India, a nation of 1.3 billion people, has been put under the largest lockdown in a democratic country to fight the novel coronavirus or the COVID-19 pandemic. As citizens grapple with a life growing increasingly difficult and uncertain, as the government and citizens join efforts willy-nilly to fight an unknown fearsome foe, there has been a barrage of reports of atrocities and discrimination against India’s Muslims by Hindus. They range from the mundane to the most heart-wrenching ones. And they come from places as far apart as the state of Karnataka in the south to Himachal Pradesh nestled at the foot of the Himalayas in the north.
Islamophobia in India?
Muslims have been accused of waging “corona jihad” on social media, or sometimes “corona terrorism”. Muslim vendors have been shooed away from some areas. In the northern province of Jammu, Muslim milkmen suddenly faced a boycott, with consumers refusing to buy any milk from them, alleging that the milk was infected with the novel corona virus. In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh a dismal account emerged of an attack on a group of migrant labourers. The labourers, who had been living and working in the village since November, were suddenly and rudely awakened one night and thrashed by a group of Hindu villagers on suspicion that they were infected with the coronavirus. In the southern state, Muslim volunteers who were distributing food to other migrant workers stranded without work and earnings because of the sudden countrywide lockdown by the government, were beaten and forced to stop serving food to others. The list seems endless.
Zafarul Islam Khan, Chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told EER that he has received numerous reports of Muslims tenants being asked to vacate their houses, Muslim vendors not being allowed to enter Hindu colonies, as they were alleged to be carrying the infection to infect Hindus. “This is ridiculous and baseless. No one would do such a thing on purpose, to infect oneself or the other.”
What has caused this sudden outbreak of attacks on Muslims in India, the world’s largest democracy? Why is the country’s second-largest community being targeted and accused of deliberately spreading the virus? Is it simply Islamophobia, stemming simply from a hatred of “the other”? Or is there some very real fear coming to the fore and enabling people to commit some of the most heinous acts? In order to restore order and dignity to society, and ensure justice to the wronged Muslims in India, while guaranteeing a fair and fearless India, it is important to unravel the knots and the different strands in the narrative.
Younus Mohani, editor of the Lucknow-based monthly Muslim Era, whose friend, Jahangeer Adil, was assaulted while distributing rations amongst some of the poorer communities in his town, refuses to call it Islamophobia. “There is no Islamophobia in India, and it is a handful of people who are doing this, but Muslims are being unfairly targeted for spreading the infection,” he says. Several members of the Muslim community I spoke to also rejected allegations of Islamophobia occurring in India, saying Muslims enjoy rights and liberties in India not granted in many other countries. However, they all agree that Muslims are being targeted for the faults of a “few” violators of governmental orders regarding the COVID-19 crisis. This also undermined the many services that numerous Muslim organisations are rendering in the fight against the pandemic. For instance, numerous Muslim medics and pharmaceutical companies are at the forefront of India’s fight against the coronavirus.
Role of the Tableeghi Jamaat
In an earlier article I had explained the complicated relations between Hindus and Muslims in India. It is also a fact that since December 2019, the country has seen a sharp polarization along communal lines, with the adoption of legislation by the Indian parliament that many Muslims view as being anti-Muslim. Muslim groups have been protesting ever since, and riots broke out in Delhi in February even as US president Donald Trump was on an official visit to the country. The riots claimed 53 lives, among them 36 Muslims (68%), and wrecked numerous households, businesses, and livelihoods, also mostly Muslim. Since then, inter-community relations in vast swathes of the country have been tense.
To this noxious mix was added the unbounded folly, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, of the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) — a hardline Islamist organisation headquartered in Delhi.
India woke up to the threats of the pandemic only after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it to be a pandemic in the second week of March 2020. Even as the government entered into firefighting mode, ordering social distancing and banning gatherings of more than 50 people, TJ hosted a congregation of more than 3,000 people at its headquarters in Delhi. Hundreds of participants, many of them foreign nationals, then travelled to different parts of India. This event has emerged as one of the biggest vectors responsible for the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Indian Union. A number of deaths amongst the congregation’s participants have occurred, though the government has not released figures.
TJ has been culpable at multiple levels. First, their participants from abroad had all violated Indian visa rules. After the event came to light, the group’s leadership resisted vacating the premises; members were asked to voluntarily come forward for testing but that did not happen. Many, after fanning out across the country, hid themselves in mosques. The authorities had to launch a manhunt for those who had attended the event and this helped exacerbate tensions. In some cases, where attendees had been tracked down, doctors and health workers who tried to reach them were met with hostility, even violence. Videos emerged of the group’s leader Maulana Saad, telling his followers that the virus was azaab — divine punishment — and they should ignore calls for social distancing and reject ban on mosque visits, as these were a ploy to divide Muslims.
Role of the Media
Since then a pandora’s box has opened up. While the thrashings and attacks are being sternly dealt with through law enforcement, a more insidious campaign is being run on social media and the internet, with terms like “corona jihad” trending. Old videos began to be circulated with fake stories of Muslims spitting on fruit, vegetables, and utensils began doing the rounds. While the TJ members are being tracked down and tested, unfounded rumour-mongering about their uncouth behaviour continues.
Mr. Khan blames the Indian media for exacerbating tensions and deepening communal faultlines. After all, members of other communities have also been found to have violated lockdown rules, but there has not been the kind of orchestrated campaign against them that there has been against Muslims.
Harvinder Khetal, a senior editor with the broadsheet The Tribune, agrees that media has played a major role in the demonization of Muslims. “For the ill-informed behaviour of the leader of a sect an entire community is being vilified,” she says. But she also points out to the laxity of the authorities who allowed such a congregation to take place. “The authorities’ inability to stop the congregation is being downplayed by the peddlers of divisive politics. And rumour mongering is that much easier now in the age of the internet.”
Rahul Kumar, a Delhi-based journalist and teacher puts things in perspective: “The actions of the Tableeghi Jamaat and a handful of other Muslims in various parts of the country have led to setbacks in the battle against coronavirus. Too many incidents of assaults on doctors, sanitation staff, and the police have been reported, which is beginning to harm the image of the community. Such incidents may not cause fear amongst Hindus but raise suspicions. Many Hindus do not realise that the Tableeghis are a fringe element amongst Muslims.” Moreover, the organization is banned in a number of countries, including Muslim-majority ones like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Kumar also blames the international media and its coverage of India, where the tone “has been alarmist, bereft of facts and figures, and reads like a litany of dire predictions, seeking to polarize people.” This negative covering of India feeds into the fear and conspiracy theories reinforcing mutual distrust and suspicion.
Geopolitics of the Pandemic
Alongside the internal dynamics in India, suspicion and fear of Muslims has been fuelled by China, India’s geopolitical rival, which maintains unresolved territorial claims against India, and is the all-weather, if exploitative, friend of India’s arch-rival Pakistan.
The source of the pandemic is still not clear; initial reports suggested that the “wet market” in Wuhan was the origin of the novel coronavirus, but U.S. intelligence is increasingly focused on the laboratory in that town that was known to be cultivating coronaviruses taken from bats and to have inadequate safety procedures. The Communist regime in China, stung by the global criticism that has seen some referring to this plague as the “Wuhan virus” or “China virus”, tried to turn this around and spread propaganda that accuses the U.S. of unleashing a bio-weapon against them.
While countries have been shutting down, Pakistan has consistently refused to do so; its clergy has explicitly warned its government against closing down places of worship. In India, even after the government announced a lockdown, Muslim groups refused to call off their protests for some time. It is equally true that other communities in India have also violated lockdown rules, but these were more localized and authorities have taken action against them.
The TJ, however, had not just a national but a global outreach — its congregations in Malaysia and Pakistan helped spread the virus as far as Gaza and the Philippines. And this was not the only problem. An employee of a reputed corporate house called for spreading the virus in a Facebook post; there were repeated incidents of violent defiance against police orders; videos of Muslim clergy telling people in Bangladesh and Pakistan not to panic as the virus was a punishment from Allah for “non-believers” spread on social media. All of this added to inter-communal suspicions and conspiracy theories.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, all under lockdown, with almost half the people being daily wage earners, the pandemic is causing enormous economic losses. Millions of migrant workers remain stranded across the country. As across the world, there is panic and anguish in India. The TJ event became the straw that broke the camel’s back, making Muslims a convenient scapegoat.
The Way Forward
A cursory sifting through the cases of assault on and discrimination against Muslims in India — specifically in the wake of the pandemic — reveals that the fear factor is more central than any other. For instance, when tenants are asked to vacate, it costs these landlords revenue; when food products are boycotted during a lockdown, it disrupts supply chains and portends difficulty for the person boycotting. There is no profit incentive; there is deep mistrust. And this occurs on the other side, too, with Muslim communities violently resisting state agents, from police to health workers, because of a deep-rooted fear and mistrust of both the government and the Hindu community in India. The assaults also point to the alacrity with which people are taking the law in their own hands.
What does this portend for a country like India, already grappling with problems on numerous fronts, if it continues?
In the immediate-run, it would mean that the war against the pandemic will be badly hampered, resulting in huge losses — of lives, human resources, and development, which would eventually take the country significantly backward.
In the long term, it could lead to civil war. COVID-19 has badly hammered the world economy within a very short span of time. There is no clarity as to where things are headed — how long can a lockdown be effective without the economy collapsing? It has already caused a setback to the Indian economy and is bound to unleash a greater scramble for resources with all its attendant pain. The growing alienation and mistrust between communities has to be immediately checked.
There is, however, cause for hope. For one, the National Volunteer Organisation (RSS) — the mother body of the ruling Indian People’s Party (BJP), which is perceived to be anti-minority — has come out strongly against the harassment of Muslims. Next, Mr. Khan says that a petition submitted by the Commission to the Home Ministry to not name COVID-19 cases linked to the TJ have also born fruit. The stigmatization of the community has by default decreased. Thirdly, the Indian media — vilified for stereotyping Muslims — has also been documenting all violations against them and arrests and charges are being promptly filed by the authorities against the guilty.
At the same time numerous Muslim voices are speaking out against obduracy of organisations like the TJ. See here and here.
The time of platitudes is over. What India needs now more than ever is not homilies or hollow allegiances to the constitution.
First and foremost, it requires strict law enforcement. People should never feel emboldened to take the law into their own hands, whether it is those assaulting Muslims or Muslim groups assaulting health workers.
Next, the government should also be held accountable, as there were lapses at many levels regarding the TJ gathering.
Thirdly, the media should behave in a more responsible manner. The Indian constitution guarantees the rights to the freedom of expression and India can boast of allowing free speech. There are, though, laws against hate speech, even blasphemy — albeit rarely invoked and opposed by many Indians on the grounds that they may infringe on people’s freedom of expression. In sensitive and fragile times like the present, however, the maintenance of order is paramount and it is imperative that the media behaves in a responsible manner, without seeing and reporting every incident and event through a communal prism.
Fourth, the Muslim community has to find good leadership and integrate itself into the mainstream of Indian society, rather than reverting to separatist tendencies, demagogy, and conspiracy theories.
Finally, and most importantly, inter-faith dialogue and communal cooperation at every level of society needs to be facilitated. Governments can do a lot but it is up to the ordinary people to work at peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding, by building trust and confidence and knowledge of each other. Without this, nations cannot progress. Thankfully, there is a rich reservoir of shared history and experience to build upon.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.