Some days ago, a piece of news spread like wildfire in my small village, located in eastern Uttar Pradesh – one person had tested positive for COVID-19! The villagers, particularly Muslims, were anxious to know the religious identity of the affected individual.
Once it was revealed that the person infected with COVID-19 was Prakash (name changed to protect his identity), who had returned from Mumbai, they heaved a sigh of relief. This once at least, they had escaped the fate of being called super spreaders of the coronavirus.
It’s a term that has come to haunt them ever since the Tablighi Jamaat event, held in Delhi in March, was branded an act of ‘corona jihad’ by voices within the ruling party at the Centre, with the mainstream media playing its part in making them go ‘viral’.
Lockdown 5.0 may be synonymous with life returning somewhat to normal in many parts of the country that are outside the containment zones, but there is a general sense of fear and unease that is still palpable.
Importantly, the intensity of fear and unease is more among the religious minorities precisely on account of the relentless propaganda mounted by the BJP, which has seen in the pandemic a political opportunity for furthering divisiveness in society.
Hence, the experience of being a Muslim from a small village – which falls under Bharatganj, a Nagar Panchayat city – in Prayagraj district, is but a reflection of the larger politics of polarisation that has come to define our present.
The day Prakash was diagnosed COVID-19 positive, it was the only topic of dinner-time conversation at home. As I told my mother about it, she had just one response, “Achcha hua wo Muslim nahi tha (‘it was a good thing that he was not Muslim’).
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
She replied, “Arre kuch nahi, kuch din pehle news pe dikha raha tha Muslaman ke wajah se corona phail raha hai na (‘Nothing, it’s just that a few days back the news channels were showing that Muslims are responsible for the spread of coronavirus’).”
It was not that my mother had no concern for the person who had been infected with the coronavirus – far from it. She was just relieved that there was one fewer instance of the coronavirus infection that could be laid at the door of Muslims in the village, and in general.
Her reaction showed how the hearts and minds of people are being divided; how even during a pandemic that has brought the world to its knees, the stigmatisation of an entire community is going on unabated.
The response of a cousin, Zeeshan, was also revealing. About Prakash, the person who had contracted COVID-19, he said, “Wo hamare ilake ke nahi hai (‘he is not from our area’),” thus distancing himself and his community, because he was fully aware of the prejudice faced by a Muslim testing positive for COVID-19 in our times.
Since the lockdown was imposed in March, about five to six thousand villagers, migrant workers, have returned to our village. There was not a single case of a person diagnosed with COVID-19 before Prakash’s arrival.
Usually, there are three levels of thermal screening in such cases: during the time of departure from the city, on arrival at the nearest railway station in the city, and while entering the village or town.
It turned out that both Prakash and his friend Vinay (name changed) had tested positive in Mumbai, but they fled the hospital and caught a special train to their respective hometowns, in adjacent tehsils. They had succeeded in skipping two levels of scrutiny – at the railway station in Mumbai and while entering the village.
Once the hospital staff realised that Prakash and Vinay were missing, they set about locating their address. Fortunately, both men had submitted a copy of their Aadhaar card at the time of the test. The hospital informed the nearest police station in Mumbai, which got in touch with the concerned police station in Prayagraj district. Eventually, Prakash and Vinay were traced to their respective villages.
Before Prakash was traced to our village, no one knew anything about his health status. He was roaming all over town freely. He did not tell anyone about his illness – partly because he was aware of the reaction that would follow and partly because he underestimated the consequences of being COVID-19 positive and staying with his family.
The local police traced his whereabouts four days after his arrival, but once again Prakash managed to elude them. Then the police pressured the family members to call him, saying that if he did not return, they would be arrested. Finally, Prakash surrendered to the police.
His sample was sent for retesting, and came back COVID-19 positive. Without delay, the administration had Prakash admitted to the hospital, put his family members under quarantine and sealed the whole village.
One of the villagers, Afroz, remarked, “Sab log is mahamari se peedit hain. Lekin gair-Muslim sirf corona se peedit hai, aur Muslim corona aur dharmic pehchan dono ki wajah se peedit hai (‘Everyone is affected by this pandemic. While non-Muslims are afflicted only by the disease, Muslims suffer on account of the disease and their religious identity’).”
As part of my research in social medicine and community health I have been studying the history of social interactions between communities in my village. One of the villagers I spoke to was 50-year-old Zain-ul-Abdin, who shared a lifetime of experiences with me.
What he said was revealing: “Main main yahan bachapan se rah raha hoon, aur maine bahut kuch dekha hai, lekin pichle kuch saalon se logon me jo dharmic bharosa khatm ho raha hai, use kabhi anubhav nahi kiya (‘I have been living here since my childhood and have witnessed many a significant event, but I have never seen the kind of mistrust among communities that has come about these last few years’).”
When the pandemic arrived in our midst, the thought of contracting a disease that as yet had no cure made everyone anxious. Then came the Tablighi Jamaat event and the propaganda about the virus being spread by the Muslims as part of a conspiracy. Nothing less than a pandemic has been communalised to such an extent that being a Muslim in the time of coronavirus has brought members of the community in my village and across the country to the edge.
There is the fear of contracting the virus, which is accompanied by intense anxiety about an entirely different level of humiliation and stigmatisation that might follow if they were to test COVID-19 positive – would they be seen as victims needing compassionate care or as culprits intent on ‘spreading’ the virus.
My village, too, has not been able to escape the hatred that has been circulating, amplified by the traditional media as well as social media. Most of the Muslim population of the village – around 60% – is concentrated near the main market area. It is a village which may not rank very high in development indices, but I can emphatically state that relations between communities have always been cordial, even in stressful times (there was no 24×7 television or social media then to vitiate the atmosphere).
However, things are changing now. Ordinary interactions between neighbours from different communities are no longer unaffected.
Even in public places such as tea stalls, which have always been known for vigorous discussions by persons from all strata and communities, there is a perceptible cooling off. It seems as if everything in life is being seen through a communal lens.
My village has never experienced this kind of communalisation of a public health issue, or for that matter even of other social issues for as long as I can remember. But the virulence of the campaign to see in a pandemic a communal conspiracy is something that fills me with despair. It signals a desire not to address faultlines in society but to deepen them in a way that the social fabric is polarised beyond repair.
A feeling of sorrow and the unshakeable impression of being a target is what remains.
Istikhar Ali is pursuing his PhD at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He works on marginalisation and health-related issues across religious communities in India.