Covid-19 cases linked to an international gathering of Muslim missionaries in Delhi quickly descended widespread Islamophobia on social media and discrimination and violence towards ordinary Muslims across India, writes Amjad Nazeer, Executive Director of the Institute of Development Research and Corresponding Capabilities (IDRAC).
The anti-Muslim riots in northeast Delhi earlier this year seem have barely ended when propaganda blaming Muslims for deliberately spreading coronavirus flared up across the country, posing further threat to India’s Muslim minority.
Accusations of Muslims deliberately spreading the virus began after two dozen Muslim missionaries at an international gathering in Delhi tested positive with seven of them reportedly died after contracting Covid-19 in March 2020. These accusations quickly turned viral not least because they received support from some political leaders, such as Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, BJP minister for minority affairs who accused event organisers on Twitter and on local television of a “Talibani crime“. The Tablighi Jamaat missionaries were dubbed “Talibani criminals”, “Muslim virus”, “bio-terrorists” “Corona jihadists“’ and “human bombs” on news channels and on social media, where a virulent Islamophobic campaign began trending. Hashtags such as #CoronaJihad circulated widely (with over 249,733 interactions on Facebook and reaching an estimated 170 million Twitter accounts) and combined dangerously with misinformation and fake news.
“The pandemic has exposed Indian Muslims to be traitors and unfaithful to the country,” says one of the tweets. “India needs to be free from Corona and Jihad as both are nothing more than life-ending weapons” says another.
News channels, such as India Today, ABP News and Republic TV, flashed headlines such as ‘Save the country from Corona Jihad’ and ‘Who is the villain of Nizamuddin?’ while India Today’s anchor, Arvind Goswami, insisted that Muslims are deliberately spreading the virus and as did Sudhir Chaudhary of ZEENEWS.
“Accusing Muslims for spreading the contagion is highly a dangerous trend,” says Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Islamic Political Philosophy at the University of Delaware. Unfortunately, amidst this exclusive blame-spree, the virus finds fertile ground to flourish.
Islamophobic propaganda linked to violent attacks
This propaganda materialised into attacks against Muslims. Countless cases are being reported across India. One report describes extremist Hindus who beat Mehboob Ali mercilessly till he bled from his nose and ears, when he returned home in Harewali (northwest Delhi) from a tablighi mission. He was accused of “Islamic conspiracy of contracting Coronavirus to Hindus” in their sense of the term, and was taken to a nearby Hindu temple after the beating and told to renounce his religion.
In another recent case, extremist Hindus hurled stones at a poor welder, Ghyure Hussain’s house in New Delhi because his son liked a Facebook post that denounced the targeting of Muslims during the Covid-19 lockdown. When police arrested two of the accused, Ghyure’s family was further threatened of retribution unless they shaved their beards and stopped wearing Muslim caps.
Another attack, caught on video, shows a Muslim being beaten up with a bamboo stick by a man asking him about his conspiracy to spread virus. In Gorakhpur, Abdulrahman, a muezzin (one who calls to prayer), was attacked and assaulted, along with others who came to his rescue, for continuing the call prayer during the lockdown. In Humnabad, Imam Hafiz Mohammed Naseerudin believed he was assaulted by a police officer because he “looked Muslim” and was blamed for the spread of the disease.
Anti-Muslim campaigning by right wing Hindu extremists
The ruling Bhartya Janta Party (BJP) is reportedly neglecting the issue of hate crime, perhaps because it remains influenced by the right wing Hindu nationalist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS), whose anti-Muslim campaigning is believed to have helped elevate the BJP to power. Following the BJP’s 2002 election victory in Gujarat, the Secretary General of Vishwa Hindu Prishad (another right wing Hindu organisation), Pravin Togadia declared that, “All Hindutva opponents will be sentenced to death and people will carry that out themselves. The process of forming a Hindu supremacy has begun with Gujarat” and so referring to Gujrat massacre of Muslims in 2002.
Such extreme Hindu ideology is now materialising in the form of harassment, discrimination and marginalisation. In some villages, there are posters plastered to the walls/shops reading “No Muslims” while posters reading “Muslims not allowed to enter” were observed across Karnataka, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh.
‘“Do not buy from Muslims” said BJP leader Suresh Tiwari from Uttar Pradesh as they “infect vegetables with saliva” to spread the virus.
In many a places, Hindutva activists have been seen distributing saffron flags to grocery vendors for consumers to identify them as Hindu sellers while Muslim vendors are being stopped from selling fruit and vegetables in non-Muslim localities. Mosques are also under attack with many demanding a ban on the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.
One hospital in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, refused to treating Muslims unless they show ‘Corona-Free Certificate’ (though apologised later for “hurting religious sentiments”). In Ahmadabad, Gujarat, one hospital is reportedly separated its wards for Muslims on discriminatory grounds, with some patients from the Hindu community were uncomfortable about sharing a same ward as Muslims.
According to Shahid Siddiqi, from the Indian Muslims for Progress and Reforms, a civil society group formed to challenge Islamophobia, “the state is involved in stoking the hatred”. Coronavirus has just added a new dimension to the pre-existing and systemic vilification of Muslims by mainstream media turning them into “the new untouchables”.
Government must act strongly and quickly to contain this crisis
The government’s response to such treatment of Muslims has been negligible, to say the least. While Prime Minister Modi did state that “Covid-19 spreads across all castes and creeds”, this may well have been linked to growing international pressure. He has not condemned the ever-growing stigmatisation of Muslims now being exacerbated by the pandemic. His silence in light of the increased harassment, discrimination, marginalization and violence against Muslims cannot be justified.
One democratic rights NGO, the Peoples Union for Civic Liberties (PUCL) is demanding that the Prime Minister publicly condemn communalisation of Covid-19 and call upon communities not to stigmatise and ostracize minorities (PDF). The government itself must do more to eliminate communal hatred through any means by investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators. Otherwise, the country will land from Delhi anti-Muslim riots to another massive crisis that any country cannot afford.