The fear of CAA and NRC hampers COVID-19 screening in Jaipur’s Ramganj hotspot

Of the atleast 723 COVID-19 positive cases in Jaipur, 525 are from Ramganj. Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Getty Images
23 April, 2020

On 26 March, a team of government officials visited the home of Zarina Akhtar, a 68-year-old resident of Ramganj, a Muslim-dominated locality in Jaipur. Akhtar lives in a four-storey house deep inside the densely packed lanes of Ramganj. The officials asked for information about her family members—their names, ages and if there were people aged above 60 living in her home.

 Akhtar said she and several others in the neighbourhood were apprehensive and suspicious of the team. Earlier in the month, Akhtar and other women from the area had participated in a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. The Ramganj residents thought the team’s visit was connected to the CAA and the NRC. “We had known that government officials conducting the NRC would want to know similar details from us. There was this suspicion of their activities and many people from the area were reluctant to cooperate with them,” Akhtar said. The government officials were in fact conducting house-to-house surveys to monitor the outbreak of COVID-19 in the area after a resident in the locality tested positive for the virus.

Ramganj is located inside Jaipur’s walled city. With a population of at least three lakh people, it is among the most densely-populated areas in the city. It has now become a hotspot for the COVID-19 outbreak in Jaipur. As of 22 April, Rajasthan had 1,868 COVID-19 positive cases, with 723 in Jaipur. According to the Rajasthan health minister Raghu Sharma, of these at least 525 are from Ramganj.

 Local health officials told me that screening patients in the area had been difficult. “Screening and contact tracing in Ramganj and nearby areas has been a herculean task,” Meena Ahuja, a medical officer at Ramganj, said. “When we started enquiring about the number of residents and details of elderly, most of the households were non-cooperative. They not only returned us empty handed but also doubted our intentions. They thought we are there for something else. But we had to intensify door-to-door surveys.” Referring to Auxiliary Nurse Midwifes, and Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA workers, she added, “We have deployed 250 teams. Each team is comprised of three members, an ANM, ASHA Sahyogini and a constable. Now we have also started taking the support of local influencers for door-to-door survey.” In addition, around 1,100 policemen have been deployed to enforce the lockdown and assist frontline health workers.

 The first infected person in Ramganj was a 45-year-old man who had returned from a business trip to Oman on 12 March. He tested positive for COVID-19 on 26 March. On 27 March, the local administration imposed a curfew in a one-kilometre radius of the area where the man lived. The same day, a 47-year-old man who was a close friend of the first patient also tested positive, followed by 10 of the man’s family members.

According to the Rajasthan health department, the first patient who returned from Oman had met more than 60 people from various parts of Jaipur before he was tested positive, leading to a massive crisis for the government officials. The health department began tracing his contacts and conducted extensive surveys in Ramganj.

On 8 April, Rohit Kumar Singh, the additional chief secretary in the Rajasthan health department, shared data regarding the surveys on a WhatsApp group of health journalists. According to that data, 266 teams from the health department had visited more than 22,000 houses and surveyed 1.1 lakh people in Ramganj. At least 83 cases of people suffering from influenza-like illness, or ILI, were identified and 576 samples collected. On 7 April, curfew was imposed in an area comprising ten police stations around Ramganj, cutting it off with the rest of Jaipur. On 13 April, 28 new cases were reported from various other parts of the walled city including Neelagarh, Purani Basti, Patang Bazar and Subhash Chowk.

The fear of the CAA and NRC has been a significant factor hampering the work of medical teams in Ramganj. A growing sense of distrust and insecurity has prevailed among Muslims in India since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power for the second time in May 2019. In December 2019, several lakh people from across Jaipur participated in a silent march led by chief minister Ashok Gehlot to protest the CAA and NRC. This included a large representation of Muslims from the walled city.

In early February, hundreds of women, a majority of them Muslim, gathered at Jaipur’s Shaheed Smarak, a designated protest space, against the CAA and NRC. Many of these women also came from the walled city. The protest, which was dubbed as “Jaipur’s Shaheen Bagh,” continued for over a month before it had to end because of the threat of COVID-19. Further, in late February, the country witnessed large-scale communal violence in Delhi, with targeted attacks on Muslim communities, further deepening their sense of mistrust.

I spoke to Noor Bano, a resident of Ramganj, who had attended the protest at the Shaheed Smarak every day. “We would receive a knock at our doors. When we would open random people would be standing and enquiring about the number of family members and especially focusing on elderly people,” she said. “In the back of our minds we were suspicious that they are collecting our whereabouts because of our months long participation at the protest site. We would question them and reluctantly answer.”

Civil-society activists, social scientists, and politicians told me that the initial non-cooperation from residents was due to their fear of the CAA. “In past few months, whether its CAA or Delhi riots, the Muslims were targeted in such a way that sense of suspicion arose among them,” Kavita Srivastava, the general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a civil-society organisation, said. “Also not enough was done to explain to them what COVID actually meant. Most of the dwellers were sitting on a protest against CAA because it became a matter of their existence. Another factor is how media painted this particular section as a carrier of virus.”

Srivastava was referring to the aftermath of a religious conference in Delhi organised by the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation, in mid-March. That month, ten Indonesian nationals who had attended the conference tested positive for COVID-19 in Telangana. Following this, several attendees across the country tested positive. Subsequently, a barrage of fake news emerged targeting Muslims for the pandemic, and suggesting that Muslims were actively working to spread the virus in India.

Newspapers in Rajasthan also highlighted religion as part of their COVID-19 coverage. Two leading Hindi dailies, Rajasthan Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar, used Muslim symbols such as “Masjid,” “Namaz,” and “Jamaat” in their headlines while reporting on the COVID-19 situation. On 4 April, Rajasthan Patrika, the leading Hindi newspaper of Rajasthan, carried a front-page headline in its Jaipur edition that said “Corona ki ‘jamaat’ aur badi.”—The jamaat, or gathering, of corona has increased. On 5 April, Dainik Bhaskar in its Jaipur section, carried a headline that said “Maha curfew tha, Masjidon mai namaz band thi.  Shukr hai! Community transmission ruk gaya.”—There was a grand curfew. There was no namaz in the mosques. Thank goodness! Community transmission was stopped.

I spoke to Rajiv Gupta, the former dean of social sciences at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. “Due to ongoing CAA, NRC protests there is a mistrust between the minority community and central government which resulted in non-cooperation to the administration in the initial days of screening,” he said. “There is a dissent in the community which the administration needs to deal with empathy. Later, stigmatisation of Tablighi Jamaat across India also became a factor in Ramganj.”  Gupta further noted that the majority of Ramganj residents are labourers who work in the jewellery industry or make traditional Rajasthani shoes.

Amin Kagzi, a Congress Member of the Legislative Assembly who represents the Kishanpole constituency in the walled city, highlighted the problems in containing the spread in Ramganj. “The dense population inside Ramganj is one of the most important factors that infected more than 350 persons in less than three weeks,” he said. “The failure of social distancing, the fear of NRC, poverty are some of the factors that made the situation worsen.”

While medical teams have reinforced the need for social distancing, Ramganj residents told me that it has been difficult to achieve that in practice. Aarif Ahmed, a worker in the gem industry, told me that his neighbour, who lived 200 feet away, had tested positive for COVID-19. Subsequently, the health department asked him and his family of eight to be in self-isolation. However, Ahmed pointed out that all eight live together in a room of eight by ten feet. The situation is similar for most residents of Ramganj.

Because of the initial non-cooperation of Ramganj residents, the administration had to bring in Muslim officers, to build trust among the people. On 31 March, a video appeal by Khalil Ahmed, the Station House Officer at the Shipra Path police station in Jaipur surfaced on social media. Ahmed mentioned in the video that he had been sent to Ramganj from Shipra Path in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. He requested residents to “cooperate with the medical teams” visiting their homes and stop misbehaving with them. “If the medical teams don’t come to your area, you won’t get treatment,” Ahmed appealed.

The government has also roped in five officers of the Rajasthan Administrative Services who hail from the Muslim community. I spoke to Aslam Sher Khan, an RAS officer presently in charge of the distribution of dry rations at Ramganj, who said residents were beginning to cooperate with the administration. “Things have changed in Ramganj now. We are receiving cooperation from people,” he said. “Earlier the biggest challenges were to make them sit indoors and reduce the chances of rumours. We have been successful in doing that with the help of religious leaders, who made announcements from the mosques appealing people to stay indoors. Besides this Muslim MLAs have appealed to people to follow lockdown through messages on Facebook and WhatsApp.”

However, the opposition BJP has criticised the ruling Congress government for its handling of the crisis in Jaipur. “While the government is busy hailing the ‘Bhilwara model’ of tackling COVID, Jaipur seems to go out of control from their hands,” the Rajasthan BJP president Satish Poonia told me. The “Bhilwara model” refers to the steps the government took in containing the spread of COVID in Bhilwara, a city in Rajasthan, after it emerged as a hotspot. This included imposing a strict curfew, tracing the contacts of those infected and surveying twenty-five lakh households. Poonia added, “There has been huge lapses from government’s machinery. They should have tracked those who were a part of Tablighi Jamaat. But Congress was busy appeasing the Muslims for their vote banks.”

I also spoke to Raghu Sharma, the health minister, who explained why the Bhilwara model cannot be replicated in Ramganj. “The model cannot be followed in Ramganj because of the thickly populated locality,” he said. Instead, Sharma said that Ramganj was being monitored by dividing the entire area into 30 clusters and testing samples from each cluster. He added, “We are doing every bit to control the situation in Ramganj and nearby areas. We have ordered five lakh PPE,”—personal protective equipment—“kits out of which we have received 1.6 lakh.”

On the WhatsApp group of health journalists, Singh defended the rising number of cases in Rajasthan. “More positive cases are being discovered because we are aggressively testing,” he said. As of 22 April, 66,257 samples have been tested in Rajasthan. Singh added, “Ramganj is reporting large number of positive cases because of very aggressive testing. It’s part of a strategy to identify the real magnitude of the problem.”