Lockdown may contain Covid-19, but it can’t curb the virus of Islamophobia in India

Priya Ramani, The
, 14 April 2020.
If 2018 and 2019 were the years India
communalised rape, 2020 will go down as the year this country viewed a global
pandemic through a Hindu-Muslim lens.

Activist Akram
Akhtar was home in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh, when the clock struck 9 pm on 5
April, and the soundtrack of those responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s
call for a 9-minute lights-out echoed around him.
“There were loud
shouts of Jai Shri Ram, firecrackers and the distinctive sounds
of .315 calibre country-made pistols being fired. I
heard the conch and prayer bells from the temple where loudspeakers
played bhakti songs.” This continued for 45 minutes, he said.
In other parts
of India too, Modi’s call to switch off lights and light a diya or
shine a torch “to mark our fight against coronavirus” was interpreted
by many Hindus as a show of majoritarian strength.
Worried that
there might be communal tension, Akhtar got on his motorcycle and drove to some
Muslim neighbourhoods. “It was dark and quiet. Unlike other days, not one
person was on the road,” he added, attributing this to the fear
fueled largely by the recent police violence against Muslim citizens
protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Uttar Pradesh
Since December,
police in India’s most populous state has targeted Muslims,
detaining thousands, raiding homes and even opening fire on people
protesting against new laws that will put Indian citizenship through
a religious sieve.
A bald headline in Time
magazine holds up a clear mirror to our recent selves: “It Was Already
Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus.”
After attendees
at a Tablighi Jamaat meet — held in Delhi before Modi’s call for a
national lockdown — tested positive, fake news about Muslims intentionally
spreading the coronavirus went viral. As India trended
#CoronaJihad, our Islamophobia was
on show for the world to see.
An indication of
how fast the hateful rumours spread was that even the UP Police was forced
to turn fact-checker.
In Sahranpur, 62
km from Shamli, the police issued a statement denying
that Jamaatis quarantined in Rampur “created a ruckus” because they didn’t get
non-vegetarian food and had excreted in the open. “After going through news
reports, news channels and social media posts we have found that these reports
are completely wrong and untrue. Saharanpur Police refutes this projected news
in its entirety,” the official police handle tweeted.
After this,
there were many more instances of the UP Police correcting and warning or
arresting people and media organisations for spreading fake
news or attacks against Muslims. An article in the Hindustan newspaper
dated 6 April said the Meerut police found to be untrue the
report that a maulana had spat on and bitten a
shopkeeper. The shopkeeper was angry after an altercation over money
and had used a coin to create bite marks.
Fake news and
real damage
organisation Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind moved the Supreme
Court to stop the dissemination of fake news and act against a section of
the media for spreading communal hatred and bigotry. The organisation said that
the Tablighi Jamaat meeting was being used to
demonise the entire Muslim community.
If 2018 and 2019
were the years India communalised rape and spent hours debating—on prime time
television and on social media—the religion of the rapist and his victim in
horrific cases of violence against young women and minors, 2020 will go down as
the year this country viewed a global pandemic through a Hindu-Muslim lens.
The fake news
was everywhere. “My parents have been buying groceries from a supermarket owned
by a Malayali Muslim for many years…Yesterday my father received a WhatsApp
forward asking him not to go to the shop as the owner was infected with Coronavirus
and the goods in the shop were infected too,” someone posted on Facebook.
Secularism is
Ideas of Indian
syncretism and secularism feel increasingly dreamlike and distant in 2020. This
latest blast of hateful bigotry came on the heels of the Delhi riots,
where 19 mosques were
damaged and burnt in targeted violence that lasted 48 hours in February in the
city’s working-class neighbourhoods in the north-east.
When journalist
and author Ajaz Ashraf began visiting these mosques, he was reminded of how the
Taliban blew up two sixth-century statues of Gautam Buddha in Afghanistan and
how the Islamic State destroyed archaeological sites as its soldiers
barrelled through northern Iraq and Syria.
“These mosques
do not have an ancient past, nor are they architectural marvels. Yet the fury
the mobs vented on them was Taliban-esque in nature. They showed their extreme
contempt for sacred spaces that were not theirs; made it clear, in fact that
others’ places of worship belonged to the realm of the profane,” Ashraf wrote for
news website NewsClick last month. He said he gave up
after seeing the destruction in nine mosques.
Even sacred
spaces that have always attracted both Hindu and Muslim followers in India face
a shaky future.
When Nikhil
Mandalaparthy, a reporting fellow at Pulitzer Center, began investigating
the future of our Sufi dargahs, he found that prominent dargahs in
Ajmer and Delhi were being increasingly targeted by Hindutva supporters and
conservative Muslims. Incessant Islamophobic social media messaging (like the
handle that tweeted that Hindu visitors to Sufi shrines “is akin to Jews
worshipping the Nazis”) was making fewer Hindus visit these syncretic spaces in
some parts of the country, he learnt.
Earlier this
week a baby died in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, after a doctor refused to treat a
pregnant Muslim woman because of her religion.
Islamophobia is
everywhere you look in New India and already its impact is deadly.
So hunker down.
It’s only April. There are still eight months to go in 2020.