The whole world is battling the novel coronavirus. But it seems India is fighting Muslims in the time of coronavirus, if we were to go by the loudest and most popular television channels and social media discourse. “Corona Jihad” was trending on April 1; on April 2, “Muslim means terrorist” was a top trend.
There is an explosion of fake news about Muslims “deliberately” spreading the virus.
Add to this the daily official pronouncements which have reinforced the narrative that if not for the Tablighi Jamaat, India’s COVID-19 curve was doing fine.
And on April 6, #SanghiTwitter was trending with people posting pictures of being a proud Hindu.
At the outset, it is absolutely condemnable that any group, religious or otherwise, violates any public/legal health advisory or more importantly, the moral responsibility in one’s individual capacity during a dangerous global pandemic.
To that extent, it was the moral and legal responsibility of the Tablighi to ensure that no large gatherings took place, or to report people with symptoms. It is especially very serious in this case considering the large numbers, more than 1,500 – almost all from their congregation – who have been infected and also the numbers that have died.
The problem is not in affixing Tablighi’s responsibility but converting this culpability into a very dangerous communal campaign against the entire Muslim community in otherwise scary times.
This campaign, ironically, misses that as a society India has produced one of the most bizarre and irrational responses in the world to the disease wallowing in religious symbolisms which are commanded by the prime minister himself.
We have celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan telling his millions of followers that clapping can kill coronavirus, that it is potentially spread by flies, and that homeopathy can be a cure.
The Tablighi is definitely not alone.
It is one thing to offer solidarity to all the frontline workers as well as build a sense of calm among citizens through symbolisms, but completely another to convert that as events to be “managed” by diktats to schools and government officers.
Consider this: when leaders across the world are not batting an eyelid over COVID-19, in 24 hours between April 4 and 5, the prime minister of India tweeted around 45 times and 40 of them were about lighting candles at 9 pm.
And unsurprisingly, the whole solemn moment (considering the number of people who have died from COVID-19 as well the migrant labourers who died trying getting home) culminated in a bizarre spectacle of people coming out on the streets, celebrating by burning effigies, bursting crackers, even thereby causing fires in a few places.
Before that, soon after the prime minister’s announcement of the April 5 “lights off” occasion, the educated middle and elite classes, among them top physicians, went into a tizzy speculating about the significance of number 9.
If we were to go back and examine what the rest of society was doing when the Tablighi Jamaat was congregating in Delhi in the second week of March, and after, it will offer a peek into our collective delusions.
In Punjab, a Sikh preacher, Baldev Singh, did not follow self-quarantine after returning from Italy and attended the large Sikh festival of Hola Mohalla from March 11-13. This was attended by tens of thousands of people. He later died from coronavirus and infected 19 of his relatives. Because of him, 40,000 people had to be quarantined.
We did not hear any news anchors shrieking about the Sikh community deliberately trying to spread COVID-19 to the rest of India, and small mercies for that.
Hindu pilgrims were visiting the various temples which were open, including the most important ones, which attracts lakhs of numbers.
Shirdi Saibaba Temple was open till March 17. Vaishno Devi Yatra was suspended on March 18. But 400 pilgrims are still stuck at the shrine, and the Jammu and Kashmir high court directed on March 30 that they should not have to vacate their hotels.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple was open till March 20. Delhi’s Kalkaji Temple was open till March 21, despite the Delhi government notification of March 16 prohibiting more than 50 people.
And Tirupati Tirumala Temple closed on March 20 only after the detection of a suspected COVID case.
If the Tablighi Jamaat was grossly irresponsible, what were our “responsible” leaders and governments doing?
On March 10, the BJP chief of West Bengal addressed a puja in a temple. What did he say there? “The entire world is scared of the coronavirus and millions are staying at home… And look what is happening here… Thousands of people have come out to offer puja. They are drinking water and using the same hands to have the prasad… Nothing will happen, they have the blessings of the almighty.”
On March 15, BJP chief minister of Karnataka, B.S. Yediyurappa, despite his own government advising that gatherings over 100 people should be avoided, attended a wedding with over 3,000 guests!
On March 18, the president of India hosted a breakfast for MPs with no physical distancing followed, and later even had to undergo testing for COVID-19.
Until March 19, the Ram Navami celebrations in Ayodhya were going ahead as planned before. I quote a report from Republic TV (the most trusted news source for the “nationalists”):
“Even as coronavirus cases in the country has risen up to 169, the district administration in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya is gearing up to hold mega Ram Navami mela (fair). The mela, draws lakhs of pilgrims from across the country, will be held from 25 March to 2 April. This comes amid concerns expressed by many including the chief medical officer of Ayodhya about the health risk posed by a large congregation of 10 lakh devotees.”
Reacting to the concerns of the chief medical officer, Ayodhya MLA Ved Gupta, said, “We can’t stop the devotees. They would be advised to wear masks and maintain a distance while conducting rituals.”
What were people doing on March 22, the day of Janata Curfew? They gathered in large numbers across hundreds of locations to celebrate “Corona Day” by dancing, beating drums and plates, bursting crackers, etc. including those which were led by a state governor, and a district magistrate of a BJP-governed state, completely breaking the physical distancing rules demanded by the curfew.
Despite the looming threat of COVID-19, what was the Indian parliament doing? It was in session until March 23, putting at risk many people. More bizarrely, Shivraj Singh Chouhan was sworn in as late as March 23 with thousands of people in attendance.
Even after a national lockdown was imposed, Yogi Adityanath brazenly participated in a puja with many other people to shift the idol of Ram Lalla.
On April 2, with already 2,000 COVID-19 cases in India, and under a lockdown, Telangana ministers attended Ram Navami celebrations. And in West Bengal, on the same day, “amid chants of ‘Jai Sri Ram’, thousands of devotees assembled in temples” in various parts of the state.
This is not to argue that Tablighi Jamaat’s grievous actions are therefore excusable.
But to argue that grave irresponsibility and brazen disregard for public safety are characteristics not just of the Tablighi Jamaat but equally of other conservative religious groups, and more dangerously of our political leadership. Yet, in our current discourse of religious nationalism, the entire Muslim community has to be demonised for every malady that afflicts India, including COVID-19 (which in this case also ill informedly reduces the very diverse Muslim community in India to just the Tablighi Jamaat or the latter to a terrorist group).
And the legal and moral expectations from citizenry have to be selectively and communally applied.
Also, rather than some selective targeting of a “Hindu India,” Tablighi gatherings have led to COVID-19 spread in other Muslim-majority nations including Pakistan. Because that is precisely the nature of large human gatherings, religious or otherwise: they tend to spread pandemics, just like the gatherings of a fringe Christian cult in South Korea, or students partying in the United States breaking COVID-19 restrictions.
Finally, as with everything else in India these days, every failure of the state, whether it is the absolute misery of the migrant labour perpetrated by an unplanned lockdown, or the inability to screen, or quarantine the Tablighi attendees is immediately diverted by the communal bullet which pulverises every question that will be asked.
Thus, we will be led to believe that thousands of Muslims, including many from Islamic nations, meeting in a religious headquarters – situated right next to a police station in the capital city – is something that would have escaped the eyes of the security agencies of a nation governed by a Hindu nationalist party.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren.