Targeting a community

Print edition : May 08, 2020

A Bangladeshi couple who allegedly attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi, being taken to a quarantine centre in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, on April 9. Photo: PTI

The Hola Mohalla festival was allowed to take place in Amritsar on March 10, with thousands attending it. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

The COVID-19 crisis brings out the communal polarisation of society that has been on the rise in the past few years.

The battle against COVID-19 in India metamorphosed into Muslim-bashing very quickly. Antagonism towards the minority community, which had already spread its tentacles in society, intensified amidst the nationwide lockdown. By singling out an Islamic religious congregation as a major source of the spread of the infection, the authorities inflamed communal tensions and reports of Islamophobia poured in from various quarters across the country. Northern India was particularly affected.

Doctors at a government hospital in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district refused to attend to a pregnant woman in labour after finding out that she was a Muslim, alleged her husband, Irfan Khan, 34. They were apparently asked to go to Jaipur, and the couple started out in an ambulance. She delivered on the way; the baby did not survive. In a lawful society, this would be termed a case of criminal negligence, but not, it appears, in contemporary India, where Muslims are routinely demonised. A huge drama unfolded with barbs and counter barbs over the veracity of the incident, and the State Health Minister ordered a probe.

In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the Civil Hospital reportedly segregated COVID-19 patients on the basis of religion apparently after some patients expressed discomfiture. The State Health Department, however, denied the charge.

The communal polarisation manifested itself during the lockdown in a range of aggressive actions, from economic boycotts to threats of violence. In Belagavi, Karnataka, two mosques were targeted by mobs because they did not switch off their lights on April 5 in response to the Prime Minister’s call for lights out for nine minutes at 9 p.m. Twenty-two people were arrested for heckling and abusing the muezzin and other persons inside the mosques. In Jind, Haryana, an argument ensued between a Muslim family, which kept its lights on, and its Hindu neighbours. In the same area, four Muslim brothers were attacked with sharp weapons for “disobeying” the Prime Minister.

Adding to this were several reports of violence and boycott from across India in the days following the announcement of the lockdown. A middle-class neighbourhood in Delhi held a meeting to enforce an economic boycott of Muslim vendors. A man could be seen asking for vegetable sellers’ Aadhaar cards in a video that went viral on social media. If they were found to be Muslim, they would be beaten up and warned to never set foot in the area, the man could be heard saying in the video.

In Uttarakhand’s Haldwani, Muslim fruit sellers were asked to shut their shops. Posters were put up in Mangalore, Karnataka, and places in Assam calling for a boycott of Muslim traders. Muslim truck drivers were beaten up in Arunachal Pradesh. Families of Gujjar Muslim milk sellers were socially boycotted in several villages of Hoshiarpur, Punjab. They were not allowed to sell their milk (a commodity listed as “essential”), which they had to throw into the Swan rivulet. Mobs stopped them from grazing their cattle and threw taunts at them, saying they were dirty and spread the Coronavirus infection.

Four people were arrested for having fired shots at a mosque in Gurugram’s Dhankot village. A mosque inside a graveyard in Mukhmelpur village of Alipur in North West Delhi was ransacked.

In Karnataka, a spate of reports of attacks on Muslims forced the Chief Minister to issue a stern warning to perpetrators. A mosque in Bagalkot had been attacked, fishermen in the Krishna river were assaulted, and Swaraj Abhiyan volunteers were beaten with cricket bats while they were distributing food to stranded migrants in Bengaluru.

At Kailancha gram panchayat in Ramanagara district, an elderly man was hired to beat a drum and alert residents against allowing Muslims to enter their village, Kylancha; two people were booked for it. Muslim volunteers of Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), were rudely turned away from Hindu settlements when they tried to distribute rations.

Much of the hatred was directed at adherents of the Tablighi Jamaat, who participated in a religious congregation in mid March at their headquarters in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, which was subsequently identified as a COVID-19 “hotspot”.

On April 5, Dilshad Mohammad, a 38-year-old shopkeeper in Uttar Pradesh’s Una district, who had returned from the Jamaat conference, slit his wrists before hanging himself in his home. He had been taken into quarantine but had tested negative for COVID-19. His death is under investigation, but some newspapers reported that he might have taken the extreme step because he could no longer bear the taunts and ostracism by his neighbours.

The Tablighi Jamaat factor

A week later, a 30-year-old Assamese man who tested positive for COVID-19 slit his throat in a washroom at the isolation ward of a hospital in Maharashtra’s Akola. He, too, had attended the conference in Delhi, and reportedly approached the hospital after he developed symptoms of COVID-19. A near lynching took place on the outskirts of Delhi when 22-years-old Dilshad Ali was dragged to a field in Bawana and thrashed. He had just returned from a religious gathering of the Jamaat in Bhopal, and his attackers were convinced that he was deliberately spreading Coronavirus to non-Muslims. While assaulting him, they reportedly asked “who were the others behind the conspiracy to infect Hindus”. After giving him a merciless drubbing, they allegedly took him to a temple and forcibly tried to convert him to Hinduism. He was later quarantined in a Delhi hospital as a “Corona suspect”.

The attacks on and suspicions against members of the Tablighi Jamaat were the direct result of a campaign in a section of the media accusing them of deliberately spreading the virus. Social media platforms were flooded with fake news and hashtags such as “Corona jihad”, “Muslim means terrorist”, “Corona terrorism”, “Corona bombs Tablighi”, and so on. Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said the Tablighi Jamaat had committed a “Talibani crime” by going ahead with the congregation in Delhi at a time when the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on COVID-19 were already in place.

The fake news busting site Alt News said: “Ever since Delhi’s Nizamuddin was identified as a corona virus hot spot, several old and unrelated videos showing the Muslim community in poor light are being circulated on social media. We have observed a deliberate pattern to delegitimise the community. Earlier this week, a video of a group practising a ritual in Sufism was falsely shared as intentional sneezing inside Nizamuddin mosque. Another old video, which was initially viral in Singapore and UAE, was shared with the claim that a Muslim man was spitting on food. All these videos have been used to call for a boycott of the community, especially the lower economic sections of the society such as vegetable and fruit vendors. This act of communalising a pandemic is disturbing as well as dangerous.”

Leaders of the ruling party such as Mahendra Bhatt, the MLA from Badrinath in Uttarakhand, legitimised the economic boycott of Muslims. He advised the people of Uttarakhand not to buy vegetables from Najibabad and asked people to think twice before patronising shops of barbers and shoemakers, occupation groups that are traditionally Muslim. The BJP leader Kapil Mishra, known for his hate speeches and accused of instigating the violence in North East Delhi in February, tweeted: “Tablighi Jamaat people have begun spitting on the doctors and other health workers. It’s clear, their aim is to infect as many people as possible with corona virus and kill them.” By the time the rumour was proved to be false, it had spread like wildfire.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray warned of strict action against people trying to polarise the narrative. “There is another virus of divisiveness apart from the coronavirus. I warn such people that I will ensure that no law will save you,” he said. The Centre expressed concern and issued a note to all States regarding “polarising public opinion on religious lines”. Yet, without naming Muslims, it indirectly blamed them for the situation as they did not comply with the lockdown orders. In the backdrop of “ill-treatment” and “noncooperation” meted out by a particular community to health-care professionals, the note called for adequate security for the professionals.

The Tablighi Jamaat is a century-old orthodox Islamic sect based out of India and currently operating in more than 150 countries. The missionaries roam from place to place, urging young Muslim boys to return to the “right path” of Allah. The most strident critics of the Jamaat are educated Muslims themselves, who dislike the Jamaat’s stress on living life as in the time of the Prophet Mohammad and segregation of women and its general conservativeness. Several such Muslims told this correspondent that when they were in college they used to “run away from” Tablighi Jamaat people. Their chief grouse against the Jamaatis was that they were unconcerned about worldly affairs or politics and were preoccupied with how to get closer to God and worried only about the wrath of God.

The Tablighi Jamaat came into the limelight in the West when their name cropped up alongside some terrorist attacks, including 9/11. The Western press has noted with apprehension that militants misuse the group to move around and cross international borders without being detected. No proof of the Tablighi Jamaat’s involvement in any criminal activity has ever been found, and the claims have been denied by them and also the larger Muslim community. But depoliticising young Muslim men and encouraging them to move away from society makes them ripe candidates to be exploited by radicals. Terrorists, in fact, have often recruited from the ranks of the Jamaat.

As far as the Coronavirus is concerned, Tablighi Jamaat gatherings have acted as “super spreaders” not only in India but also in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. Given the circumstances, the Jamaat cannot claim innocence and play the victim and there is no denying that it should be more careful. Having said that, it is unfair to haul all its followers over the coals and exploit the situation to fan Islamophobia in the subcontinent.

It was the Union Home Ministry, after all, that allowed the convention in Nizamuddin to be held from March 13 to 15.Around 8,000 participants had been allowed to travel from all over the world. The Delhi government's order of March 13 that banned any gathering of more than 200 people did not extend to religious gatherings. Only on March 16 the Delhi government issued a notification to close all religious institutions.

The NGO Bebaak Collective pointed out that filing first information reports (FIRs) against members of the Jamaat was an attempt to cover up the lackadaisical approach of the administration, which was unprepared to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. The NGO distanced itself from the Jamaat’s views but expressed concern about the vilification of the Muslim community in the media and the state’s apathy in dealing with the pandemic.

The Jamaatis transmitted the virus inadvertently when they left the convention for their towns and villages. More than 27,000 Tablighi Jamaat members and their contacts were quarantined in about 15 States. The Tablighi Jamaat, incidentally, was not the only religious organisation to hold a mass gathering.

On March 11-12 in Punjab, a Sikh preacher, Baldev Singh, did not follow self-quarantine after returning from Italy and participated in the Sikh festival of Hola Mohalla attended by thousands of people. He infected 19 of his relatives and later died from COVID-19-related causes.. Because of him, 40,000 people had to be quarantined.

Several Christian priests in Kerala tried to organise masses. Hindu pilgrims continued to throng places of worship. Delhi’s Kalkaji Temple was open until March 21, in complete violation of the Delhi government notification of March 16 prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. Tirupati Tirumala closed only on March 20 after a COVID-19 case was suspected.

The Indian government, meanwhile, continued its hounding of Muslims by introducing a new domicile law in Jammu & Kashmir that allowed citizens of mainland India to buy land and apply for government jobs there. The authorities continued to arrest students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University and activists in Assam who had exposed a rice scam.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind petitioned the Supreme Court against sections of the media that were giving a communal colour to COVID-19 cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat event. A bench comprising Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices L. Nageshwara Rao and M.M. Shantanagoudar refused to pass any order as it would lead to a “gag” on the media. “If it’s a question of killing or dying, your remedy is somewhere else. But if it’s a question of larger reporting then the Press Council of India has to be made a party.... I think you add the Press Council as a party to your case,” CJI Bobde said.

The U.S.-based South Asian organisation Equality Labs demanded that the WHO and the Indian Prime Minister condemn and curb communal language linking Muslims to COVID19. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, said: “Since March 28, tweets with the hashtag Corona Jihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter.... Just weeks after the Delhi pogrom where hundreds of Muslim houses and shops were vandalised, an uptick in misinformation and harmful communal language are leading to violence. The threat of another pogrom still looms. The violence we’re already observing as a result of online campaigns seen by millions are even more concerning during a pandemic when people need to be engaging in collective care and making efforts to socially distance.”

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