Covid-19 hasn't stopped the drumbeat of Islamophobia in India

Covid-19 hasn't stopped the drumbeat of Islamophobia in India
6 min read
01 Jul, 2020
Comment: If anything, the Modi government has weaponised the coronavirus pandemic to further dehumanise India's Muslims, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
'Many Muslim vendors face economic boycotts' writes Tazamal [Getty]
In the last week of February 2020, mobs of Hindu nationalists went on a rampage targeting Muslim-majority neighbourhoods in New Delhi, resulting in the worst communal violence the city had experienced since the 1984 Sikh massacre.

The mobs set alight numerous mosquesburned Muslims alive in their homes, lynched them in the streets, and finished it off by torching the scenes of destruction. It was reported that a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had essentially given the green light to the mobs after he delivered a threatening message stating if the police didn't clear the streets of protesters, the people would take things into their own hands.

The protesters he was referring to were the women of Delhi's Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood, who had been taking part in a peaceful sit-in since December 2019. The women were protesting the discriminatory and unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Law (CAA), the latest in exclusionary policies enacted under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government.

After four days of violence, the fires simmered and families tried to locate their missing loved ones. The death toll rose to 53, the majority of the victims identified as Muslim. Media reports rightfully labeled the attacks as a pogrom and revealed that during the violence, police either turned the other way, or participated in the heinous acts themselves. 

Under PM Modi, the country has experienced a vast communal rift, as the leading Hindu nationalist party aims to reconfigure India into a Hindu-only nation, rendering its 200 million Muslim minority population second-class citizens. Coupled with discriminatory policy comes anti-Muslim rhetoric from BJP government officials, who have referred to Muslims as "termites" and "foreigners," painted them as "traitors" who must be deported, and described them as an enemy within.

For India's poor, the fear was that they would die from hunger before they would die from Covid-19

Mainstream Indian media, especially pro-government channels, has given such views significant airtime, while anti-Muslim conspiracy theories have gone viral on social media. This has emboldened Hindu nationalists, resulting in a dangerous environment for the country's Muslims. 

The Covid-19 pandemic arrived in India on the heels of this anti-Muslim violence. While it has been regarded as a great "equalizer," in reality, Covid-19 has exacerbated the ethnic, religious, and class divides across the country. It has revealed the failures of the Modi-led government in tackling the public health crisis.

In an effort to shield the stark inequality and suffering that can no longer be ignored from the public eye, mainstream media along with government officials have employed their usual tactics, scapegoating vulnerable communities - in this case, Muslims - by accusing them of spreading the novel coronavirus.

On the evening of March 24, 2020, PM Modi went on national TV and announced a 21-day lockdown starting at midnight, giving the country's 1.3 billion a mere four hours warning. As lockdown was imposed, millions were left stranded as public transport was shut down.

What transpired was 
massive internal migration, as daily-wage workers and labourers were left with no other choice than to trek hundreds of miles from the city to their villages. The images and videos of these scenes made headlines around the globe, and stories of individuals dying on this perilous journey did the rounds. For India's poor, the fear was that they would die from hunger before they would die from Covid-19. 

Read more: Democracy languishes in Modi's anti-Muslim India

Coverage, however, soon began to shift as the story of the Tablighi Jamaat surfaced. The Muslim missionary group had been holding its annual gathering at the Nizamuddin Markaz in Delhi and members from across the world had flown in to take part. No authority had stopped them at the airports and no guidance had been issued by the government. 

When the haphazard lockdown was enforced, those from within India returned to their respective homes while international members were left stranded. It soon emerged that there was a cluster of Covid-19 positive cases among Jamaat members. The story served as the perfect opportunity to turn the public's attention away from the failures of the authorities.

The media and politicians constructed the members as villains who had planned to infect others with Covid-19. Their Muslimness made them the perfect scapegoat as the story fell into the "terrorist" trope used by anti-Muslim voices. Pro-government news channels and BJP IT cells ran with the story communalizing the virus by accusing the Jamaat members - and by association all Muslims - of engaging in "Coronjihad," and calling Muslims "Coronabombs."

Despite evidence of other religious groups holding events during the lockdown, including a government official himself, the media's coverage remained hyper-focused on the Jamaat, conveniently using the group's Covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to vilify Muslims. Amir, Ali, Assistant professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University summed it up well, when he 
stated, "Islamophobia has been transposed onto the coronavirus issue."

The Islamophobia activated in this environment played on the usual tropes, defining Muslims as a foreign monolith who disobeyed orders and were secretly planning to overtake the majority community.

Old videos went viral on social media depicting Muslims as purposefully spreading the virus. One 
political cartoon went even further by dressing the virus up in clothing worn by Muslims in the region: equating the deadly contagion to the country's hundreds of millions. Muslims were no longer just carriers of the virus; they were the virus, a dangerous argument meant to strip individuals of their humanity, and laying the groundwork for future violence. 

Muslims were no longer just carriers of the virus; they were the virus

As a result of the skewed coverage and proliferation of conspiracy theories on social media, Indian Muslims were again on the receiving end of vitriol and discrimination. In separate incidents, two pregnant Muslim women were denied healthcare due to their religion, resulting in the loss of their unborn babies. Numerous hospitals made headlines for segregating patients based on their religion, and a video of a doctor referring to Muslims with Covid-19 as "terrorists", was shared widely.

This anti-Muslim bigotry has trickled down into local communities, as Muslim vendors face 
economic boycotts and are denied access to areas to sell their goods. The effects of state-sanctioned Islamophobia are resulting in social ostracisation, marginalisation, and widespread fear of apartheid. 

In a country where misinformation is rife, and terror at the hands of Hindu nationalists has steadily increased in the past few years, such fear-mongering will inevitably result in more loss of life. The authorities have not only fallen short in combating the spread of Covid-19 but have crucially failed to provide the basic necessities for the survival of its citizens.

By scapegoating Indian Muslims, the BJP and its allies are only further deepening the cleavages in the social cohesion that has long defined India. Lack of government accountability and the constant drumbeat of Islamophobia will only exacerbate the deadly effects of the novel coronavirus on the country's billions. 

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.