A hospital in India demanded Muslim patients and their attendants prove they didn’t have Covid-19 before being admitted for treatment. The privately owned Valentis Cancer Hospital in Uttar Pradesh state apologized a day later “for hurting religious sentiments.” But the message written in black and white cemented for many the growing demonisation of India’s Muslim community, who are being accused, without any basis, of conducting a malevolent campaign to spread Covid-19 to the Hindu majority.
Already a minority marginalised and under attack – it is a couple of months since Hindu mobs attacked Muslims in religious riots in Delhi killing more than 50 people – violent attacks on Muslims, including farmers driven out of villages and others beaten by angry mobs, have accelerated across the country. In the village of Harewali in central India, 22-year-old Mehboob Ali was attacked while walking home from a Muslim missionary conference. A video of the assault was shared on social media showing him shaking with a bloody hands and face. His attackers beat him and threaten to douse him with fuel and set him on fire. They accuse him of intentionally trying to spread the coronavirus. In Jharkhand state, two newborn babies died after hospitals refused to admit their Muslim mothers. Muslims have also seen their businesses across India boycotted, posters have appeared barring Muslims from entering certain neighbourhoods, local gangs encourage Hindu vendors to attach saffron-coloured flags to pushcarts to identity themselves as non-Muslims, volunteers distributing rations came under attack with cricket bats and were called “coronavirus terrorists” when they distributed food to the poor, and others have been accused of spitting in food and infecting water supplies with the virus. In the Hindu-dominated village of Ankanahalli, a video shows the village panchayat president, issuing a warning that if any Hindu in the village is caught fraternising with a Muslim “you will be fined 500 to 1,000 rupees”.
The surge of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence has been prompted by a lethal mix of messages and videos circulating on Whatsapp and social media that have likened Muslims to “human bombs,” accusing them of deliberately spreading the virus. Hashtags like “corona jihad” and “corona terror” have been trending on social media. Videos purportedly showing Muslim vegetable vendors licking their produce or injecting food with saliva have also been circulated on social media along with calls to stop doing business with the community. Fact-checking websites confirmed that many of the spitting videos are either old or from other countries.
Several television channels added to the false accusations by attributing blame to a meeting of the Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat. Political leaders who should have known better joined the chorus. Senior leaders Bharatiya Janata Party-led government accused the Tablighi Jamaat of a “Talibani crime”, described their members as “human bombs, but in the guise of coronavirus patients”and called for Tablighi Jamaat leaders to be both hanged and shot. Kapil Mishra, a local BJP leader notorious for hate speeches, 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 coronavirus and kill them.”
Muslims walk maintaining social distancing after attending Friday prayers at the ancient Shahi Jama Masjid during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Ahmedabad on March 27, 2020. (Getty)
The hijacking of coronavirus as an excuse for discrimination began when the gathering of an Islamic missionary organisation, Tablighi Jamaat, which focuses on encouraging Muslims to return to practicing the religion as the Prophet Muhammad did, held in mid-March in the south Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin, was singled out by police and government as being responsible for the spread of coronavirus across India. The convention, which had been given the go-ahead by the Delhi authorities, was attended by about 8,000 people, including hundreds of foreigners. After the event, delegates -- who had dispersed -- began to fall sick with Covid-19 and Indian officials embarked on a widespread effort to trace, identify and test attendees and their families. On April 16, India charged one of the movement's leaders, Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, with culpable homicide. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
In a statement, the Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19 group said “the available data does not support the speculation” that the blame for the coronavirus epidemic in India lies mainly with Tablighi Jamaat. Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of Health has stopped blaming Tablighi Jamaat at public briefings - “Certain communities and areas are being labeled purely based on false reports. There is an urgent need to counter such prejudices.” – but anger has nevertheless exploded across India.
The virus fears are only amplifying existing prejudices, playing into growing Hindu nationalism which in recent years has seen India's Muslim societies increasingly marginalised. India’s 200 million Muslims, 14% of the population, are the largest minority group in the Hindu-majority nation, but they are also the poorest. Many now feel they are being labeled as second-class citizens and infiltrators in their own country. The Muslim-majority states of Jammu and Kashmir have been stripped of their autonomous status, nearly two million people in India's northeast Assam state, which shares a long border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh, were left off a controversial new National Register of Citizens, which critics feared could be used to justify religious discrimination against Muslims there, and a newly enacted citizenship law gives Indian citizenship to asylum seekers from three neighbouring countries, unless they are Muslims. In a report, Human Rights Watch found that India’s discriminatory new citizenship law and proposed policies have spurred further violence against Muslims.
It was in that environment that a Muslim group's gathering became a focus of India's coronavirus outbreak, but such prejudice will ultimately threaten India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.As the economy falters, jobs disappear, resources become scarce, and as people panic because the number of rising cases, there is increasing risk that discrimination and violence will spread. “The Indian government has issued a notice to counter prejudice, stating forthrightly: “If anyone catches the infection, it is not their fault.” There have been public efforts to celebrate healthcare professionals and other essential service provders. But many Muslims and other vulnerable groups are so fearful of abusive treatment that they avoid testing for the virus,” Human Rights Watchsaid, adding, “If people can’t trust authorities and don’t feel safe enough to report their symptoms or contact history, the virus will spread more easily through their community and India as a whole.”
In addition to threatening India’s fight against the pandemic, discrimination and violence against Muslims also risks harming its relations with Muslim countries with which it has increasingly good relations. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in a statement on April 19 expressed "deep concern" about "rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia within political and media circles and on mainstream and social media platforms." In a tweet on the same day, the OIC condemned “the unrelenting vicious #Islamophobic campaign in #India maligning Muslims for spread of #COVID-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination & violence with impunity”.
A day after the OIC statement, Modi posted on LinkedIn : "COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together."
Several Indian state leaders also condemned the spread of misinformation that's targeting the Muslim community though many have stopped short of condemning the violence. "Like coronavirus, there is another virus that is emerging and threatening social harmony: the virus of fake news and communal hatred," said Chief Minister of Maharashtra state, Uddhav Thackeray on Twitter.
There has also been a series of backlash from Gulf states and where millions of Indians work and with which India has strong economic relations. Trading relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states has transformed considerably over the years, with the bilateral trade volume surpassing $100 billion.
On April 27, Kuwait has appealed to the OIC to intervene in India to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. In a statement, the General Secretariat of the Kuwait Council of Ministers expressed its "deep concern" about the treatment of Indian Muslims. It called on the OIC to take "necessary and urgent measures" to "preserve the rights of Muslims there". Abdullah al-Shoreka, a minister in Kuwait's Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, tweeted that it was time for Muslims to speak up against the persecution of their co-religionists. "Did those who commit crimes against humanity against Muslims in India and violate their rights think that Muslims in the world will remain silent about these crimes and do not move politically, legally and economically against them?" he said.
In a rare public movement, Princess Hend al-Qassimi, a member of the royal family of United Arab Emirates, citing tweets by Hindus living in the UAE, denounced those who were arraigning Muslims in her country. Princess al-Qassimi also wrote a column for Gulf News, with the headline “I pray for an India without hate and Islamophobia” in which she said: "The world doesn't need another Hitler, but it needs another hero like Martin Luther, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi. Killing your brethren doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a dictator and murderer. A snowballing movement has been started, which has reverberated across the Arab world.”
Indian embassies in Gulf countries, including UAE, Oman and Qatar, are increasingly cautioning Indians living in GCC states against posting hate-filled and extremist messages on social media platforms following Modi’s call for communal harmony. Indian ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, said: “India and UAE share the value of non-discrimination on many grounds. Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this.”
Despite warnings, there has been a marked increase in the number of highly offensive, Islamophobic posts on Twitter and Facebook by some Indians living in the UAE and other Gulf countries. As a result of these posts, several people have lost their jobs, including chef Rawat Rohit, storekeeper Sachin Kinnigoli and a cash custodian whose name has been withheld by his firm.