Coronavirus Communalism Has Made a Grim Picture for Indian Muslims Grimmer Still

Conspiracy theories are targeting Indian Muslims, and not just those connected with Tablighi Jamaat, as spreaders of COVID-19.

The harassment of Muslims has increased in India lately and the demonisation of the community as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-nationals’ has become not just a popular pastime but an obsession with many people, particularly some TV anchors.

Below, I list only a few well known instances of this trend in recent weeks, in which the coronavirus has  been used to target India’s Muslims.

Maulana Saad, head of the Tablighi Jamaat, has become a target of vilification following hundreds of Tablighis contracting COVID-19 after passing through the Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi. His house was raided by the police and an FIR has even been lodged against him for culpable homicide under section 304 IPC.

The allegation being spread on social media and a section of TV channels that he deliberately spread the coronavirus in India is on its face false and mischievous. Muslims have been gathering in the Markaz at Nizamuddin for decades, and so they did in March, before the Indian government itself had sounded the alarm over the disease. Many had come from foreign countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, etc and it is quite possible some had been infected with corona, which they unwittingly spread to others in the Jamaat. But to say this was deliberately done is absurd. So the FIR against the Maulana is wholly unwarranted.

Some people ask why he does not surrender before the police. One can’t speculate about the reason, but it is quite possible that he is scared that third degree methods will be applied by the police if he does so.

The demonisation of the Tablighi Jamaat is having all kinds of unpleasant consequences for Muslims across India, from Punjab – where Muslim Gujjars are facing difficult selling milk – to Karnataka, where communalists are pushing for the social boycott of Muslims.

In a government hospital in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, a pregnant Muslim woman was sent off to Jaipur for treatment and consequently her baby died. Her husband initially said they had been denied treatment because they were Muslims, a claim he subsequently retracted. But the official inquiry into the incident recorded the fact that the doctor had suspected they were from the Tablighi Jamaat.

Coronavirus conspiracy theories are targeting Indian Muslims, and not just those connected with Tablighi Jamaat, as spreaders of the disease. This despite the statement issued by the Indian Scientists Response to COVID-19 group that “the available data does not support the speculation that the blame for the coronavirus epidemic in India lies mainly with Tablighi Jamaat”.

Hashtags such as ‘corona jihad’, ‘corona terrorism’ and ‘corona bombs Tablighi’ have trended on Twitter, and tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times, and potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter. Mainstream media repeatedly asserted that Tablighi Jamaat members are ‘super spreaders’, and there have been demands on social media that they should be shot. They are accused of spitting on doctors and health workers, defecating in the hospital wards, misbehaving with nurses, throwing bottles of urine, demanding chicken biryani etc, and it is alleged their aim is to infect as many people as possible – allegations which remind one of Goebbels’ dictum ‘The bigger the lie the easier it will be swallowed’.

What is overlooked is that while Tablighi Jamaat may have been short-sighted in holding a congregation at this time, there are dozens of examples of other religious groups, political groups, etc which also flouted the coronavirus guidelines and gathered in large numbers together. The chief minster of Uttar Pradesh attended a major Hindu celebration in Ayodhya on March 25 although there was a nationwide lockdown and even posted a video on Twitter of his participation along with dozens of people without any social distancing.

No Muslim here. File photo of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath taking part in a religious function in Ayodhya on March 25, the first day of the national lockdown, along with dozens of people. Photo: Screengrab of video posted by Yogi Adityanath on his Twitter handle.

After the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers had crowded together in various places, and surely these were not all Muslims. Slums like that in Dharavi had a corona positive patient who was not a Muslim. Yet the whole focus is on Muslims, as if they alone spread COVID-19, and in recent days there have been attacks on and harassment of Muslims, especially vendors, in many parts of India.

In Karnataka, an audio clip began to be shared widely over WhatsApp urging people not to allow Muslim fruit and vegetable sellers into their areas, claiming they were spreading the coronavirus through their merchandise. In Mangalore, posters appeared saying no Muslims were allowed in certain neighbourhoods. One poster said “No Muslim trader will be allowed access to our home town till corona has totally gone”. In village Ankanahalli, the village panchayat president issued a warning that if any Hindu is caught fraternising with a Muslim he will be fined 500 to 1000 rupees.

Many similar examples can be given from other parts of India showing how Indian Muslims are being vilified and demonised.

‘It was already getting dangerous to be a Muslim in India, then came the coronavirus, TIME magazine has reported, quoting a professor from JNU as saying, ” Islamophobia has been transposed onto the coronavirus issue “.

In an article last December, I had painted a grim picture for the future of Indian Muslims: ‘Bad days are ahead for Indian Muslims’. With the coronavirus, the scenario has become grimmer.

Markandey Katju is a former judge, Supreme Court of India