A pandemic that has claimed the lives of 170,000 people and infected close to 2.5 million people worldwide (at last count), acquired a religion on its arrival on Indian shores.
The spread of the virus has not only created a health emergency in the country but also brought India on the verge of a new kind of polarisation, thanks to the attempts of Hindutva politicians and activists to link the spread of the disease with Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing parliamentarians via video conferencing on April 9, 2020, compared the situation in the country to a ‘social emergency’ but did not mention how Muslims were being targeted as a result of rumour mongering and fake news spread by news channels and leaders from his own political party.
Amit Malviya, who heads BJP’s IT cell, is one of those posting provocative statements on Twitter. On April 1, 2020 he tweeted saying, ‘Delhi’s dark underbelly is exploding! Last 3 months have seen an Islamic insurrection of sorts, first in the name of anti-CAA protests from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia, Jaffrabad to Seelampur. And now the illegal gathering of the radical Tablighi Jamaat at the markaz. It needs a fix!
On April 6, 2020, BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje claimed that members of Tablighi Jamaat who were admitted to a hospital in Belagavi in Karnataka were spitting, misbehaving with the hotel staff, and dancing and gesturing indecently. Her claim was later denied by the deputy commissioner of the district and hospital authorities. No action was taken against her by her party.
On April 4, 2020, Himachal Pradesh BJP chief Rajeev Bindal claimed that ‘the Centre and state governments are leaving no stone unturned in the decisive fight against COVID-19 but some people, including Tablighi Jamaat, members are moving like human bombs to thwart their efforts’. On April 9, 2020, senior BJP leader and former chief minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis also referred to members of Tablighi Jamaat who were returning from Delhi as ‘human bombs’.
The BJP was clearly using the pandemic to target members of the Tablighi Jamaat – and by extension all Muslims. Which is why Prime Minister Modi’s statement on Twitter on April 19, 2020, came as a surprise to many. He tweeted to say,
‘COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking it. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together’.
If the message was aimed at people within India, his choice of medium was odd. The words were taken from an article he wrote in English for the LinkedIn networking website, and intended for a global and not an Indian audience. The timing of Modi’s ‘message’ was perhaps not a coincidence, as it has come in handy for Indian ambassadors in the Gulf dealing with massive local pushback over the various Islamophobic incidents that have occurred across India in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The Organisation of Islamic Conference has also raised concerns about this:
2/2 #OIC-IPHRC urges the #Indian Govt to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of #Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted #Muslim minority as per its obligations under int”l HR law.
— OIC-IPHRC (@OIC_IPHRC) April 19, 2020
Thanks to anti-Muslim bias in the media and even official messaging over the coronavirus in India, the intelligentsia in India-friendly Gulf countries like Kuwait and the UAE has started critically examining the ruling BJP’s attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs.
A 2015 tweet from BJP MP Tejasvi Surya was dug out and shared by prominent Arab voices. The tweet said, ‘95% Arab women have never had an orgasm in the last few hundred years. Every mother has produced kids as act of sex and not love’.
Surya hurriedly deleted his offensive tweet but unfortunately for the young BJP leader the damage had already been done. A screenshot of his tweet was picked up by activists like Abdur Rahman Nassar from Kuwait, who have a large following on social media, and circulated.
Nassar tagged the PMO and Modi’s personal account and tweeted, ‘Prime Minister…An Indian Member of Parliament accuses Arab women, and we Arabs are asking for his membership to be dropped!!’.
— عبدالرحمن النصار (@alnassar_kw) April 19, 2020
Other tweets from Nassar displayed the full import of the criticism and why the sentiment could not be ignored by the government.
In Kuwait .. the #Indian community tops Koruna statistics .. and is treated in the finest hospital in Kuwait ..
— عبدالرحمن النصار (@alnassar_kw) April 18, 2020
Every year, more than 55 billion $ are transferred to India from the Gulf countries, and more than 120 billion annually from all Muslim countries.
Indians (mostly Hindus) are treated well in these countries.
— عبدالرحمن النصار (@alnassar_kw) April 16, 2020
In 53 Muslim countries Indians where most of them Hindu, are treated with humanity and respect ..
How do Muslims are treated in India?
— عبدالرحمن النصار (@alnassar_kw) April 15, 2020
Nassar’s claim that expats from 53 Muslim countries remit $120 billion annually to India had obviously touched a raw nerve. The same sentiment was echoed by Mejbal Al Sharika, a Kuwaiti lawyer and director of International Human Rights. He too tagged a picture of BJP MP Tejasvi Surya, tagged the prime minister’s office and Narendra Modi’s personal account and wrote,
‘Respected Prime Minister, India’s relation with the Arab world has been that of mutual respect. Do you allow your parliamentarian to publicly humiliate our women? We expect your urgent punitive action against @Tejasvi_Surya for his disgraceful comment’.
A closer look at his twitter account reveals that Sharika too has opened a front against the Modi government and has even volunteered to adopt the cause of Indian Muslims before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Here’s a glimpse of his twitter timeline:
I will adopt the cause of Muslims in India at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for free#india
— المحامي⚖مجبل الشريكة (@MJALSHRIKA) April 17, 2020
Brother jamal Abul Hassan, ex parliamentarian , Bahrain has just joined me in supporting the cause of Indian Muslims. Let all know that I am from Kuwait and everyone here who stands for Human rights is united in the fight against Hindutva fascism!#india
— المحامي⚖مجبل الشريكة (@MJALSHRIKA) April 19, 2020
I invite all lawyers and human rights activists to join with us to remove the injustice of the poor in India by extremists that the conductor of the case to the criminal court so that every criminal is held accountable#india
— المحامي⚖مجبل الشريكة (@MJALSHRIKA) April 17, 2020
Another prominent voice, Saudi Scholar Abidi Zahrani, asked for a list of people who were working in the Middle-East and spreading hatred against Muslims and Islam:
‘I propose to all respected followers to list all militant Hindus who are working in the GCC and spreading hate against #Islam #Muslims or our be loved Prophet Mhmd PBUH under this #hashtag #Send_Hindutva_Back_home show copies of their bio’.
Anger against mistreatment of Muslims in India was seen in statements released by prominent citizens, opinion makers and lawmakers across the Middle-East. Jamal Bahrain, Secretary General of the Arab Parliamentary Initiative and Member of the Global Parliamentary Network asked for the UN and OIC to intervene and stop human rights violations being committed against Muslims:
‘We call on international organizations, especially the United Nations, the Security Council, the Organization of islamic cooperation and all human rights organizations, to intervene immediately to stop the violations committed against our Muslim brothers in India #India’.
Earlier on April 16, 2020, Princess Hend al Qassimi of the Sharjah Royal Family had warned a Twitter user of serious consequences after he put out several tweets targeting Muslims for the spread of COVID-19 in India:
The ruling family is friends with Indians, but as a royal your rudeness is not welcome. All employees are paid to work, no one comes for free. You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.
— Princess Hend Al Qassimi (@LadyVelvet_HFQ) April 15, 2020
It is unfortunate that Modi’s call for brotherhood and unity between communities may have come because the prime minister and his government fear an economic backlash from wealthy Arab countries. As an Indian citizen, I am grateful for the support that people outside India are offering to the fight for democracy and justice but I also feel sad that we have to depend on external factors for something as basic as security.
Post Script: If the prime minister and his government are serious about cracking down on fake news and controlling the ongoing mass hysteria against Muslims, perhaps Modi needs to talk about Hindu-Muslim unity in his speeches, If one call from Modi can get people to beat thaalis across the country and switch off lights, why not use his universal popularity for maintaining law and order and peace in the country?