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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #012 – Lall & Anand

By CEID Blogger, on 27 April 2020

How the Covid 19 crisis is exacerbating and embedding communal inequalities in India and Pakistan

By Marie Lall and Kusha Anand

Amidst the COVID-19 lockdowns there has been some amazing generosity in both the public and private sectors to keep people alive. However, not all acts have had positive social outcomes, whether intended or not. Education was forced to move on-line, with most stakeholders completely unprepared. Small differences, for example, in access to infrastructure have the potential to widen adverse education outcomes. We have also seen communities come closer together, sometimes at the cost of excluding the underprivileged and minorities. These acts have amplified the divide further. The link between education, discrimination and disadvantage is particularly pronounced both in India and Pakistan where the spread of the virus has exacerbated existing inequalities.

The role of religion is key in the construction of identity and South Asia is no exception. Many religious communities in South Asia today identify at least as much with their religion as with their nationality. For some, the two are synonymous. It is therefore not surprising that in a crisis where it’s easy to blame one group, religious fault lines are used politically. In India, Muslims are being blamed for the spread of the virus because of a large gathering organised by Tablighi Jamaat (a global Islamic missionary movement) in Nizamuddin in New Delhi, where over 300 people were infected. The press has focused on the spread of the virus, blaming the Muslims who attended the meeting for carrying it across India and there is talk (and tweets) of ‘corona jihadis’. Other communities that met and spread the virus for example at the six-day Sikh festival of Hola Mohalla are not accused in the same way and no one blames those who got together to celebrate Holi on the 10th of March, a festival that led to the spread of the infection in Rajasthan. Muslims are in many cases some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities already; there has been active discrimination by the BJP led establishmentnot least with the recent citizenship amendment act.

In Pakistan, charity and helping those less fortunate is both part of the tenets of Islam and enforced by the state (which takes mandatory Zakat from all Muslims). However, minorities are regularly discriminated against. It is no different in this crisis – there have been accusations that Hindus and Christians have been excluded from the government rations provided to Muslims.

Both in India and Pakistan, education could mitigate the damage, or, in turn, make it worse. The current reality is based on the tradition of using education as a political tool. In both countries, education has historically been used to shape the hostile mindset of new generations vis-à-vis their neighbours, and other religious communities. Education has been used to lay the ground for systemic discrimination on communal lines. Despite reforms in both countries, curricula and textbooks still depict the ‘self’ as right (or victim) and the ‘other’ as wrong (or aggressor). Today, societies reap what was sown in the classrooms over decades as COVID-19 brings bigoted behaviour to the fore. This is reflected in rising communal resentment as COVID-19 serves to exacerbate the inequalities on religious/ communal lines.

Like many other school systems worldwide, online education has become increasingly commonplace in India and Pakistan. Teachers in India have started to use WhatsApp to set students work, as phones are more widespread than laptops or computers. Nevertheless, those taught online via Zoom will have a different experience than those who have to rely on their phone, and what happens to those who don’t have access to a smartphone, or whose parents cannot help them when they don’t understand the instructions? Moving education online, presents new dangers as a one-way stream of information, with little option to respond or ask questions, and can also lead to the spread of false information.

The one-way media coverage and wider public discourse on and offline has made a deliberate attempt to share information about conspiracy theories turning into blame games and racism addressed at religious minorities.  In this social media pandemic, hate speech related to the virus is spreading online almost as fast as the virus itself that further drives the ‘ostracisation’ of  religious communities economically and makes their survival ever more difficult.

The lockdowns and quarantines in both countries mean that economically marginalised groups, many of whom are from minority communities who are already disproportionately affected, will suffer both with regard to their lack of access to education and wider inequity brought about by that same education system. The question to ask is whether COVID-19 will cement such discrimination even once the virus is defeated and the crisis has abated.

Marie Lall is Professor of Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. Kusha Anand is a Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education and Senior Research Fellow at IRDSE based in Delhi.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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