Mahboob, a 22-year-old man, was lynched by a group of villagers in Bawana, northwest Delhi, on April 6. Mahboob had attended a Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Bhopal, and after a medical test, was dropped by the police at his village. But the villagers cornered Mahboob in a field, beat him with chappals and sticks, and accused him of “planning to spread COVID-19”, even as they filmed the incident on their phone.
It was only a matter of time before a Muslim would be lynched out of fear that he is spreading the coronavirus. Or that the coronavirus would become the pretext to lynch a Muslim.
It is difficult to tell the difference between the two – because the brazen vilification of the Tablighi Jamaat in the light of the COVID-19 crisis cannot be examined in isolation from the larger anti-Muslim narrative that has been in play for the past six years in the country.
Indeed, it was irresponsible of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim religious organisation, to hold a gathering of more than 2,000 delegates, including foreigners, at Nizamuddin Markaz, its headquarters in Delhi, between March 13-15. Even though the nationwide lockdown was announced a week later and the Jamaat cooperated with the police to evacuate its premises, the organisation should have cancelled the planned event suo motu, taking a cue from the suspension of congregational prayers at the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.
But no amount of irresponsibility justifies the mainstream media’s unprecedented demonisation of Jamaat members. On March 30, a week into the lockdown, news channel after news channel began discussing “Markaz virus”, “Corona Jihad” and “Corona Jamaat” – as if to indicate that the Tablighi Jamaat was carrying out a concerted campaign to spread the disease in India.
Maps of India were flashed, showing the Delhi Markaz as the epicentre from where arrows pointed to other states. A TV news channel graphic depicted a man wearing a skull cap alongside a caption that said “almost 60 per cent of new (April 1-3) coronavirus cases in India linked to the Jamaat.”
If many positive cases from March 29-30 onwards are linked to the Tablighi Jamaat, it’s because its members and their contacts are being rightly but selectively tested while the overall testing remains abysmally low.
As of March 27, India had conducted 26,978 tests, or 19 tests per million people.
By April 4, a total of 79,950 samples were tested, increasing the testing rate to 59 tests per million people. Of all the samples tested, 65% were tested between March 29 and April 4. Of these, 11,182 were tested on April 4 itself, according to IndiaSpend.
Selective testing of Tablighi Jamaat members when overall testing is low may have had the effect of pushing the cluster to the top. Significantly, Tablighi Jamaat members and their contacts have been quarantined and tested even if they have been asymptomatic, while others – with the exception of the cluster in Bhilwara – have had to develop symptoms to qualify for testing. In statistical jargon, this phenomenon is called “sampling bias”.
Yet, barring a handful of exceptions, the media chose not to analyse the data, only flashing the numbers to bolster its narrative of blaming the Tablighi Jamaat.
If data was not enough to vilify the Jamaat, the next step was sketching a demonic caricature of its members. A government hospital in Ghaziabad, for example, alleged that Tablighi Jamaat members quarantined for testing “walked without trousers in the wards and made vulgar signs at nurses”, with no CCTV footage to back the accusations.
The Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath unsurprisingly termed the Tablighi Jamaat members against whom the National Security Act was imposed “the enemies of humanity”. In another report, an FIR against Tablighi Jamaat members quarantined in flats in Dwarka, southwest Delhi, accused them of “throwing around bottles of urine”.
The bizarreness of the allegations should have prompted independent investigation by the media. Instead, some in the media began concocting odd claims of their own.
Two Hindi-language national dailies began circulating a fake report about Jamaatis “demanding to eat meat, throwing vegetarian food served to them and openly defecating” in a quarantine ward in a hospital in Saharanpur. The UP police debunked the report.
Another widely-reported ‘news’ was of a Muslim man murdering a Hindu man for commenting on the Tablighi Jamaat’s coronavirus links in Prayagraj. The UP police debunked that report tool.
Alongside, social media was flush with rumours that accused Muslim-owned restaurants of spitting in food, Muslim vendors of spitting on fruits and vegetables they were selling, and “infected jihadis” of walking without masks in the open.
History is replete with examples of minorities being blamed for epidemics, like the Jews were for the Black Death in Europe. In the essay, ‘Finding a Scapegoat when Epidemics Strike’ published in the New York Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote,
“In medieval Europe, Jews were blamed so often, and so viciously, that it is surprising it was not called the Jewish Death. During the pandemic’s peak in Europe, from 1348 to 1351, more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, their inhabitants accused of spreading contagion or poisoning wells.”
In India, Muslims are bearing the brunt of the Islamophobic narrative of the pandemic. A pregnant Muslim woman was refused admission in a government hospital in Rajasthan, apparently on account of her religion. She delivered in the ambulance and her child could not survive.
A Muslim man, Muhammad Dilshad, hanged himself in his village in Una, Himachal Pradesh, after he was allegedly socially boycotted by others for coming in contact with a Tablighi Jamaat member even though he had tested negative for coronavirus.
In Hoshiarpur, Punjab, Muslim families fled a village because they were allegedly harassed by others “ever since the Tablighi Jamaat incident”. They hid in the Swan riverbed for some days without food, and an 80-year-old woman among them was denied medicines by a chemist shop owner. He allegedly told them, “sick Muslims are spreading the virus.”
Blaming Muslims for spreading the coronavirus has been easy and swift, as it is only an incremental step in the process of demonisation of Muslims that began six years ago. Since 2014, Muslims have been vilified over alleged cow slaughter, ‘love jihad’ ‘triple talaq’, alleged atrocities of the Muslim rulers of the past, and most recently, the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, across the country.
In the mind of Hindus who have fallen prey to communal propaganda, the Muslim is already a well-established demon, and the coronavirus is just a ‘new weapon’ in his hand from which the Hindu must be saved.
It was naïve to expect that the disease outbreak would apply a much-needed brake to the perpetual communal narrative in the country.
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week lockdown on March 24, to contain the spread of COVID-19, at least two dozen daily-wage labourers died of hunger and exhaustion as they walked from cities to their villages.
The media finally shifted its focus away from Muslims. Only to pull back on March 30 and zoom its lens on Tablighi Jamaat, and Muslims, once again.
The politics of hate doesn’t die in times of pandemics. It only finds a way to survive, and thrive.
Irena Akbar is a former journalist and a freelance contributor.