The novel coronavirus is an unparalleled catastrophe that has left all countries of the world in disarray. It has crippled nearly every aspect of governance, public as well as social life. Moreover, it has also increased the clichéd acts of religious cults that are bludgeoning the essence of harmony and scientific temperament which should prevail at this hour.
SCAPEGOATING OF RELIGION
On 10 April, in the capital city of India, a nurse was threatened by some people when she returned home from her hospital shift. They shouted slurs at her, pulled her, beaten her and even molested her. Furthermore, when she begged for clemency they yelled at her saying, “Go back to Pakistan, and do your duty there.” This terrorizing and contemptible attack on that woman took place only because of the reason that ‘She was a Muslim.’. The problem that everyone undergoes is that ‘She preaches Islam’. The petrifying ordeal that the woman faced made her think that ‘She does not belong to this country.’ This affair is not just made for merely stating the fact but it actually depicts the inhumane reality of the society. A nurse, who is working hard day and night to ensure the safety of everyone is herself treated in such a deplorable manner. People are not thinking that the doctors, nurses and medical staffs are risking their own lives for the sake of the safety of everyone. They are not having leisure or peaceful time by sitting at their home with their family members. We cannot harm the dignity of any person in any manner. Instead of respecting and being grateful to them, people are harming and maltreating them just for the reason that they are ‘Muslims’. Can this be regarded as acceptable behaviour in this democratic society?
It basically reflects one of the oldest and hideous ways to inculpate calamity on those who are considered as ‘Others’. Pandemics have a very long history of ‘scapegoating’. In the present world, there are many instances of scapegoating during the coronavirus pandemic. The United States and Europe discriminates and attacks people of Asian descent. Even Donald Trump, the president of the US called coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”. In China, Africans have been evicted and restrained to enter the restaurants as they possess fear that foreigners could precipitate a new round of deadly infections. In Pakistan, the Hazara ethnic minority has been unfairly condemned as the initiator of the coronavirus.
Being the largest minority group in India, Muslims have long faced social, political and economic marginalization. The polarity between Hindus and Muslims – who make up around 200 millions of India’s 1.3 billion citizens- have always widened with time. The attacks against Muslims have prompted repeatedly in recent years – from the unilateral abrogation of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state; the introduction of controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), that blatantly victimize Muslims; the Hindu Muslims riots that occurred in New Delhi and many more. The recrudescence of COVID-19 is now adding fuel to the fire and presents yet another shot to launch a fresh attack on these scapegoats. Unfortunately being religious minorities, they have to bore the brunt of majoritarian preconceptions.
INCIDENT OF ENMITY IN INDIA
The Tablighi Jamaat Case
The Tablighi Jamaat is an orthodox Islamic missionary movement with thousands of members across the world. On 13 March, 2 weeks after the group held a meeting in Malaysia that itself emerged as a source of hundred of coronavirus cases across South Asia, the Tablighi Jamaat members gathered in New Delhi. To control the situation ‘Janta Curfew’ was launched and later on, a nationwide lockdown started without any prior notice with a complete suspension of all transports within the country. Everyone was puzzled and unequipped. There wasn’t a prior warning and no mention of contingency plans or relief measures. In addition to this, a complete shutdown of transportation restricted people to the place where they are. People are at fault if they disobey anti gathering laws but how can markaz attendees who were inside the retreat can go back home even if they wanted to. Due to this hundreds of attendees still remain stranded inside the markaz as it became almost impossible to further vacate the place.
The whole rampant situation gained momentum when some Indonesians linked to the markaz tested positive for COVID-19 at Andhra Pradesh. The cases started prevailing from Kashmir in the far north to the remote Andaman and Nicobar and even in the northeastern state of Assam. The attendees became a body of super spreader and caused India’s single biggest spike in infection. These cases gradually started deepening the communal rifts in India. A new wave of religious hatred along with the virus changed everything. Delhi’s Nizamuddin markaz became a topic of utmost concern for everyone as it definitely shouldn’t have taken place at a time of such pandemonium. But the manner in which it was pessimistically reflected on social media and TV channels, it was purposefully aimed to give it a communal colour to fight against COVID-19.
SOCIAL MEDIA SPREADING COMMUNAL TENSION
There was a sudden surge in the Islamophobic hashtags, tweets, posts and comments by national political figures on different social media platforms. There was a sudden boom of online hateful messages at various sites.
Within hours of the fiasco hashtags like #corona jihad (that has appeared nearly 300,000 times on twitter), #nizamuddin are corona zombies, #markaz COVID spread, #covid-786 (a number that carries religious meaning for Muslims) and many others jumped from twitter to T.V. All the acclaimed pro-government TV channels anchors were frothing with rage and speaking the same words again and again, calling for all penal and stringent actions against “jihadis” – referring to the ‘Muslims’ of our nation. These Indian TV channels, which were already scurrilous and notorious for spreading hatred against Muslims, were the quickest to rebuke. They accused Muslim preachers of ‘deliberately’ spreading the virus and therefore called them ‘virus villains’ and ‘human bombs’. Moreover, Islamophobic memes have also been circulating, one meme, for instance, shows China as the ‘producer’ and Muslims as the ‘distributer’ of the deadly virus. Ruling party’s lawmakers and ministers were also not behind in joining the chorus and further propagating the intolerance prevalent in the country. They were all trying to shift the culpability on the ‘Others’ and delineate the pandemic as a part of the communal strife.
The most highlighted affair during this calamity was from the monologue of Arnab Goswami on Republic TV. He framed the event as a ‘Muslim conspiracy against India.’ He said, “They made fun of our national effort. They have compromised us all, we were just winning when they did everything to defeat us.” There was no doubt that ‘they’ here stood in for ‘Muslims’.
These pitiless and unacceptable draconian comments were not enough. Raj Thackeray, the leader of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena said that the Tablighi Jamaat members “should be shot.” It is highly disgraceful and unbelievable to have a comment by these political leaders who are responsible for shaping the minds of the citizens. They are regarded as national idols and the citizens preach and pray for their long life. How can they even speak to take away ones right to life in such a hastily manner? These discriminatory and anti-Muslim tweets and comments took away lives of many Muslim people who were continuously harassed and hassled for this cataclysm. Many of them even committed suicides. But still, the government pays no heed.
CRAMPED CONDITIONS AND ATTACKS
Sprees of anti-Muslim attacks were broken out across the country. Young Muslim activists were assaulted with cricket bats while distributing food to those in need. A former army officer, Sahimuddin, 49, was tied by a rope around his neck by some people from the neighbouring area. They ruptured his vocal cords and damaged his trachea. As of now, he has lost his ability to speak. In the city of Jamshedpur, a pregnant Muslim woman was made to clean her own blood due to false accusation of spreading the virus. Later that day, her baby was found stillborn. All such throbbing painful incidents are not limited to a certain place or a certain time. There are numerous occurrences of such piteous acts. Physical, verbal and psychological hostilities are being waged against Muslims, advancing further their ostracisation in the Indian society. Instead of showing solidarity during this pandemic, people are raising voices against their own people and creating gaps between themselves. We are not realizing that these minorities or any sect is a very integral part of our country. There are just like the pieces of that puzzle of India that would be incomplete if they are not placed among them. They cannot be left aside or removed from the picture. They complete the essence of secularism in our democratic society.
The government’s aim to give this pandemic a communal colour by increasing anti-Muslim environment and thereby bringing political benefits in their favour will damage and rupture the very spirit of democracy. There won’t be any democratic resurgence after this pandemic. We can think of treating and getting rid of the virus but if a communal rift is formed among the people then that gap will never ever fade away. It will create a new dark chapter of separatism and subjugation against Muslims in the biggest democracy of the world.
MAJOR FAULT LINES AND THE ROLE OF MEDIA
Every citizen being of any race, caste, religion or gender accepts that the Tablighi Jamaat was ‘irresponsible’ and exhibited ‘reckless behaviour’ by holding a large gathering at New Delhi. But we cannot blame the whole barrel to be rotten just because of a few bad apples. Not only this we cannot disregard the faults made by the government that were subdued by the pro-government media channels as they were busy fanning religious hatred among masses. Some of them are –
- LACK OF PROPER SCREENING
At the same time between January and March the government has allowed nearly 1.5 million people to enter the country without proper screening and these jamaat guests were a tiny fraction of this number. How can the government of India trivialize the gravity of the situation at this moment of menace when stern actions have to be taken and maintained properly? There has to be proper check-up and screening before letting any person into our country or to any state. And if the government had acted irresponsibly that they must take a stand for this or should have been highlighted through the fourth pillar of our country – the media – to let people be aware of the situation that they will be facing in the coming time. But unfortunately, the media also ditched and did not take a stand on this. People were left at their own stakes.
- HINDU CONGREGATIONS
Furthermore, it has been noticed that Tablighi Jamaat event was not the only one congregation, religious or non-religious, that took place in mid-March. There were many other congregations that were happening at the same time. For instance – a 10-day temple festival in Kerela state in which hundreds of thousands of people gathered to celebrate. It happened around the same time, the congregation in Delhi was taking place. Another instance is of a Sikh preacher who had returned from a trip to Italy and Germany. He ignored the advice of self-quarantine and went to celebrate a religious festival. Due to this 40,000 people of 20 villages were quarantined in Punjab. These instances are not only restricted to common citizens. Even Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh attended a busy Hindu celebration during the lockdown. There were many Hindu processions that took place at that time. But again they haven’t been brought into the picture. Why the media is not acting responsibly as it must do. They are the voice of the people and if they will get influenced by the present government then who will be acting as the mirror showing all the disparities and troubles faced by common people. Media must realize their reason of existence and the role that they play in the contemporary democratic society.
Each citizen needs to understand that ‘India’s fight and struggle is not against Muslims spreading coronavirus instead it is India against coronavirus.’ Muslims have been disenfranchised politically and now breaking them emotionally, mentally and even economically (as the largest working population of Muslims is in the informal sector) will make their survival almost impossible. Only the irresponsibility and heedless attitude of certain Muslims towards this fatal disease has been painted with menacing ideological motivations and thereby destroying our basic spirit of nationalism cannot be expected. It is truly disheartening that people are unable to differentiate between the responsible ones and the innocent ones. They are blatantly blaming the whole community as a potential carrier of this virus and are therefore shunned and hated. It is absolutely implausible to think in such way.
The polarity created between the majoritarian Hindu sect and the Muslims must not be the issue raised nor it should be deepened during this pandemic situation. No virus of communal disharmony must be rooted within the heart and soul of the citizens. Pandemics do not have any timetable of action or any national, cultural or religious sensitivity. The rich and poor, the healthy and weak all proved equally incapable of resistance and will be swept away by this crisis. All we need at this cataclysm is domestic solidarity, unity, brotherhood and the spirit of nationalism to fight against the coronavirus with all our strength and might. The responsible government should not play a ‘blame game’ because if cases are presented on the basis of somebody’s religion in media briefings then ‘a big divide’ is created. Everyone should be very clear that having a shared understanding of the extent of the COVID-19 threat and agreement on the common goal of mitigating its damage is not enough. It shouldn’t be accompanied by communal resentment and growing partisan otherwise Indian nationalism will fail to perform its uniting function. Every Indian owns their fundamental right because they are the citizens of our country. No privilege is provided on the basis of their caste, class or religion. Hence no one gets the right to create ‘a big divide’ among Indian citizens and further treating them discriminately.
Besides this, the hate speeches at different social media platform are spreading almost as fast as the virus itself. Citizens must realize that freedom of speech should not run up against minorities. The virus does not care about religion, caste, colour, creed, language, border or national differences before striking. The solution against this fatal disease cannot be achieved through the pursuit of divisive agendas but through scientific endeavours, human solidarity, humanism and morality.
According to the Directive Principles of State Policy, it is the duty of each and every Indian citizen to uphold, protect and foster India’s unity, sovereignty and integrity. And at this pandemic state, it is all that is expected by every citizen rather than being engaged in mushrooming the poisonous virus of divisiveness and hatred and spreading it among all the residents. In short, we need to be neutral, objective and honest without being myopic.
- Devjyot Ghoshal, Aftab Ahmed, Alasdair Pal, The Religion retreat that sparked India’s major coronavirus manhunt (REUTERS, 3 April 2020) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-islam-insigh/the-religious-retreat-that-sparked-indias-major-coronavirus-manhunt-idUSKBN21K3KF (accessed on 21 May 2020).
- Asim Ali, Coronavirus was the test of secular nationalism. Then Tabhlighi Jamaat became the scapegoat (THE PRINT, 1 April 2020) https://theprint.in/opinion/coronavirus-test-of-secular-nationalism-tablighi-jamaat-became-scapegoat/392764/ (accessed on 22 May 2020).
- Coronavirus: Islamophobia concerns after India mosque outbreak (BBC News, 3 April 2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52147260 (accessed on 21 May 2020)
- Jonna Slater and Niha Masih, As the world looks for coronavrius scapegoats, Muslims are blamed in India ( The Washington Post, 23 April 2020) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/as-world-looks-for-coronavirus-scapegoats-india-pins-blame-on-muslims/2020/04/22/3cb43430-7f3f-11ea-84c2-0792d8591911_story.html (accessed on 23 May 2020)
- Siddhartha Roy, Hate goes viral in India (THE DIPLOMAT, 4 May 2020) http://thediplomat.com/2020/05/hate-goes-viral-in-india/ (accessed on 21 May 2020)
- J. Gentleman, K. Schultz, S. Raj, In India, Coronavirus Fans Religious Hatred (The New York Times, 12 April 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/world/asia/india-coronavirus-muslims-bigotry.html (accessed on 22 May 2020).
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
This article is co-authored by Stuti Dhawan, a BA LLB (Hons) student from ILS Pune, and Ojasav Chitranshi, a BA LLB (Hons) student from NLU Jodhpur. The authors are keenly interested in legal research and legal writing; analysing and writing about contemporary legal issues fall in their primary interest area. Can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org