Rise in Islamophobia

Hate in the time of a pandemic

Print edition : June 05, 2020

People being evacuated from the Nizamuddin Centre in New Delhi for COVID-19 testing, on March 31. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

During a protest against mob lynching and other issues, in New Delhi on September 25, 2019. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

There has been a spike in instances of Islamophobia, unleashed apparently with the tacit support of powers that be, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages across India.

IT has not been easy being a Muslim since 2014: A virulent hate campaign on social media, exhortations to “go to Pakistan” at the slightest pretext and any criticism of the government being equated to criticism of the nation, with even the Prime Minister indulging in the innuendo of identifying protesters by their clothes.

A number of incidents of lynching went unpunished between September 2015 and April 2019. Even as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gloated about the absence of communal riots during this period, lynching became the new normal. In many ways, it replaced the age-old communal riots which impacted both communities, albeit disproportionately; with lynching, only one community suffered. Worse, the lynchers uploaded videos of their assaults, confident of their impunity.

In the few cases when the law did get them, as in the Jharkhand lynching case of 2017, where the attackers of the cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari were convicted, they were able to get bail and received a hero’s reception, with Union Minister Jayant Sinha greeting them with sweets and garlands. (Incidentally, in early May, Sinha was part of a Central government team that met a section of Muslims after a number of West Asian countries condemned the hate campaign against Muslims in India. The brief of the meeting was to instil confidence in the community during COVID-19 and seek their support.)

At a time when the attention of the nation, and the government, should have been focussed on fighting the deadly virus and limiting the loss of life, a section of society, that enjoys the tacit support of powers that be, has unleashed a hate campaign against India’s largest minority.

From a vegetable vendor in Uttar Pradesh who was harassed by a BJP MLA for entering his colony, to vendors whose entry was banned in a colony in Delhi, to a full-term pregnant woman who was refused admission in a hospital in Rajasthan because she was a Muslim, to truck drivers not being allowed into Arunachal Pradesh, to a first information report (FIR) filed against a tweet by the Delhi Minorities Commission Chairman Zafarul Islam which led to Delhi Police officials landing up at his residence, to the Delhi Police arresting a four-month-pregnant anti-CAA activist, Safoora Zargar, and booking her under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), no one has been spared.

There were other arrests, such as those of Meeran Haider, Khalid Saifi, Ishrat Jahan and Asif Iqbal, all said to be involved in the anti-CAA protests, and accused of instigating violence in North East Delhi. If anybody needed proof that raising one’s voice against the government in a democracy was now akin to sedition, it was provided over and over again with the arrests of activists who had agitated peacefully for equal rights as citizens.

Within days of the nationwide lockdown that was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, the apolitical Muslim organisation Tablighi Jamaat was hounded by BJP leaders and the media alike for the spread of COVID-19. Union Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi even equated the Tablighi Jamaat with the Taliban for hosting a conference on March 13-15 at its headquarters in Nizamuddin that was attended by over 3,000 volunteers from across India, besides Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Kuwait and Sri Lanka.

As news came in of six deaths in Telangana from among those who had attended the Tablighi conference, the political establishment went into overdrive to paint the Tabligh, and by extension, the Muslim community, as responsible for the spread of COVID-19. For days on end, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal issued a daily medical bulletin on COVID-19 with a special section on the “Nizamuddin markaz (centre) event”.

The Tablighi conference, entirely avoidable as it was, became an excuse to deflect the focus from the various failures of the Central government. Incidentally, as late as March 13, the Union Health Minister had dismissed the threat of COVID-19 as no medical emergency.

This relentless bid to stigmatise the Tabligh, and by extension Muslims in India, took a predictable turn. A person from Himachal Pradesh who attended the Tabligh meet in Delhi and who tested COVID-19 negative was so harassed by people of his villager that he took his own life.

The media largely chose to ignore the story. When the Tabligh members who had recovered from COVID-19 donated blood for plasma therapy, the media once again chose to underplay it.

The outburst against the Tablighi Jamaat unleashed a flood of Islamophobia. In Delhi, vendors were asked to show their Aadhaar cards before being permitted to enter residential colonies, and those with Muslim names were prohibited until the minorities panel intervened.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP MLA from Deoria Suresh Tiwari warned the public against buying vegetables from Muslims. Questioned about this later, he remained unrepentant. Shortly, his colleague Brij Bhushan Rajput was seen threatening a Muslim vendor on camera for entering his colony, telling him “not to be seen here in future”. For both Tiwari and Rajput, being a Muslim was reason enough not just for social exclusion but humiliation.

In Betul, Madhya Pradesh, Deepak Bundele, a lawyer, stepped out to buy medicines a day before the nationwide lockdown was imposed. He was first verbally abused for venturing out at a time when Section 144 had been imposed, and then assaulted by Madhya Pradesh police officials. Bundele went to a hospital with a friend and got a medico-legal case reported. As Bundele filed a complaint with the District Superintendent of Police, and wrote letters to the Human Rights Commission, besides the Chief Minister’s office, the police pressed upon him to take back his complaint, telling him they were willing to apologise and that he had been a victim of mistaken identity.

The police, in a conversation recorded by Bundele, claimed they thought he was a Muslim because he sported a beard.

Then there is the instance of Valentis Cancer Hospital in Meerut which advertised in a Hindi daily: “The hospital administration requests all new Muslim patients that they and their one designated caretaker get tested for COVID-19 and visit the hospital only if their reports are negative.” No such condition was imposed on other religious communities. The fact that the action was a violation of the National Human Rights Commission’s charter of patient’s rights did not matter to the hospital. It was Islamophobia, plain and clear.

Unfortunately, the actions of Valentis, the Betul policemen, the Deoria MLA and a host of others who shared fake videos of Muslims spitting on food or sneezing together, are neither aberrations nor fleeting instances of a fringe element failing to see things in the light of the law.

Whenever Indians in West Asia, Canada, New Zealand have given expression to their hatred of Muslims, the host countries acted swiftly not only to rein in the offending individuals, but punished them with loss of job or designation. No similar action has been attempted in India where the Prime Minister’s tweet, terming the disease as one that does not see religion or race, came in too late to have an impact on the offending segment. By then the damage had been done.

International agencies have taken notice of the systematic persecution and victimisation of Muslims in India during the COVID-19 pandemic. The evidence came when a top United Nations official, highlighting India’s long history of promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, voiced concern over incidents of “increased hate speech and discrimination” against the minority communities following the adoptions of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Under Secretary-General and the U.N. Special Adviser on Genocide, Adama Dieng, said he was “concerned over reports of increased hate speech and discrimination against the minority communities in India.”

Dieng is not the only one concerned. A billion people share his anguish and apprehension. Maybe the Government of India does too, and the recent meeting with a section of Muslim intellectuals was a step in the right direction.

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