The pandemic and severe lockdowns are a time of immense dislocation and dread for all Indians, as the country fights a malign mutating virus with no cure. But it is particularly a time of despair and desolation if you are an Indian Muslim.
There have been many difficult periods in the journey of Indian Muslims in free India. The hardest were the years around Partition, when bloodletting and hate against Muslims peaked, threatening many with violence and eviction from their homes and livelihoods, compelling millions to migrate to Pakistan. Each episode of communal violence brings back flashbacks of these troubling community memories of loss and pain, as do the hundreds of lynch attacks in the name of cow protection and ‘love jihad’ in recent years.
The movement for the construction of a Ram temple at the site of a medieval mosque and its razing by a fevered mob marked another peak. The years of terror attacks – when it became routine for successive governments to round up Muslim men for torture and years, even decades in prison before they were found innocent and released – have also left huge unhealed wounds.
The years since Narendra Modi was voted to power in Delhi midsummer in 2014 have been even harder. Vitriolic hate speech against Muslims by people holding the highest elected office became a routine part of social life. Large sections of the media, especially in Hindi and many Indian languages, became willing partners in this customary everyday hate-mongering. Muslims were systematically expelled from relevance and even participation in electoral politics. And intensely brutal, videotaped lynching of innocent people in numerous hate attacks around the country burned into the consciousness of India’s Muslims. The months since Modi was returned to power in 2019 witnessed constitutional and legal attacks targeting India’s Muslims, including downgrading and locking down Kashmir, criminalising triple talaq and the Ram temple judgment.
It was the nationwide popular upsurge protesting changes in citizenship laws and the proposed nationwide National Register Citizens which restored hope in the hearts of India’s Muslims, because people of all faiths, especially students, fought shoulder to shoulder, peacefully and spiritedly, against the discriminatory law.
But during the weeks that the coronavirus began penetrating India, the national capital was rocked by communal violence. Earlier, universities were assaulted and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister used his uniformed police to wreak revenge on the Muslim residents of his state. India’s Muslims, with secular Indians countrywide, were crafting strategies to resist the National Population Register.
All of this suddenly was thrust into already hazy memory, after Prime Minister Modi announced a harsh 21-day nationwide lockdown. As tens of millions of informal and self-employed workers were stranded overnight without work, food or healthcare, and without living arrangements in which social distancing is feasible, we expected this to be a long interregnum of suffering, but one in which India’s demons of hate would be exiled. That instead, the country would come together to fight the demons of hunger, unemployment and the terrifying pandemic.
The ruling establishment had other plans
But that was not to be. India’s ruling establishment had other plans. From March 13-15, an orthodox fundamentalist Muslim group called the Tablighi Jamaat held a large international gathering in their five-storey building in West Nizamuddin in Delhi called the Markaz, with many participants from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Organising this meeting was enormously injudicious and would cost many lives. However, to place the matter in perspective, there were many religious, political and social gatherings held during this same period, and the Tablighi meeting was held with due permissions from the Union and Delhi governments. Similar gatherings of thousands in Hindu temples in Gujarat and Sikh gatherings in Punjab in the same period attracted negligible attention from the media and in official briefings.
From the early days of the shock lockdown, people across the country were glued to their televisions and smartphones for news of the virus and its spread. The official briefings quickly shifted to depicting the Tablighi gathering as the epicentre and central cause of the virus spreading across India. The Delhi government in its briefings, for instance, referred to these as the ‘Markaz Masjid’ cases. There were obvious statistical biases in all of this, as pointed out by Shoaib Daniyal in Scroll, because whereas more than 25,000 Jamaat members and their contacts were traced and tested, the participants in other large religious and political gatherings held around the same time, including those patronised and attended by senior leaders of the ruling party, including the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, were not aggressively pursued or tested to even a fraction of the degree to which the Tablighi participants were. Statisticians explain that if during those days of reporting, the majority of cases which were tested were from the Tablighi Jamaat, then it is not surprising that the majority of identified COVID-19 cases would also be linked to the gathering.
The flames of hate against Muslims then spread and engulfed the entire country aided by the dedicated trolls of social media, including members of the infamous BJP IT Cell. A flood of cynically fake hate videos was unleashed on the internet, depicting Muslims deliberately smearing vegetables and fruits with their saliva, spitting into food served in restaurants, and coughing into the faces of other people, all with the malevolent intent of infecting non-Muslims. Others showed Muslims refusing to get tested, and of Muslim men gathering for prayer in mosques, claiming that these were filmed during the lockdown, that worshippers insisting on breaking lockdown rules learning no lessons from the lethal Tablighi Jamaat gathering. Hashtags like #CoronaJihad, #BioJihad and #TablighiJamaatVirus began to circulate and trend.
The consequences were immediate, terrifying and deadly, and continue to mount. The members of the Tablighi Jamaat are of course the most directly stigmatised and hated among non-Muslims across the country, on par with terrorists. At least two suicides have already been reported by Jamaat members. 38-year old shopkeeper Dilshad Mohammad returned to his village in Una district, testing negative after his quarantine imposed because he was one of those who joined the ill-fated Tablighi gathering in Delhi. But he could not handle the taunts and boycott of his neighbours and slit his wrists before hanging himself in his home on April 5. Days later, a 30-year old Assamese man who had attended the Jamaat gathering slit his throat after he tested positive for the viral infection in a hospital in Akola in Maharashtra.
My colleagues running helplines and food distribution and I, are getting numerous reports of lynch attacks on Muslims, both members of the Tablighi Jamaat and others, in the wake of feverish hate-campaign attributing the spread of the coronavirus to Muslims. But only very few are being reported by the mainstream media. Muslim truck drivers were beaten up in Arunachal Pradesh. Unknown men fired at a mosque in Dhankot village in Gurugram, Haryana. Zafarul Islam, the chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission, reported that 200 men attacked and ransacked a mosque in Mukhmelpur village in North West Delhi. The Quint reports a number of attacks on Muslims by goons in various parts of Karnataka. A mob attacked, kicking and humiliating Muslims fishing in the Krishna river near Bidari village in Bagalkot district. In the video of the attack, they are heard saying ‘You people (Muslims) are the ones who are spreading this disease’. In another village Kadakorappa in the same district, men attacked people praying in a mosque. Two more mosques were attacked in Belagavi on the night of April 5, because they had not switched off their lights despite the PM’s appeal. The list is much longer and continues to grow. It may be recalled that all of this is happening during the nationwide lockdown.
The phobia sometimes assumes the guise almost of dark comedy. Many Karnataka newspapers reported that three young men violated the lockdown on April 8 by travelling in an autorickshaw near Tendekere in Krishnarajapete Taluq. When confronted by the police, they shouted out to them, ‘We are Muslims and are corona affected. If you catch us, we will spread the virus and kill you’. It later transpired that the names of the three men were Mahesh, Abhishek and Srinivas!
Calls to boycott Muslims
Some of my Muslim volunteer colleagues who are part of Karwan-e-Mohabbat’s countrywide feeding campaign report that they are brusquely turned away from Hindu settlements even when they go there to distribute rations. Volunteers of Swaraj Abhiyan faced the same fate in Bengaluru. They reported that they were attacked with cricket bats while distributing food to stranded migrant workers. Syed Tabrez, a volunteer, told The Quint, ‘They told us that we are not allowed to distribute food, that we are all from Nizamuddin. They said the virus is spreading because of you…’
Along with these are widespread calls for the social and economic boycott of all Muslim vendors. Some of these boycott calls have turned violent. Reports of boycott have come in even from middle-class and elite neighbourhoods in Delhi, from Haldwani in Uttarakhand, and against Gujjar Muslim milk sellers in Hoshiarpur Punjab, who according to a report in The Wire were beaten up and were forced to pour vast quantities of milk into the riverbed. Posters have come up in many states, including Assam and Karnataka, openly calling for a complete boycott of Muslims, even barring their entry into the village.
We all know that the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a highly contagious and deadly mutating virus. But for this to mutate in India, within a few days of a national lockdown into a conspiracy by Indian Muslims to infect and kill non-Muslims, is a stunning accomplishment of right-wing communication and mobilisation with few parallels. I have spoken to many working-class Hindus who are not normally Islamophobic. Almost every one of them is convinced that the spread of the deadly virus was mainly caused by Indian Muslims. They have been convinced that they are spreading the virus either because their religious bigotry leads them to continue to stubbornly gather in large groups for worship; or,
much worse, that they actually choose venally to infect non-Muslims to eliminate them.
It is hard to believe that the language and tenor of official briefings which succeeded in making the Tablighi Jamaat, and through them the entire Muslim community, centrally culpable for the spread of the killer virus, was accidental. A Central minister (ironically responsible for minorities’ welfare) went so far as to describe the Tablighi gathering as a Talibani crime.
Until then, the dominant heart-breaking images of the lockdown which had pierced deep into public consciousness in the first days of the lockdown were of hundreds of thousands of migrants, often with small children, walking hundreds of kilometres to their villages. Uncomfortable questions were being raised about why the Union government had not used the preceding many weeks to greatly ramp up the production of medical equipment and testing kits, and impose restrictions on large gatherings much earlier.
Instead, supported by large sections of the television and print media, which is Islamophobic even in normal times, the narrative that the COVID-19 virus had spread in India mainly on the backs of religiously bigoted and socially irresponsible Muslims has swept the country with astonishing and highly troubling speed and ease. Ordinary Hindus may not be communal. But it is extraordinary how easy it is to persuade them with highly charged communal propaganda, even that their fellow-Muslims could wilfully be spreading the deadly virus to their fellow countrywomen and men.
In coping with the fears of both the pandemic and the devastating human costs which the lockdown is extracting, Indian Muslim suffers as much as her sisters and brothers. In fact, more than any other socio-religious community, urban Muslims are self-employed in petty businesses, and are therefore in some aspects even more vulnerable, because they are not registered as workers and therefore not eligible for even the paltry financial aid extended by the state to registered workers.
While other Indians are battling fear, loss, dislocation, joblessness, hunger and a frightening epidemic which no government in the world seems able to vanquish, the Indian Muslim has been forced not only to battle all of these, but also the intense and utterly irrational levels of hate from their neighbours. Thus for our Indian Muslim sisters and brothers, this is a time of desolation which even surpasses what other impoverished and dispossessed people are enduring during this time of intense national crisis today.