COVID-19 yet another excuse to whip up hate?

Is COVID-19 being used as yet another excuse to direct antipathy towards Muslims?

Fear and suspicion of Muslims is insidiously fanned by Hindutva elements & sections of the press on the pretext of holding the Tablighi Jamaat responsible for its reckless act; this makes ordinary, non-Jamaati Muslims vulnerable to discrimination

People who came for ‘Jamat’, a religious gathering at Nizamuddin Mosque, being taken to LNJP hospital for COVID-19 test, after several people showed symptoms of coronavirus, during a nationwide lockdown, in New Delhi, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Credit: PTI Photo/Vijay Verma)

Mumbai-based computer operator Shamim Sheikh badly needs medicines for her mother, a heart patient with hypertension. But the neighbourhood chemist has run out of them, and this burqa-clad 30-year-old is too scared to venture out of the security of her Muslim neighbourhood, and even more afraid to send her younger brother out. She fears being targeted by public anger against the Tablighi Jamaat.

Ironically, not only is Shamim herself furious with the Tablighi Jamaat for its irresponsibility in hosting a huge gathering at its Delhi headquarters in March, but she does not even consider the sect Muslim, an opinion shared by the country’s major Sunni sects. In fact, Tablighis are not even allowed to worship in mosques belonging to the Barelvi sect, to which a majority of Muslims in India belong. Many Muslims avoid them because of their insistence on teaching the community the “correct’’ way to practice Islam. 

The Tablighi Jamaat stays away from politics and sees the world through the prism of religion alone. For example, it viewed the Gujarat violence of 2002 as divine punishment for Muslims having strayed from the straight and narrow path. It is this attitude that made their chief, Maulana Saad, scoff at the possibility that the coronavirus could harm the thousands of faithful gathered in Delhi if the audio recording played by many TV channels is genuine.   

The attitude of other Muslim clergies towards the epidemic was the opposite. Citing examples from the Quran and the Prophet’s life, they ordered that mosques be closed for public prayer and exhorted their community to pray at home once their respective states announced a lockdown, i.e., even before the national lockdown. 

Yet, today, all Muslims, especially those whose attire declares them to be so, are being viewed with fear and suspicion because of this one unpopular sect, whose careless disregard for rules is being linked to the sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. However, the boycott threats and physical attacks that have started taking place on Muslims by ordinary non-Muslims (in Assam, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab and Karnataka), can only be attributed to two other sources. First, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party’s WhatsApp groups and even some of its MPs are furiously spreading fake videos and making false allegations about Muslims deliberately spreading the virus. 

Second, popular news channels. These have not only accused the Tablighis of being part of an ‘Islamic conspiracy’ to spread the coronavirus,  and coined terms such as ‘coronajihad’ and ‘corona bombs’, but also telecast fake news about violence by Tablighis against medical officers, which the police has refuted.

Two factors explain the conduct of these channels. Some of them are owned by BJP supporters. Others support the Hindutva ideology and have displayed anti-Muslim prejudice on previous occasions too.

Indeed, over the last two years, these channels have followed a disturbing agenda, that of communalising every issue involving any Muslim. Be it in the Hadiya case, where a Hindu adult female in Kerala voluntarily converted to Islam and later married a Muslim; or the murders of Delhi Hindus Ankit Saxena and Dhruv Tyagi by their Muslim neighbours in separate incidents,  these channels have projected the entire Muslim community as ‘jihadis’ and the entire Hindu community as their victims. While doing so, they have also accused opposition parties, the ‘tukde tukde gang’, and ‘urban Naxals’ -- in brief, every section that opposes Narendra Modi -- of supporting the ‘jihadis’.

The latest example of the way these channels portray every issue as a Hindu-Muslim conflict was an expose of a land scam in Jammu. It was projected as a "Land jihad" aimed at changing the demographics of Jammu at the behest of Pakistan. The Shaheen Bagh anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protesters were linked to this conspiracy.  They are now being linked with the Tablighi Jamaat’s ‘coronajihad’. 

The absurdity of jihad being waged by Muslims primarily against Muslims themselves, or the way the Centre -- the Delhi police controlled by it -- and the Delhi government, all turned a blind eye to such a huge congregation in the heart of the Capital, were not questions debated by these channels.

Instead, the president of the News Broadcasters Association issued a statement deploring threats against  TV journalists for their expose of the Tablighi Jamaat. The Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, the country's largest organisation of Muslim clergy, has now filed a petition in the Supreme Court urging action against these channels.  

More disturbing is the conduct of some news agencies known to be favoured by the Centre, and even some mainstream papers. They have used terms such as ‘napalming the country’’ to describe the trips made by the Tablighis from Delhi to different states, and even published some unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct by Jamaat members. These have been contradicted both by the police (in Saharanpur), and by a Hindu medical officer involved in the evacuation of Jamaat members.

There is no doubt that the Tablighi Jamaat's criminal irresponsibility has made thousands of Indians (most but not all of them Muslims) vulnerable to the coronavirus. However, it’s the media that has made Muslims across India vulnerable, by projecting the recklessness and blind beliefs of one Muslim sect as part of a ‘jihad’.  

(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on issues concerning communalism and human rights)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.