It is absolutely bizarre the way the Indian media, backed by Hindu extremist forces, has grabbed yet another opportunity, that too during the COVID-19 pandemic, to target Muslims, demonise them and run hate campaign at the national level.
While Muslims had faced intimidation, harassment and multiple killings during the first term of Modi government, it has worsened during the second term. Over previous few months, protests against the controversial National Register of Citizenship (CAA) had caused mayhem in many parts of the country including the capital Delhi where serious communal riots took place at end of February.
The Tablighi Jamaat headquarters of Banglewali Masjid (Markaz) in Nizamuddin in New Delhi, a few km from the Indian Parliament, had held an annual congregation in mid March before the lockdown, attended by more than 2,000 delegates from across the nation and nearly 250 devotees from other countries including Indonesia and Malaysia.
Unfortunately, a few of these international visitors were asymptomatic carriers of Coronavirus infecting others at the gathering. As these attendees returned homes to various cities in India, some got sick and also became the source of spreading the virus in their families and neighbouring communities.
Well over half million foreigners, including people of Indian origin, arrive in India in each month. There were very few restrictions on arrivals when these few hundred foreign Tableeghi delegates arrived in Delhi early in March.
Government had not declared a ban on religious gatherings until 15 March when the programme at the Tablighi Markaz concluded. Many major Hindu temples continued to operate till 20 March attracting thousands of devotees daily. The parliament continued to sit till 22 March.
The Indian government suddenly announced the countrywide lockdown on 24 March when more than a 1,000 attendees were still at the Markaz, a norm at the headquarters of the religious group. These people got stranded as the centre officials approached the police to vacate the dormitories. Repeated pleas with authorities and Delhi police for evacuation were turned down.
Many similar gatherings in Hindu places of worship were given clemency and the stranded people were helped and evacuated.
The major media channels engaged in anti-Muslim hate frenzy calling Tableeghi workers as Corona Jihadis who were spreading the virus in the country while the head of the Markaz Maulana Saad Khandalvi was called ‘Corona bomb’ who had violated the rules.
Hate mongers on social media taking their cue from TV and radio shock jocks started a storm of Islamophobic propaganda and fake news messages creating an atmosphere of intolerance within India and abroad against Indian Muslims.
According to TIME magazine, “Just during five days since March 28 till 3 April, tweets with the hashtag #CoronaJihad have appeared nearly 300,000 times and potentially seen by 165 million people on Twitter, according to data shared with TIME by Equality Labs, a digital human rights group. Equality Labs activists say that many of the posts are in clear violation of Twitter’s rules on hate speech and coronavirus.”
The Delhi police then booked the Tablighi Jamaat Chief Maulana Saad Khandalvi for culpable homicide not amounting to murder on 15 April 2020.
Lately, a few prominent personalities in gulf countries including the members of the royal families, noticing the deteriorating situation in India, publicly condemned the policies of Indian government and threatened action against Hindus working in their countries, yet engaging in anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Interestingly, a few tweets of Indian PM since then had a change in tone which drew attention of a few cartoonists which became popular on social media. Indian government officials also hastened to engage in damage control due to huge economic implications, tense relations with the Muslim world will have on India.
The Indian government has suffered major setbacks in implementing the nationwide lockdown. Millions of migrant workers came out on streets in all major cities across the country in an attempt to return to their home villages hundreds of kilometres away as they had lost their living due to lockdown.
Millions of poor people have no access to food and essential supplies. Such major issues have been ignored and and not fully covered by the government controlled media.
As Ramadan begins, there may be more challenging times ahead as Muslims may be tempted to attend the congregational prayers during the holy month. With anti-Muslim propaganda combined with the past police brutality, Indian Muslims indeed feel insecure and concerned for their safety in their own country.