The Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, on Sunday joined hands with Hindus For Human Rights, an organization dedicated to advocating for an inclusive and egalitarian Hinduism in condemning the escalation of Islamophobia in India following the spread of COVID-19 across different parts of the country.
The horrifying levels of vitriol poured on Muslims by several media outlets and some public figures have resulted in an alarming increase in assaults on Muslims. In parts of the country, the social and economic boycott of Muslims is being openly pursued as a response to a healthcare and humanitarian crisis that requires a unified response from the entire populace.
Islamophobia in India has risen exponentially since news broke that some members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim religious reform movement, had met at an annual conference in New Delhi in mid-March and later tested positive for the coronavirus. Absent from these reports was an acknowledgment of the fact that Tabligh Jamaat conference took place before the lockdown when it was business as usual for the entire country.
At the time of the Tablighi conference, India had not yet commenced social distancing. India’s Health Secretary Lav Agarwal told reporters, “It is important to understand that it [coronavirus] is not a health emergency,” cautioning against panic. It was at least four days after the conference ended that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a daylong curfew for March 22. Air travel and trains halted only that day. Mr. Modi’s announcement of a 21-day lockdown came even later, on March 24.
“It is shameful that the crisis of COVID-19 is being exploited by people in positions of power and influence in order to intensify religious divisions in India,” said Mr. Ahsan Khan, President of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC). “The absurdity of the idea that Muslims of a specific group are working to spread the deadly disease is matched only by the brazenness with which it is being vocalized by some politicians and influential media anchors,” added Mr. Khan.
“The Government of India must publicly condemn this falsehood about Muslims,” said Ms. Sunita Viswanath, Co-Founder, Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR). “The weaponization of COVID-19 as a means to advance Hindutva’s agenda of marginalizing Muslims is a travesty of Hinduism. Such propaganda and bigotry will only derail the work of healthcare workers working on the front lines to combat the disease,” added Ms. Viswanath.
People believing the canard of “devious Muslims” working to spread the disease must ask themselves why on March 14, the first day of the two-day Tablighi event, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah was the chief guest at the convocation of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) at Rishikesh, 150 miles from New Delhi, with hundreds in the audience without social distancing. They must also ask why places of worship across India were open for days after the two-day Tablighi event ended on March 15. The Saibaba temple at Shirdi city in Maharashtra and the Venkateswara Temple at Tirupati city in Andhra Pradesh, each averaging over 50,000 pilgrims a day, closed only on March 17 and 19, respectively.
On March 17, the Uttar Pradesh government insisted it would go ahead with the 10-day Ramnavami celebrations from March 25 through April 4 at the temple town of Ayodhya, where a million Hindu pilgrims were expected. It was canceled only on March 21. On March 22, after a daylong national curfew called by Mr. Modi concluded, Indians thronged streets and public squares across India in response to Prime Minister Modi’s call to clap, violating social distancing protocols and thus endangering their own and others’ lives. Repeat behavior was seen across India on April 5, the day Mr. Modi asked Indians to light lamps at their homes.
Such is the extent of hate that has taken hold of the minds of some people that in parts of the country, Muslims are being prevented from entering their homes and villages , and signs have come up outside neighborhoods warning Muslims not to enter. Both IAMC and HfHR are united in their condemnation of the constant barrage of anger and hate being spouted by anchors on news channels such as Republic TV, Zee News, ANI and Times Now, as well as media outlets of some vernacular languages. It is a measure of the bias and irrationality that is being disseminated on these channels, that the police had to publicly debunk their propaganda on Twitter and warn them against spreading fake news.
Both IAMC and HfHR have also called upon the Indian Government to crack down on fake content that is making outrageous and patently false claims about Tablighi Jamaat members misbehaving with medical staff while in quarantine. Such fake content has been circulating on social media and shared by millions, not only slandering the Tablighi Jamaat and the entire Muslim community by extension, but creating a dangerous and volatile situation for millions of people.
Added Ms. Viswanath: “Our greatest ethical and civic responsibility at this time of a global pandemic is to ensure that social distancing is practiced everywhere possible, and that we take care of the poor, sick and needy. We must call out violations of social distancing protocols regardless of who the violators are.”
Indian American Muslim Council and Hindus for Human Rights have jointly appealed to the people of India, to reject hateful politics that only serves the nefarious ends of a privileged few. They have called upon civil society to unite in a spirit of brotherhood in combating not only COVID-19 but also the bigotry and violence that represents as much of an existential threat to India as the coronavirus.