
Then the Tablighis set the agenda. I have written about the criminal behaviour of the Jamaat before so I won't belabour the point.
The Tablighi Jamaat means nothing to most Indian Muslims. It is a primitive, fundamentalist movement that would take Islam to the Middle Ages. Liberal Muslims all over the world do not waste any time defending it. Just as liberal Hindus are appalled by the things that Golwalkar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wrote, liberal Muslims disown their community's fundamentalists and loonies. Even the RSS itself is now deleting the most embarrassing bits from new editions of Golwalkar's books.
Hindus do not believe that they have to find excuses for Golwalkar or for the misdeeds of other Hindus. When the Babri Masjid was demolished, the strongest condemnation came from liberal Hindus. Nobody in the mainstream said, "Yeah, but what about all the temples that Muslims had also destroyed?" There was no place for whataboutery or weak excuses.
Perhaps it is because majorities behave differently from minorities, but after the Tablighi incident, some liberals (Hindu and Muslim) issued only qualified criticism of the Jamaat when outright condemnation was called for. And all too often they resorted to whataboutery.
Once that whataboutery started, liberals were playing the RSS game. The Jamaat should have been seen as a lunatic fringe group of Muslims who endangered India's fight against Covid. Instead, thanks to liberal naivete and communalist poison from both sides, the incident has now become a Hindu-Muslim thing.
We sometimes forget that a desire to spawn strife is not just restricted to our own communalists. Several foreign countries have an interest, if not in fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict, then certainly in keeping India weakened and divided.
Thousands of fake messages have gone out to Muslims on social media "documenting" entirely non-existent cases of persecution and warning of dire consequences from the authorities if they dare admit to having contracted the infection. That's one possible reason why some of those who attended the Jamaat gathering are now absconding. And that's why we have not been able to track down everyone who was inside that petri-dish of corona infection.
The trouble with communal tension is that, like the coronavirus, it grows exponentially.
A primitive Muslim sect uses the name of God to keep devotees from following the rules of the lockdown. When they are caught and a backlash ensues, Muslims are told that they will be tortured by the police. They hide. They infect more people. Public opinion grows against them. Persecution does begin. And so the cycle goes.
It has now got to the stage in Delhi where even secular Hindus ask whether it is safe to order biryani ("do you think the cooks may be infected?") and check the religion of delivery boys ("only because of corona, na!"). It is heartbreaking to see the kind of abuse and discrimination that innocent Muslims are being subjected to. Videos aired on TV channels and social media show Muslim vendors being asked to leave markets, Muslims being denied entry to shops and much more. For how long will Muslims take these humiliations before beginning to wonder if their own country is rejecting them?
It is very difficult — if not impossible — to break the circle of mistrust and hatred when it gets to this level.
And I fear that the gulf between communities will grow. Some of it will come from extremists on both sides. Some of it is coming from digital armies across our border. And some of it, sadly, is being fanned to win votes.
When the virus is brought under control and we confront the recession, we will be encouraged to forget that even before Covid arrived, our economy was already in trouble.
Instead, we will be told that India was doing fine. Even the fight against Covid was going well till Muslims decided to sabotage the government's efforts and refused to practise physical distancing or to be tested. Yes, it will be said, there is a recession but that's only because of Covid. And we could have handled Covid if it wasn't for the Muslims. The economy and the battle against corona were all destroyed by Muslims.
Such words as 'jihad' will be flung around on TV channels and it will be suggested that Muslims did this deliberately because many of them are 'anti-national.'
We must fight and defeat Covid. But once that's done, we must work to restore communal harmony. And that will be an even more difficult struggle.