How India is clamping down on Muslim activists under the cover of coronavirus

How India is clamping down on Muslim activists under the cover of coronavirus
India is using the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on Muslim activists following widespread anti-government protests last year.
6 min read
13 May, 2020
India is arresting Muslim activists using coronavirus lockdown laws. [Getty]
Amid a nationwide lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, authorities in India are arresting and summoning Muslim students, activists and journalists who have been critical of Narendra Modi's right-wing government.

Scores of Muslim activists and journalists have either been summoned by the police or charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which empowers the state to proscribe individuals as "terrorists" and can carry punishments of up to seven years. 

One of those charged under the UAPA included a 27-year-old pregnant student activist Safoora Zargar, who has been languishing in Tihar jail in New Delhi - Asia's largest prison - since last month.  At least 50 other student activists have been summoned by the police.

"The restrictions on mobility and assembly of people because of the lockdown seems to have provided a fresh opportunity for the state to come down hard on voices critical of the government - particularly those belonging to the minority Muslim community, " Afreen Fatima, a prominent student activist advocating for Muslim rights, told The New Arab.

Read more: India's draconian internet shutdown hinders Kashmir's
battle against Covid-19

Even though the community has been under constant attack from right-wing Hindu nationalists - most notably since the rise to power of the ultranationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 - the pandemic is adding to the woes of the largest minority group in India.

Not only have Muslims been blamed and targeted in a spree of attacks across the country for 'deliberately' spreading the virus, they are also now on the receiving end of a state-led crackdown on dissenting voices from the community.

"The government has found an opportune time to attack us," says Fatima, who is also a Student Union councillor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the world's leading universities. "During this crisis arising out of pandemic, no tangible solidarity is possible because people can't assemble or protest to pressure the government." 

"We can't come out on roads and demand the release of people unfairly detained and arrested. So the government is finding it the right time to crush our voices – with as little or no opposition as possible."

Fatima believes that even though there has been institutionalised and systematic discrimination against Muslims from the inception of the Indian state seven decades back, the 'otherisation' of the community has been particularly stark since the BJP came to power six years ago. 

Not only have Muslims in India been blamed for spreading the coronavirus, they are now on the receiving end of a state-led crackdown on dissenting voices

"We are being treated as second class citizens and everything bad that happens to our country is blamed on us (Muslims). The spread of the deadly coronavirus is no exception," she said.

On 23 March, as Modi announced the lockdown in India, authorities linked hundreds of cases of the coronavirus to the members of a Muslim missionary group, Tablighi Jamaat, that held a large congregation in New Delhi earlier in the month. Since then the Muslim community has been blamed for purposefully spreading the virus in the country, leading to physical attacks and widespread vilification on mainstream media outlets and across social media.

Muslim 'witch hunt'

Over the past six weeks, as authorities continue to round up activists from the Muslim community, experts believe the government is using an international health emergency to target critics, particularly young Muslim scholars, under false charges.

"Simply put this is witch-hunting," Shabnam Hashmi, a veteran human rights activist based in Delhi, told The New Arab. "The government feels it is the ripe time to get rid of its critics as people are caught in a pandemic," she said.

Read more:  India's coronavirus outbreak unmasks the ugly face of Islamophobia

Most of the charged activists had participated in the protests which erupted in the country after a controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was enacted in December, which excluded Muslims and fast-tracked Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. 

CAA was widely viewed as being discriminatory on the basis of religion. The protests, which initially began from Muslim minority educational institutions, eventually spread across large parts of the country and led to clashes between groups opposing and supporting the government's move. Eventually, they escalated into full blown communal riots in the Indian capital New Delhi, resulting in the loss of more than 50 lives.

"There is an attempt to silence Muslims who are asking for their rights," Rizwan Ahmed (not his real name), a student activist from New Delhi told The New Arab. Rizwan, who participated in several of the protests that rocked the national capital soon after CAA was passed, said he believes that the arrests are meant to annihilate a leadership which had started to emerge from the community. 

Over the past six weeks, as authorities continue to round up activists from the Muslim community, experts believe the government is using an international health emergency to target critics

"This government is arresting young Muslim scholars, activists and journalists during an international health emergency like this because they (government) have been exposed by them. This government can't stand any criticism and is using the lockdown to come down hard on people who are not ready to accept their draconian laws and legislations." 

Deliberate timing

As the Covid-19 pandemic has forced courts across the country to conduct virtual hearings with no in-person proceedings, many legal experts believe arresting people critical of the government during the current health crisis may be intentional as activists would find it extremely difficult to get bail. "It is not easy for detained students and activists to get relief from the courts at this point in time," said Imran Ali, an advocate based in New Delhi.

Read more: The long walk home: Modi's coronavirus lockdown triggers 
mass exodus of India's desperate migrant workers

"A lot of cases are not deemed to be urgent enough for hearings to happen and even if hearings do happen lawyers are not able to effectively present their cases virtually. So, a lot of bail applications are getting rejected," Alam said.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, has been evasive about the developments. Nalin Kohli, the official spokesperson of the BJP, told The New Arab he has "no idea" about the discrimination meted out to the students and activists from the Muslim community. "I am stuck outside the national capital New Delhi and am not aware of the situation," Kohli said.

Another senior official Neelkant Bakshi, who is head of BJP media in New Delhi, said there is nothing "unusual" or "discriminatory" about police actions against Muslims during the current crisis. "Police have been doing their work during the pandemic as they had been doing earlier. This shouldn't be seen as targeting of someone during the pandemic. This is a baseless allegation," he said.

Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in New Delhi and has written extensively on South Asian politics and minority issues 

Follow him on Twitter: @HananZaffar