Pandemic apartheid

In India, Hindu-supremacists are now using Covid-19 to hound the Muslim minority.
Yogi Adityanath, a BJP leader, observing a religious ceremony, not lockdown, on 25 March. Amar Kumar/picture-alliance/AP Photo Yogi Adityanath, a BJP leader, observing a religious ceremony, not lockdown, on 25 March.

“Covid Jihad” is a slogan that has become popular among India’s right-wing populists. They blame the novel coronavirus epidemic on Muslims. They do so on private TV networks and social-media platforms. 

Muslims are regularly made scapegoats in today’s India (see my essay in Tribune of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/03). According to the hate mongers most recent poisonous narrative, Muslims are intentionally spreading the disease. As a result, Muslim vegetable vendors or cabdrivers have been attacked. In view of the pogrom that rocked Delhi in February (see Blog post by Hans Dembowski on our D+C/E+Z website), many Muslims fear the ongoing hate campaign may lead to violence against them. As they tend to belong to the poorest sections of society, many feel helpless.

The hate rhetoric escalated in March after the Tablighi Jamat, an Islamic missionary outfit based in Delhi, held a meeting with few thousand people at its headquarters. It is an orthodox Sunni organisation, but certainly not extremist. Its network has a presence in more than 100 countries around the world.  

Many infections in India can indeed be tracked to this meeting, which began before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national lockdown started on 25 March. The Tablighi Jamat claims that it did not organise any congregation, and that it functions as a residential complex for Indian and international Jamatis all around the year. While it certainly should have acted more responsibly, the accusation that it intended to infect participants in order to spread the disease is obviously absurd. Hindu-supremacists want people to believe that, what obviously was a tragedy, was an evil conspiracy.

At the same time, many Hindu festivities went on, all too often with the involvement of politicians from the ruling party, the BJP. It often turns a blind eye when its members breach rules, but its spokespersons on TV and trolls on social media hold every Muslim in the country accountable for any failing by any Muslim. If this anti-Muslim hate propaganda is not contained fast, we may soon face nothing short of “pandemic apartheid” - at least in some pockets of Indian society.

Since Modi’s re-election in May last year, there has been an increasing tendency for anyone who challenges the dominant narrative to be attacked. One example is Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of the website The Wire, which I work for. He published a fact-based account of a Hindu religious event in which Yogi Adityanath, one of the most aggressive BJP leaders, participated in – in contravention of the national lockdown. He publicly corrected an irrelevant inaccuracy in the original story, but it became the pretext for police action.

Adityanath is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s most populous state. Because of the article, the UP police registered two criminal cases against the editor. The police also demanded that he travel 690 km to eastern UP to answer questions during the lockdown. Following a public outcry, the police back-tracked a little and said he could testify via email. Nonetheless, the action against him is an attack on press freedom. It is designed to intimidate not just media workers, but anyone who dares to speak up against Hindu-supremacism.

“Editors Guild criticises U.P. govt.”, report in The Hindu, a daily newspaper:

Arfa Khanum Sherwani is senior editor with the independent Indian news website TheWire.
Twitter: @khanumarfa


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