Interview: Irfan Engineer

Irfan Engineer on the scapegoating of minorities in a pandemic

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Irfan Engineer, director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Irfan Engineer, director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism.

It is widely believed that when the COVID-19 pandemic began in India a year ago, the Central government did not grasp the enormity of the crisis and completely mismanaged the situation. Unable to admit being caught on the back foot, the government found an easy target in the Tablighi Jamaat, whom it blamed for bringing in and spreading the virus. The vitriol was relentless and caused tensions as well as irreparable damage. This led Irfan Engineer, director, Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), to undertake research on the targeting and scapegoating of minorities during a pandemic. Along with volunteers and activists across the country, Irfan Engineer looked at the responses of both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and non-BJP State governments towards minorities; the history of the scapegoating phenomena; the role of the media; the access that minority communities have to medical help; and the use of laws to target minorities.

The CSSS published its research in a report titled: “The COVID pandemic: A Report on the Scapegoating of Minorities in India” in April 2021. This comprehensive and relevant paper meticulously documents a year of communal incidents in relation to lockdown and pandemic issues. Irfan Engineer, an activist for minority rights and a well-known voice in the struggle for secularism, spoke to Frontline about using minorities to deflect from the real issues of the pandemic. Excerpts from the interview:

The CSSS’ report is an extensively researched document on the situation of minorities, particularly Muslims, from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you speak about the context of the report and why it needed to be done?

We (CSSS) work for the freedom of religion and belief in India. When freedom of religion is in peril and when there is discrimination on the basis of religion, either through the law or policies of the government, we address the issue.

We found that during a lockdown, the state usually gets additional power and authority over the citizens which does not exist in normal times. This is allowed for the benefit of citizens in the case of emergencies such as the pandemic but if it is exercised without accountability, it can be a dangerous tool in the hands of certain sections. During the lockdown, the lack of accountability and the additional authority the state acquired over the citizens was misused by bureaucrats, politicians and in some cases, a section of the media.

Also read: Government's all round failure to manage pandemic exposed

It was deeply disturbing to see the rampant discrimination towards a particular community and weaker sections of civil society. Once we started working on it, we found that marginalised communities and minorities were targeted during the lockdown not only in India but even in other countries. We felt this must be documented so that it is not forgotten after the lockdown and can be tackled at an appropriate time.

Could you elaborate on the theory of “scapegoating”?

Scapegoating refers to the tendency to blame someone else for one’s own problems, a process that often results in feelings of prejudice towards the person or group that one is blaming. Among the types of scapegoating, the group-on-group is of interest to this study.

According to Eric Brahm, a professor of political science in the United States, such scapegoating does not just happen; it involves the creation of a stark “us versus them” dichotomy. The scapegoated group tends to be one that is somehow recognisable as distinct from others, so those group members can be easily identified and associated with the undesired situation.

People don’t die because of a pandemic. People die because there isn’t proper and adequate infrastructure in place to deal with a pandemic. When the government is unable absolve itself of the blame of not putting proper infrastructure in place to deal with a pandemic, they try to find scapegoats. India had one of the strictest and harshest lockdowns. In a matter of hours, everything came to a halt, leaving millions stranded. In spite of that, the pandemic spread fast. The government and certain politicians, particularly those in authority, wanted an escape route from the blame.

Additionally, a particular politician-media nexus worked with a mission to scapegoat minorities. Typically, when you scapegoat, you scapegoat the most vulnerable section which cannot fight back. The fact is the state did not want to admit its failure in dealing with the pandemic and course-correct, and therefore they found a certain section to blame and divert the attention of the entire nation. It was so successful that eventually people started believing “if only there were no Muslims in India, this pandemic would have been dealt effectively”.

Tablighi Jamaat

According to the report, the Tablighi Jamaat were the early scapegoats.

I am not justifying what the Tablighi Jamaat did (gathering in large numbers for prayers in February/March 2020). But you cannot blame the mishandling of the pandemic on them, as the government did in the early days of the outbreak. The virus was spreading like wildfire. Lakhs of people were contracting the disease, so of course it was wrong to gather in large numbers. If you are a religious establishment you should know better. Yet, without absolving them, I do not believe the reason for the pandemic in India can be laid at the door of this one event.

We have documented other gatherings—religious, non-religious and political—which are much larger. Why were they not mentioned in the media? The Tablighi Jamaat is a grass-roots Islamic reform movement started in 1927 in Delhi. It focuses on spreading the religion and not the political aspect of Islam. The Tablighi Jamaat has many congregations around the world, one of which was in India between March 8 and 17, 2020. All foreign participants entered with legal visas and the government was aware of the meeting. Until the lockdown, the Central government maintained that the COVID situation was not a health emergency. Until then the Tablighi was out of the picture. When the lockdown was announced, things took a bizarre turn.

Also read: Targeting a community

The National Security Agency (NSA) was sent to convince people at the Markaz to get tested as it was reported that members were resisting testing and quarantine. None of this was true. It began to give a completely different picture, and the scapegoating began. With television channels and even reputed national dailies and magazines using language such as “113 people hiding in 8 mosques” or “COVID-19: 600 foreign Tablighi Jamaat workers found hiding across Delhi, and counting”, the narrative began to change.

In April 2020, it was a relentless 24-hour media coverage of Tablighi. This kind of focus on the Tablighi made people start hating Muslims. I personally faced it. It was extremely damaging and sad. In fact, Tablighi members who recovered from Covid donated blood plasma, which was hardly mentioned in the press. Even the Bombay High Court judgment absolving them of the supposed spread appeared only sparingly in the media. The Central government should have imposed stricter travel restrictions, given that the virus had started spreading. At the time the only rule was that not more than 100 people could gather, but the Tablighi took police permission to hold their conference. Why was it given?

Do you think this kind of scapegoating would have happened had there not been a right-wing government?

The intensity would have been different. All governments find scapegoats when they fail. But a right-wing government is in a position to do much more damaging scapegoating. It practices populist policies, and typically the charisma of their leader, whom people do not question, enables scapegoating. People lower their guard on accountability and do not question these regimes. Therefore, right-wing governments can get away with the persecution.

The report looks at the complicity of State governments, and compares BJP and non-BJP States in the context of scapegoating. What are your observations?

I do not have a scientific basis to say this. It is more of an impression. We found that the States that were doing better in combating COVID were also the States where scapegoating was the least. Odisha, for example, had no scapegoating. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told his State that those who had attended the Tablighi would be medically treated and protected. People felt confident to seek help after that.

In Maharashtra, when thousands of migrants gathered at Bandra station following a rumour that trains were running, communal forces tried to blame the crowds on a mosque located near the station saying it was responsible for calling the workers. When the Maharashtra government threatened media channels with an FIR for spreading hatred, the channels backtracked.

Also read: Hate in the time of a pandemic

We found that in these two States, there were no outright communal statements such as those made by the Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh governments. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, in fact, pinned the blame on Tablighi Jamaat, saying, “When the people who attended the Jamaat entered Gujarat, the COVID-19 infection spread like a forest fire.”

Six States were examined in the context of scapegoating. How did you make this selection?

We took all regions, covered all the regimes, BJP and non-BJP. We wanted to see if non-BJP governments were better, that is why we picked Odisha and Maharashtra. We found that right-wing governments used the pandemic to inflict a lot of damage on democracy, and there is no accountability. Had we had a stronger structure in place, the effect of the pandemic perhaps would not have been so severe.

While the Tablighi Jamaat were held responsible for the virus spreading a year ago, the Haridwar Kumbh mela, a huge religious gathering held in March and April this year, did not face as much criticism.

The Kumbh mela was completely unpardonable. 91 lakh people attended the Kumbh from April 1 to April 30 this year. For one month, people arrived in crowded trains and no one was checking. It’s the whole process that needs to be questioned. The Kumbh was supposed to be held in 2022. Why was it advanced to 2021 during the pandemic? There is no explanation.

Uttarakand had single-digit deaths earlier; now there is an 800 per cent increase in deaths. Thirty lakh people participated in one shahi snan [grand bath]. Even a child would know that it was dangerous to do this.

Uttarakhand’s former Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat tried to put in minimal restrictions for the Kumbh but he was unceremoniously removed before the mela. It is said the Sadhu Samaj got rid of him because of the restrictions. The new Chief Minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, gave them a free hand. In fact, he said that when you gather in open spaces, COVID does not affect you.

In the chapter on the role of the media in shaping the narrative on minorities, you compare the difference in the narrative towards other religious communities.

A section of the media plays an interesting role. Hindutva ideologues have cleverly devised words that target minority communities. For instance, in Assam, Hindus from Bangladesh are called “refugees” while Bengali-speaking Muslims are called “guskhor” (infiltrators). The same logic was used here.

During the pandemic, if Hindus were stranded in a place of worship, that person was “stuck”. But the media, even the English press, used the term “hiding” for the Tablighis, who were also helplessly stuck. They were also caught in the four-hour notice situation. They needed to leave for their countries and were petitioning the state to help them.

Also read: Calling out fake news

The devotees stranded at the Gurdwara in Delhi and at the temple at Vaishno Devi were described as “phanse hai” in the Hindi media, meaning that they were “trapped” or “stuck. The psychology of the readers was to feel bad about the predicament of the Hindu and Sikh devotees, whereas for the Tablighi Jamaat, they felt hatred. Using words such as “hiding” in reference to them insinuated they were jehadi and were deliberately spreading the disease. The abominable theory of “corona jihad” came about due to this.

The report also exposes tragic cases of minorities being denied access to medical facilities.

The first instance that comes to mind is the separation of COVID wards according to religion. That was unthinkable. Gujarat did that. The District Magistrate and the government hospital said they had been asked by the government to segregate wards into Hindu and Muslim. A small section in the medical profession also started wondering why they had to prioritise attention towards Muslims.

In a hospital in Rajasthan, there was a WhatsApp message being circulated among the medical staff about what should be done with Muslim patients since they, the message said, were the ones who were responsible for the coronavirus. I wouldn’t blame the hospital staff actually. That was the environment, the feeling of outrage, that was created.

This chat was published in a section of media and the dean of the hospital confirmed this chat by holding a press conference but said that they would ensure Muslim patients were treated. It was a tiny section that reacted but I would say the course was corrected because medical professionals do not discriminate. They treat everybody.

The report refers to laws passed during the pandemic. Activists have been protesting against this saying much damage has been caused without due process being followed. What has affected minorities the most?

I think it is an ongoing process. It is a work in progress for communal ideologues. They don’t miss an opportunity. For instance, a small incident in Haryana where a Muslim man killed a Hindu woman allegedly because she spurned his love was used to pass a series of laws on love jehad. They magnified the case and went to other States saying this was becoming a menace as thousands were succumbing to love jehad. In the end, they arrested 20 people under this law in the country. It is like lifting a sledgehammer to swat a fly.

Also read: Tablighi Jamaatis' acquittal shows evidence of innocence

It is not one law but the environment that each law creates that is dangerous. I hope people will realise now that there are more compelling issues than the 20 Muslims who have married Hindus. Earlier, it was just demographics, notions of “These Muslims marry four wives and procreate, threatening the majority population.” Then terrorism came, then loyalty to Pakistan, then love jehad and now corona jehad. Add the word “jehad” and it becomes an issue.

Another is the CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act], where you leave out Muslims if they migrate from one of five identified countries. The fear is created by continuously creating a discourse in the media. It is relentless. Either its love jehad, terrorists, CAA, demand of NRC [National Register of Citizens] as though there are lakhs of illegal migrants. In Assam, they first said there were one crore illegal immigrants. Eventually, in the NRC process, they counted 19 lakh illegal immigrants and of this, a large section were Hindus. They create the fear and pass the laws. Another law, another issue, another discourse. It is a continuous process that goes on.

Targeting minorities allows the government to be lax with the COVID situation. If this communalism was not there the government would be compelled to deal with the pandemic much more effectively.

You conclude the report by saying that all is not lost. Yet how would you combat the hate that is spreading fast and wide?

The pandemic has to be fought together in solidarity and in mutual cooperation by all communities. I can see people are now coming together. I have faith in the goodness of people. The situation will compel us to fight this pandemic.