The biopolitics of pandemic citizenship

The biopolitics of pandemic citizenship

Adil Hossain

Last year in December when the Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (or CAA) in Parliament and proposed a pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (NRC) it fundamentally changed the character of citizenship for Indian Muslims. Where the CAA introduced provisions to allow fast-track citizenship for migrants of all religious groups except Muslims from the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the NRC threatened undocumented Indian Muslims with statelessness and being locked in detention camps.

Overall, in this process, Indian citizenship continues to be defined through its Muslim population, who since the time India became independent from colonial rule, had been increasingly held as the ‘other’ to be marginalized and excluded (Kapur 2007). This process of exclusion and marginalization of Indian Muslims that found legal backing in CAA and NRC, has reached an unprecedented level with the recent Covid19 pandemic. By studying the government response and rise of anti-Muslim hatred around the virus, I argue in this piece that we can see the operation of certain biopolitics of pandemic citizenship in India. Equating Muslims with the Covid19 pandemic is only an extension of the politics of Hindutva, a political ideology that India’s Modi regime follow and promote today. Hindutva is different from Hinduism; it is a political expression of the idea of Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation with second class status for minorities.

Two concepts are important – biopolitics and citizenship. Along with the idea of ‘biopower’, which is more connected with the individual, Foucault (1978) introduced the concept of ‘biopolitics’ in the first volume of History of Sexuality which he restricted to its ‘core’ meaning i.e. “what we call population” (cited in Fassin 2009:45). He explained the power over life through a bipolar diagram. The diagram shows, “one pole of biopower focuses on an anatamo-politics of the human body, seeking to maximize its forces and integrate it into efficient systems. The second pole is one of regulatory controls, a biopolitics of the population, focusing on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanisms of life: birth, morbidity, mortality, longevity” (Rabinow & Rose 2006: 196).

In this process, with claims to right over one’s life, body and health new kind of political struggles appeared in the scene with ‘life as a political subject’ as the broader framework. Information and knowledge production through statistics, numbers and categories of differentiation also falls within the broader objective of biopolitics. In simple terms, the idea of biopolitics helps us to understand the state’s regulatory control over a population or how it exercises sovereign power through “the right to make live and to let die” (Foucault 2003: 40-1).

Saving lives as the focus of the state’s agenda sounds fine, and it was not criticised by Foucault per se. However. he warned us that the preoccupation with the well-being of some citizens could mandate the exclusion of people it deems non-citizens. Thus, in the Foucauldian conception, biopolitical societies work through the abandonment of people whose lives are valueless to them where the idea of killing happens with “political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on” (2003: 256).

The other concept of citizenship mainly refers to membership in a community, or rather as most scholars agree on, membership in a political community with access to rights and entitlements in exchange of taxes, military duties or varied forms of civic and political engagement (Cohen and Ghosh 2019). In the contemporary world, with the dominant notion of nation-states as the basis of world order, we understand citizenship as membership in a territorially bounded nation. Thus, citizenship materialises in our lives through documents like passport, national identity cards and so on.

Rose and Novas (2005) use the term ‘biological citizenship’ in a more descriptive form. Their idea is “to encompass all those citizenship projects that have linked their conceptions of citizens to beliefs about the biological existence of human beings, as individuals, as families and lineages, as communities, as population and races, and as a species” (2005:440). If we read biopolitics together with such conceptions of citizenship, then it provides us with an idea of how states can use health and medical conditions to mark and identify people in the process of the classification and stratification of citizenship.

In the case of India, the way certain sections of the media and government agencies are targeting Muslims for the recent Covid19 crisis, we can see the emergence of such a biopolitical society.

In the last few months of 2020, targeting and humiliating Muslims to advance the cause of Hindutva has reached to a new level by the followers of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been ruling Delhi under Modi since 2014. If in January, they were attacked because of holding peaceful demonstrations against exclusionary policies like CAA and NRC, in February Delhi witnessed major pogrom against Muslims where more than fifty people died. In the following months, when Covid19 crisis hit the nation, the Indian government officials singled out a gathering of an Islamic missionary organisation called Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) held in New Delhi in mid-March as the main responsible actor for the epidemic. Whereas gatherings of other religious groups were conspicuously ignored, members of Indian government relied on a flawed methodology to brand Tablighi Jamaat participants as primary Covid19 carriers in India.

What followed thereafter was another kind of violence unleashed on Indian Muslims on the pretext of preserving the health of the majority community. Senior BJP leaders and right-wing media termed TJ members as human bombs who are waging Coronajihad in India. Hindutva followers made twitter hashtags like ‘biojihad’, ‘coronaterrorism’, ‘CoronaBombTablighi’ trend in late March. TJ members were not only quarantined but also put in jails for being the superspreaders. In the western state of Gujarat, a public hospital segregated Muslim and Hindu coronavirus patients on the orders of the government. At the time of writing, threats of social and economic boycott against Muslims are mounting every day on the pretext of saving communities from Covid19, with the state as a mute spectator.

The project of dehumanisation of Muslims did not start with the Covid19 epidemic. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah earlier called the infiltrators from Bangladesh ‘termites’ who would be removed through NRC, in a clear indication to Muslim refugees. Such language for Muslims was regularly used by BJP functionaries during the introduction of the amended citizenship bill. We know from the work of Mamdani (2001) that before ‘the popularity of the genocide’ (a phrase used him) a large section of Rwandan Hutus were mobilized through insidious campaigns against Tutsis depicting them as sub-humans and ‘cockroaches’.

I argue in this piece, that to brand Muslims as the contagion or pandemic itself, that needs to be contained and treated through social and economic segregation, and if need be eliminated in episodic pogroms, is the emergence of a new citizenship regime in India. The supporters of Hindutva wish to introduce the idea of pandemic citizenship for Muslims to complete this project of dehumanisation. Senior government functionaries in India, through medical and criminal actions, continue to deal with the Covid19 crisis with Muslims at the centre of such response. It is only apt that I call the Indian government’s response to the corona epidemic as the beginning of the biopolitics of pandemic citizenship.

Cohen, E. F. and Ghosh, C. (2019) Citizenship. Cambridge: Polity.
Foucault, M. (2003) ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador.
Kapur, R. (2007) ‘The citizen and the migrant: Postcolonial anxieties, law, and the politics of exclusion/inclusion’, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 8(2).
Mamdani, M. (2001) When victims become killers : colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Rose, N. and Novas, C. (2005) ‘Biological citizenship’, in Ong, A. and Collier, S. J. (eds) Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics, and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 439–63.


Adil Hossain is pursuing his DPhil International Development at Merton College, University of Oxford. His twitter handle is @adilhossain.