Targeting of India’s Muslims against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic

Police in India are stopping citizens and commuters after government placed the entire country on lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Editorial credit: stockpexel / Shutterstock.com

New report reveals how the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown situation is being used to Deepen Anti-Muslim Bias and Weaken Muslim Voice

by Bhumika Saraswati  1 June 2020

“The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for anti-minority forces led by the BJP government to deflect attention away from their failures in dealing with the health and economic crises, by focusing instead on Muslims and their alleged role in spreading COVID-19,” read the introduction to the webinar where a report titled, ‘Hit Job: Using COVID-19 to Deepen Anti-Muslim Bias and Weaken Muslim Voice’ was released by the collective Citizens Against Hate (CAH). 

The two outcomes of the COVID-19 lockdown, the report suggests, have been — hunger and hate. 

Sajjad Hassan, the convenor of the collective highlighted how India’s Muslims have been made vulnerable to stigmatisation, attacks, and exclusion — for allegedly (and falsely) being accused of spreading the virus. It has been Muslims who have been subjected to an orchestrated campaign of Islamophobia and anti-muslim targetting. Further addressing how the same virus was then used to silence the Anti-CAA protesters (especially Muslim voices) during the lockdown.

The report that has been compiled by researchers and activists pursuing justice for victims of discrimination and violence — categorically examines the response (rather, late response) of the government in dealing with the pandemic. The ham-handed management, and hasty implementations of the restrictions that resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis which forced over 100 million migrant labourers into a reverse migration (often on foot with no resources). 

“The relief that was sought to be provided was half-hearted at best,” the report observed. 

At least 592 lockdown related deaths (apart from those directed due to COVID19 infection) had occurred due to governments mismanagement — “the shoddy planning” that gave the people only 4 hours notice for a 21-day lockdown (which went on to be extended). With at least 171 accidents of those migrant labourers travelling on foot,116 suicides, 55 deaths due to denial of medical care, 36 due to extortion and 87 due to starvation and financial distress. The researchers noted that most of these deaths could have been avoidable. 

Categorically mentions the governments’ late response, hasty implementations of restrictions, and lack of proper testing. 

COVID 19 and Muslim Scapegoating 

After authorities traced the spike in cases to the Tablighi gathering (Muslim religious gathering). A campaign was begun to demonise a single community — the whole of India’s Muslims — as agents that spread the virus. 

“While Tablighi stands to be criticized, there was gross government mismanagement and disproportionate targeting,” the reporter said pointing at the fact that many of the Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) members had entered India without being screened at airports, which the government had claimed (on 14 March) that they were screening and identifying everyone entering the country. 

The scrutiny on TJ and rising COVID cases was intense but also biased. Government’s selective scrutiny of these cases, when screening overall was poor, and under-reporting common resulted in skewing out the Jaamatis as the villain of the piece. 

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan magazine, a panellist during the digital release of the report spoke of the “social and cultural sickness of society” with deep frustration. He added that we are no more a constitutional democracy but a populous autocracy, running electorally with no checks and balances. And that the hatred we are witnessing today is deep-rooted. It is an issue that has existed, long before COVID 19 hit us, the pandemic only became another reason for state centralisation, surveillance, the police state and targeted hatred. 

The report suggests that there was religious profiling of specifically Tablighi members (while overall tests remain low). On 30th March BJP MP Gautam Gambir and BJP National General Secretary B L Santosh both blamed Jamaat in their tweets about the Makraz gathering in Nizamuddin, calling it “illegal.” It is no surprise that both, in their tweets, failed to mention that the congregation took place on 13 – 15 March, that was much before the nationwide lockdown was announced (after 21 March), making their claims of “illegality” highly questionable. 

On 31st Sambit Patra, national spokesperson of BJP accused the Jamaat of “criminal negligence.” The report categorically mentions how on the next day, 1 April Amit Malviya, the head of BJP’s IT Cell, sought to draw links between Tablighi cluster and Anti-CAA protests (that Delhi had witnessed since December 2019). The two had nothing to do with one another but he tweeted: “Delhi’s dark underbelly is exploding! Last 3 months have seen an Islamic insurrection of sorts, first in the name of Anti-CAA protests from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia, Jafrabad to Seelampur. And now the illegal gathering of the radical Tablighi Jamaat at the Markaz. It needs a fix!”   

Followed by calling them “terrorists” by BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra. 

It is imperative to note that during the same time, the reports of overall religious gatherings were largely ignored (Yogi Adityanath’s function is one of them) — suggesting inherent biases hidden agenda towards shifting the public gaze on Muslims. 

Bal further highlighted how the media (mainstream media) in today’s time instead of checking on the government, becomes an agent of it and “amplifies the government’s agenda.” It was before the announcement of the abrupt decision of a lockdown on March 24 that Modi met editors and owners of 20 major media organisations asking them to publish “positive stories”. The government also tried to control all aspects of information regarding the coronavirus crisis.

Sudarshan News talking of “Corona Jihad”, ABP calling them “human bombs”, Zee News accusing them of “betraying the nation.” The head of the Jamaat, Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi described as a “terrorist.”

This was followed by fake news, about Tablighi members defecating in open, Muslim fruit vendors spitting, Muslim youth urinating in open. A total of 94 such fake news stories blamed the community for the pandemic. 

Sajjad Hassan highlighted how social media apps like Tick Tock, WhatsApp, Facebook were used. The report reveals that Tick Tock targeted disinformation videos were watched by 10 million people and then deleted after they became popular (leaving no footprint).  

A pattern of targeted disinformation ensued online with hashtags such as #BioJihad, #CoronaJihaad #CrushTablighiSpitters along with 24*7 negative coverage on prime time TV channels. (Alongside negative statements by senior BJP leaders and government functionaries). 

There is enough evidence to support that this was soon followed by real-word violence, social boycotts, and denial of public services to Muslims around the country, with at least 28 instances of “anti-muslim targetting” in the first two weeks of April alone. Physical attacks included.

The report details the case of, Mohammad Dilshan, a 37-year-old resident of Bangarh village in Himachal Pradesh’s Una district who on April 5, committed suicide after being subject to taunts and abuses by his fellow villagers. He had come into contact with members of Tablighi Jamaat but had tested negative. In his last note, he wrote: “I’m no one’s enemy.” 

Several pieces of evidence showed that Muslim vendors and shopkeepers were both verbally abused and boycotted in UP and Maharashtra. 

In Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district, a baby died after a doctor allegedly refused to treat a pregnant Muslim woman. Similarly, in Jharkhand, bleeding, a pregnant woman was allegedly accused of Coronavirus and turned away, eventually losing her child. 

Witch-hunting against Anti-CAA activists

Alongside, and with much haste during the lockdown, authorities have been systematically arresting Muslim youth leaders that led the anti-CAA protests, charging them in fabricated cases, including for terror-related offence (often under UAPA). 

Faizan Mustafa, Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad says he is rather frustrated as a law teacher that in the present-day scenario no fundamental law matters. Pointing that even in Israel, the courts have been closed keeping the lockdown in mind. However, the Indian apex court had not taken any senior action on the ongoing Islamophobia or let alone the internal migrant crisis. 

“Besides being in conflict with the Supreme Court’s guidelines on decongesting prisons during lockdown, police crackdown amid moment restrictions meaning that lawyers and courts are not easily accessible to victims, undermining chances of defence against arbitrary action,” the report observed. 

All of this happening at a time when the number of Coronavirus cases has been rising in prisons. Not to deny, Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar had been arrested on April 13, with police claiming she was among those who organised an anti-CAA protest and road blockade under the Jafrabad Metro station in Delhi on February 22-23. Later, when she was booked under UAPA.

ALT News a fake news debunking website revealed that a piece of fake news being shared in Facebook groups named: ‘We Support Narendra Modi’, that claimed to share a still from a porn video claiming that the women in the video is Zargar. The group had 30 lakh followers. The URL of the group read: ‘The Real Hero Narendra Modi’.

It was during this time that twitter was filled with filthy and vulgar tweets by the right-wing supporters like: ‘Desh Todne Chali thi Lock tudwa baithi’ (She was out to break the country ended up breaking her lock — hymen — instead), ‘Saheen Bagh ki sherni ko ghori kisne banaya’ (refering to a sex position to villify her), ‘sabhi ke boond gere thein uske matke mein’ (the semen of many men have fallen into the pot of the vagina). Misogyny at its best clubbed with dirty politics.

‘The curious case of FIR 59/2020’

Manisha Sethi, assistant professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, brings the attention to the “the curious case of FIR 59/2020” in all FIRs filed against these 7 arrested students and activists, these are anti-CAA protesters and Jamia student Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Seelampur protesters Gulfisha Fatima, President of Alumni Association of Jamia Millia Islamia Shifa Ur Rehman, social activist Khalid Saifi and Ishrat Jahan and AAP Coordinator Tahir Hussain. 

Revealing that all Delhi arrests are connected by FIR 59/2020 filed by the Delhi Police Crime Branch based on ‘secret information received by a police informant.’ Investigations under this FIR are being pursued speedily despite lockdown. The report records that lawyers representing the detained students and activists claimed that “their clients were forced by police to sign blank sheets of paper and that their seizure memos were mostly not for phones and laptops taken away from them.” 

Manisha also draws parallels between the 2018 case of Bhima Koregaon. Where the police alleged the activists were “Urban Naxals” acting in concert with the Communist Party of India (Maoist). A narrative, the activists have repeatedly challenged in different high courts. 

The police eventually managed to secure the arrest of many academics and activists – Bharadwaj, Rao, Gonsalves and Ferreira. Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde were arrested recently in the wake of the lockdown on 14 April.

Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International who joined the panel via London concluded that at a time like this, the government must ensure to “protect everyone who lives in society for pragmatic reasons.” Adding that “how you govern during the pandemic will make a difference.”

—-Reference Report: http://citizensagainsthate.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/HIt-Job-Final.pdf

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